Private Game Management: A Critical Analysis
Big game hunting in the wild is an accepted practice in nearly every corner of the world. Occasionally the practice of hunting does come under fire by lobbying groups that believe the consumption of meat is wrong and would put hunters in the same class as animal torturers. However, despite these efforts most people (including those that do not hunt) believe that hunting in the wild is acceptable as it has been since the dawn of man and our food sources were not domesticated.
Note the statement is big game hunting in the wild. If we take the same animals and the same hunters and enclose them within a high fence, you have created the most hotly debated subject in hunting, high fence hunting. Furthermore, if we take the same fences with the same animals and instead of hunters supplant them with ranchers, harvesting the game for sale of the meat to restaurants and grocers the practice becomes even more embattled, because it implies domestication of wild game.
High fence hunting and the domestication of wild game (here on known as "private game management") are at the heart of a growing battle that will shape the future of big game hunting. The battle field is defining what is and is not acceptable use and harvesting of wild game. The feuding parties are governments, ranchers, hunters, animal rights groups, and the non-hunting citizens that will ultimately control the fate of how and when big game will be used.
This article examines the key issues that are involved in private game management. Often times the debate on private game management is long on opinion and short on facts. The points below frame the issue of private game management. There is hope that better discussion will lead to better decisions.
The primary argument against high fence hunting, also sometimes referred to as penned hunting, is that high fence hunting is not hunting at all. In fact a recent press release by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) called the practice "the mammal equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel". While the IFAW's claim is probably extreme by most standards the issue of fair chase still stands: Does pursuing game behind high fences constitute hunting since the animal cannot "escape"?
Certainly one can argue if a private hunting ranch is just a few acres in size that the issue of fair chase probably will arise since the animal has little escape route. However, although there is little data on this, the vast majority of hunting ranches are vast multiple thousands if not tens of thousands of acres. The reason the ranches are large is because most game animals are not domesticated and need the large amounts of land to roam. Furthermore the large quantities of land are necessary to contain a sufficiently large stock for a hunter to harvest. More land, more selection, as the argument goes, creating economic incentive to run large operations, not small ones.
Also, does the big game hunter roam over thousands of acres (on foot) to harvest their animal? There is little hard data that studies how far the average hunter roams to obtain game. However it would stand to reason that the range of roaming is quite small. A popular and old mechanism for hunting is via trees, either climbing one or using a modern tree-stand. With tree hunting there is no roaming, since the hunter uses deer sign to find a good location (usually by a trail or near water), scales the tree, and then waits for big game to appear. Furthermore, even without a tree, hunters will often wait hours for allusive game to wander near since the games ability to sense our movement is usually far better than our ability to hide it. Even archers, who stalk their prey more than others, deploy the "let the game come to you technique", waiting (hopefully not down wind) for the animal until it comes within a few hundred yards, so a last silent stalking can be made.
The bottom-line here is that the common technique in hunting game is being quiet and letting it come to you, or using an attractant (scents, rattling antlers) to bring the game to you. Few people employ methods that run down, corner, then kill their game; if there are any that are even legal. After all, we are humans, not cheetahs, we use our cunning and our ability to hide more than brute force. The "let the game come to you technique" is as fair of a "chase" behind fences as it is outside of fences.
Still in the absence of regulation it is conceivable that someone will setup a ranch that is no better than a barrel shoot. Furthermore, within the confines of a high fence ranch there is always a 100% probability of harvestable game. In the wild, outside high fences, the probability of anything harvestable within miles is considerably lower, as any hunter who has been stumped will readily attest too.
Finally, Boone and Crockett Club does not recognize animals taken behind high fences, because B&C does not consider high fence hunting fair chase.
Disease in wildlife whether farmed or wild puts fear in the public's heart and recently their has been a good deal of news in the US and Canada to fret about. Earlier this year the states of South Dakota and Wisconsin found chronic wasting disease (CWD) in their deer herds for the first time. Texas moved in early March to halt all importation of deer into their state. In January, Colorado halted importation of elk or deer in their state that had not been certified disease free for the last 5 years. Late last year Oregon found tuberculosis in a single farmed elk and Saskatchewan confirmed its first case of CWD.
Private game management is suspect in many of these incidences. First, it is well known in the study of disease propagation that the more dense a population per area, the more rapidly the disease will spread through the population. Because the density of animals on a game farm is higher than that of the wild, it is highly likely that a disease will move rapidly through these populations quicker than the wild and perhaps to wild populations.
Second, private game management facilities can and do trade, move, and sell game crossing state and sometimes international borders. These movements of animals between states and countries takes animals far beyond the range they would move on foot. Therefore it is clear that moving animals between states does in fact accelerate movement of disease if the moved animals are infected.
While there is little doubt that unchecked game farms will enhance the spread of the disease, it does not imply that game farms will spontaneously start the disease. CWD, TB, and anthrax (of which Minnesota had an outbreak in late September 2001) are diseases of the wild that came from the wild.
None the less a serious out break of TB, CWD, or anthrax could be debilitating to wild game populations. The kindle that game farms supply to an outbreaks spark should be watched with caution and steps should be taken in advance to avoid the unnecessary stressing of our native big game.
Necessary steps to prevent spread will probably involve more regulation and testing by local governments. However it does appear that banning of private game management, because of disease concerns is unwarranted. Consider the case of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) disease arguably the biggest scourge to the world of cattle and sheep.
In 2000-2001 FMD spread rapidly throughout Europe and other nations through domesticated herds and the death toll was staggering with losses approaching hundreds of millions of dollars in Europe alone. FMD is a disease that has been known about for sometime yet no government has banned cattle or sheep ranches because they are susceptible to and propagate FMD. In deed, with careful regulation and testing it appears that the US has been able to steer clear of FMD.
Public vs. Private
Dr. Buck, aka James Kroll, was recently quoted in a Texas Monthly article stating "[Public] game management is the last bastion of communism". In deed there are many that believe wild game populations and habitat would be better managed by private entities rather than the public government. The argument is the same as the airline, military equipment, fuel, and telecommunications industries; that the private sector and capitalism can better manage complex issues than a large government entity subsidized by license and tax revenue.
The argument is enticing, because private game management can deliver the bigger bucks and exotic hunts that are always in high demand but in little supply. Furthermore the argument goes that by using private game management, more land can be kept in native habitat, rather than being sold to developers or placed in a situation where hunting is not allowed. Better quality game, more selection, and more land to hunt, three items that are on any hunters wish list; but what is the price?
The price is simple, the commoditization of what has hitherto been considered public property. With commoditization comes the ebbs and flows of supply and demand, which could price some hunters out of the market. Even though out of state licenses in most the US are not cheap and are rising, they are still at a level where nearly anyone can participate in hunting if they wish. There are no guarantees in a private only system where license will go for the highest price possible.
However, in regards to costs, many states have auctioned off exclusive big game licenses and packages to the highest bidder in recent years. It is a practice that is unsettling since it effectively is letting those that have the money buy what others cannot; even though what is being sold is in fact public property. Perhaps a private only system would at least equalize the distribution and raise awareness of these big game license auctions.
Furthermore a private only game management system takes us back before the time of a US president that many hunters respect, Theodore Roosevelt. During Teddy's time there was no public management system for the abundant natural resources of the US. President Roosevelt, a legendary conservationist, feared that without public management land, resources, and game would be controlled by private entities allowing only those that could pay the entities price to use the resource. Roosevelt opposed private only management and helped start the public management system we use today.
Perhaps public and private can coexist with checks and balances, but it appears that public only and private only systems both have their detriments.
The State of the Battle
In most areas private game management is an immature field at best and so there is no statement in the laws of the country, province, or state, especially with regards to high fence hunting. However there are a few regions where battle is intense and others where the battle is effectively over. The regulations and banning to follow are not intended to be exhaustive, just a spotlight of a few key past and present battle grounds.
Recent years have seen heavy conflict in the Canadian provinces with certain provinces moving strongly to ban what is called "penned hunting". Most recently was the move by Manitoba to outlaw any form of high fence hunting. Manitoba appears to have been especially strict in their ban stating that penned hunting is "killing of wildlife in a fenced or enclosed area regardless of the size of the enclosed area". There are two key players behind the ban, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Winnipeg Humane Society, both of which claim the banning is due in no small part to their efforts.
Other provinces that have laws against high fence hunting, or are under consideration for banning, are Ontario, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and New Brunswick.
While a good number of Canadian provinces have moved to entirely ban high fence hunting, the issue of game ranching (non-hunting) use of big game is still under debate, but there are regulations in place for certain provinces.
Both Wyoming and Montana have heavy restrictions and bans on private game management. Montana's movement against private game management was spearheaded by a group of hunter activists called "Montanans Against the Domestication and Commercialization of Wildlife" which makes the clever acronym of MADCOW. In 2000 MADCOW helped push through the I-143 bill, the game farm initiative.
Texas, Colorado, Alaska, Michigan, Alabama, and Minnesota for their part allow but regulate private game management. Texas in particular has a low public land to private land ratio, therefore a high percentage of hunting is done in private game management ranches.
A good resource for finding state by state information about the regulation of domesticated elk is the web site of the North American Elk Breeders Association. The NABEA is also a proponent of private game management in respect to elk.
It is difficult to find information on private game management in Africa. There is a strong effort to setup non-hunting game preserves run by government entities in order to protect endangered and stressed species. However a large portion of hunting in Africa is done on large privately owned ranches.
In closing private game management is a mode of wild game or formally wild game management that is in transition. There are many who oppose the practice and yet many who support. The intent of this article has been to highlight the key issues that form the debate so that better discussion and regulation can ensue, instead of misinformed and misguided actions.
North American Elk Breeders Association
Discussion of High Fence hunting in Texas
Animal rights groups call for end tof penned hunting
Article on Manitoba and hunt farms
IFAW press release
FMD Information and Map of Spreading
Boone and Crockett web site
Montanans Against the Domestication and Commercialization of Wildlife