INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Five game preserves around the state where hunters pay for a chance to shoot deer confined inside high fences would be allowed to stay open under a bill endorsed Monday by an Indiana House committee.
The measure approved 6-2 by the House Natural Resources Committee is the latest move in an eight-year-old court and legislative fight over the hunting preserves. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources ruled in 2005 that fenced hunting was illegal, but the existing preserves have remained open under a court injunction.
Several outdoorsmen and environmental organizations are against the proposal, maintaining that the fenced preserves don't offer real hunting and could increase the disease risk for Indiana's wild deer. Supporters of legalizing the existing preserves say it is a matter of fairness to the property owners who made big investments to open the sites before they were barred.
The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Matt Ubelhor, R-Bloomfield, requires the preserve have at least 100 acres and fences at least 8 feet tall. The bill also would limit the preserves to a hunting season from Aug. 15 to Feb. 15, and would only allow permit sites that have operated continuously since 2005.
"These play an integral part to our hunting economy in the state," Ubelhor said of the current preserves.
Indiana Farm Bureau lobbyist Bob Kraft told the committee Monday that the bill would "remove a shadow" over the preserves and help provide a market for animals raised at about 400 deer farms around the state. Kraft said not passing the bill wouldn't be fair to the preserve owners who believed they were acting legally when they started opening the sites in the late 1990s.
"They relied on this in good faith to open a business in Indiana," Kraft said.
The bill now advances to the full House for consideration. That chamber approved a broader bill last year that would have legalized the existing fenced-hunting preserves and allowed new ones, but it was blocked in the Senate, where leaders cited a tacit agreement several years ago not to intercede in the lawsuit.
Opponents on Monday argued against the state allowing what they called "canned hunting" of farm-raised deer that have less fear of humans than wild deer and are restricted by high fences.
"The deer are being shot for the antlers — not for the sport," said Doug Allman, a vice president of the Indiana Wildlife Federation and a past president of the Indiana Deer Hunters Association.
The committee members who voted against the legalizing the preserves — Rep. Tom Saunders, R-Lewisville, and Rep. Lloyd Arnold, R-Huntingburg — both said they disagreed with the type of hunting done at the sites.
"I don't consider this a sport," Saunders said.