INDIANAPOLIS – Six years after state officials moved to shut down high-fenced hunting facilities, a lawsuit drags on – costing taxpayers thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees while hunters continue paying money to kill deer in enclosed preserves.
“It makes no sense whatsoever to keep this thing going,” said Rep. David Wolkins, R-Winona Lake. “It is in limbo.”
Neither side seems to be pushing for a resolution, which makes sense for the preserve owners who get to continue operating under an injunction, but not for the state, Wolkins said.
Indiana Department of Natural Resources spokesman Phil Bloom said, “We’re at the mercy of the judicial process.”
The issue sparked in August 2005 when former DNR Director Kyle Hupfer announced he would implement an emergency – then permanent – rule banning the operations in the state.
The purpose was to clarify ambiguities in regulations and establish new rules regarding what some refer to as canned hunting – or paying to shoot deer behind fences. Hundreds of deer farms around the state possess white-tailed deer and other animals under a game breeder’s permit, but only about a dozen accommodated hunters at the time.
Hupfer determined that the permit allows for the possession, breeding and sale of white-tailed deer, but it does not authorize the hunting or purposeful killing of deer maintained under that license.
Rodney Bruce, owner of Whitetail Bluff in Corydon, sued in 2005 and received an injunction preventing the DNR from enforcing the ban on his property. Other preserves joined the suit. The General Assembly tried to intervene in 2006 but failed.
“It’s the kind of thing that neither side is pressing. I guess everybody is content where they are. There is no uproar or chaos, and I think DNR realized they were incorrect and they obviously haven’t pushed it,” Bruce said.
Bruce’s business at his preserve varies – especially with hard economic times. In recent years, he said he has had anywhere between 30 and 130 hunters per year come to his 120-acre facility.
He estimated only a few of the preserves still operate.
One of those is Midwest Woodlots in Kosciusko County, which is run by Ken McIntosh.
“I’m up and hunting. I’m still taking care of business and giving everything I can to my community,” he said. “We want to be part of America just like everybody else, and falsehoods don’t help.”
The industry has been stung by criticism over whether the hunts follow the fair chase doctrine, and whether the deer are essentially pets that are led to their slaughter.
A federal bill also has been filed in Congress to end captive hunts.
The first few years of the lawsuit centered on finding a settlement. The two sides were close to an agreement in 2006 that would have allowed existing facilities to operate for 10 years, recoup their investment and then shut down.
But the DNR backed away in 2007, pushing to enforce the ban instead.
The state has used an outside law firm – Barnes & Thornburg – and The Journal Gazette submitted record requests to review the legal costs of the case. The only invoices turned over covered February 2009 through April 2010, and they amounted to more than $37,600.
A $50,000 legal contract is also posted on the state’s contract site covering April 2010 through April 2011. There is no contract posted for the current year.
“There is legitimate cause for concern whenever a state agency and its resources – both financial and personnel – are tied up in lengthy litigation,” Bloom of the DNR said.
But Bloom noted some of the delay is related to changes in the case, including a new judge.
Wolkins filed legislation earlier this year to try to settle the case, but it went nowhere.
Now a second lawsuit has been filed in Owen County. The Indiana Deer & Elk Farmers Association and a breeding facility in Columbus are listed as plaintiffs.
Wolkins said that group is pushing to legalize high-fenced hunting in the state – something he thinks the legislature would never do.
“The public isn’t going to buy into canned hunting,” he said. “You would have to spend every bit of political capital and still not have enough.”
The DNR recently dismissed several facilities from the original lawsuit. They were initially added just to participate in the settlement and no longer needed to be part of the case.
William Moyer, a New Albany attorney representing Rodney Bruce and Whitetail Bluff, said a pretrial conference was recently held and both sides are going to file briefs to end the case at the end of the year.
Essentially both are expected to seek summary judgment in the case, or for the judge to decide the legal merits of the case without going to trial.
“We expect (the judge) to grant one and to deny one,” he said. “I don’t see a settlement. Everyone is entrenched. And the legislature doesn’t want to get involved. So we’re stuck.
“I don’t know why it has lingered. What do we care? We’re still hunting. But I think it’s coming to a head.”