By Adrianna Pitrelli
State wildlife officials overstepped their authority when they acted to ban high-fence deer hunting preserves, according to a ruling Monday from the Indiana Court of Appeals.
In a 2-1 decision, the court said state law does not speak to the hunting operations and therefore the Indiana Department of Natural Resources has no authority to regulate them.
Judge Ezra Friedlander, writing for the majority, said the court heard arguments about the ethics of fenced hunting and worries about disease but he said that’s an issue for lawmakers, not the court.
“Indeed, these are public policy concerns that should be carefully and thoroughly weighed in reaching a decision regarding the viability of this practice,” Friedlander wrote. “We do not believe, however, that it is within our purview to perform this task.”
The ruling is a win for Whitetail Bluff in Harrison County and a handful of other private deer hunting preserves that have been operating in limbo for years. Whitetail Bluff owner Rodney Bruce sought DNR guidance in 1999 when he first sought to open a deer hunting preserve. At the time, state agencies said there was no law prohibiting the hunting operations, which give paying customers an opportunity to shoot deer in fenced-in area.
But a few years later, after Bruce launched his business, a new DNR director reinterpreted state law as banning the hunting preserves. He ordered Whitetail Bluff closed and Bruce sued. Since then, the case has been stuck in court and lawmakers have been debating bills that would both ban the operations and legalize and regulate them.
Currently, the House Natural Resources Committee is working on a bill that would set specific rules for high-fence hunting reserves.
The court said in its decision Monday that current state law doesn’t speak to hunting preserves. The court also ruled that all wild animals are the property of the people of Indiana. But it also said that animals in captivity are not owned by the people. Therefore, the DNR can manage and regulate the deer on public lands but not those deer that are privately owned, the court said.
The appeals court said Monday that DNR officials do not have the power to regulate high-fence hunting under current Indiana law. Their job is simply to protect and manage resources.
But the court said the General Assembly can regulate fenced hunting.
In a dissent, Judge C.J. Vaidik said the DNR does have the authority to regulate all wild animals on private or public properties. “Using this authority, I believe that IDNR can regulate canned hunting and specifically Whitetail Bluff’s high-fence hunting operation,” Vaidik said.
Adrianna Pitrelli is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.