North Dakota legislator expects lively debate on proposal to ban private hunting preserves

FARGO, N.D. — More than a month before North Dakota's legislature starts, landowners and wildlife advocates already are locking horns over a proposal to ban private hunting preserves, known as high-fence game farms.

State Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said he plans to bring a bill to the 2007 session that would prohibit landowners from operating businesses that allow hunters to shoot elk and deer inside a fenced area.

"I can see that this is going be really controversial," Mathern said. "I had no idea it was that big of a business activity."

More than 100 deer and elk farms are registered in North Dakota, state veterinarian Susan Keller said.

Private game farms have been banned in several states, including Montana and Wyoming. Idaho is expected to consider a similar ban, said Terry Steinwand, director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

Mathern said the potential for breeding problems and disease were among the factors that led him to introduce the bill — though state veteranians said disease hasn't been a problem at the game farms. However, the most important question is an ethical one, he said.

"Is this right, basically, to put animals in a fence and shoot them and call it a sport?" Mathern asked.

Sally Dvirnak, who runs an elk-hunting ranch with her husband in western North Dakota, said she believes Mathern's proposal violates property rights and free enterprise.

"We're just people trying to stay on the family farm," Dvirnak said. "What frustrates me the most is that you have people who don't like it and don't agree with it who feel they have the right to dictate what someone else can and can't do. That's not America."

Shawn McKenna, executive director of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation, said game farms ignore the principle of fair chase.

"It ain't hunting," McKenna said. "It's going out there and shooting something in a pen, basically."

Shawn Schafer, who runs a white-tailed deer ranch, said most hunters would not pay to shoot animals in a pen. Customers want an authentic hunting experience, which they said is provided by most of the game farms in North Dakota.

"People are looking for a quality hunt and a safe place to hunt," Schafer said. "Customer satisfaction will regulate the people who have animals in a corral."

McKenna said size doesn't matter.

"How much acreage is enough?" he asked. "Ultimately you're chasing them into a 7- or 8-foot fence. Where's the sport in that?"

Brian Kramer, a spokesman for the North Dakota Farm Bureau, said his group is taking a wait-and-see approach on Mathern's bill.

"This issue has come up before, and it seems to me the sentiment was along the lines of these are privately owned animals," Kramer said. "It's no different than if you buy a cow from me. You want to shoot it rather than having me take it into the butcher plant."