Rodney Bruce – shown here testifying at a legislative committee meeting earlier this year – has won a lawsuit against the state that allows him to keep his fenced hunting operation open.
Photo by Lesley Weidenbener, TheStatehouseFile.com
A Harrison County judge has ruled that the Indiana Department of Natural Resources has no authority to regulate a Southern Indiana fenced deer hunting operation.
Circuit Judge John Evans said the deer purchased by the Whitetail Bluff operation are privately owned and not property of the state.
"DNR's actions seeking to regulate Whitetail Bluff's guided hunting activities constitute an improper exercise by an executive agency of the authority of the Indiana legislature contrary to the Indiana Constitution Article 3, Section 1," Evans wrote. The decision comes in a case filed by the operation's owner, Rodney Bruce, in 2006, shortly after DNR officials announced that a new interpretation of state law made fenced hunting operations illegal. Evans initially issued a preliminary injunction preventing the state from shutting down Whitetail Bluff and other operations.
But the lawsuit languished while lawmakers discussed whether to intervene. The House has voted several times to make the operations legal or grandfather in the ones that were existing at the time the DNR changed its policies but the Senate has refused to go along.
Evans last week made that preliminary injunction permanent.
DNR officials said the ruling conflicts with one issued in a similar case.
"There have now been two court cases in this matter with different conclusions by two judges - this one in Harrison County and one late last year in Owen County, where the judge issued a summary judgment in DNR's favor," said DNR spokesman Phil Bloom. "The DNR obviously is disappointed in the Harrison Court decision and we're currently in the process of evaluating that ruling."
Indiana currently has no law that authorizes the preserves, in which hunters pay to shoot deer that are enclosed in a large area by a fence. But the Department of Natural Resources told several land owners in the 1990s that no law prevented them either.
That led Bruce to open his hunting preserve in Harrison County, where he owned several hundred acres of land. Several other preserves opened as well.
Then a few years later - after a change at the top of the DNR - the state told him the preserves had to close, which led to the lawsuit.
Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.