By Lesley Weidenbener
INDIANAPOLIS – The attorney general has asked the Indiana Supreme Court to overturn a ruling that says the state can’t regulate fenced deer hunting under current law.
But Republican Greg Zoeller said his first choice is for lawmakers to step in and resolve a long-running dispute over whether the operations are even legal.
“What would be preferable is a legislative solution – a bill reflecting the will of the people’s elected representatives – rather than a court-mandated solution,” Zoeller said in a statement.
But he also said that asking the state’s highest court to consider the issue protects the rights of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources should the General Assembly fail to act.
The appeal does not mean “that the legislative branch should postpone action on the policy questions this subject raises.,” Zoeller said. “Absent a legislative solution, DNR must look to the state’s highest court for relief.”
The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled last month that the DNR has no authority to regulate wild animals on private land.
The ruling was 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, the stage agency said there was no law prohibiting the hunting operations, which give paying customers an opportunity to shoot deer in a fenced 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.
Last month, the Indiana House approved legislation that would do the latter – but it would only allow the current fenced hunting operations to continue. No new operations could open.
The bill has moved to the Senate, where President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, has said he’ll hold it until his GOP caucus can find a solution “that’s fair and reasonable.”
In 2004, the attorney general’s office issued a legal advisory opinion letter that concluded Indiana’s existing statutes and rules do not directly address the questions involving the commercial hunting of privately owned deer on private property. White-tailed deer are wild animals, typically owned by the people of Indiana as a public trust, the attorney general’s office said in a statement.
The attorney general’s office has argued that currently state law defines deer as wild animals that can be privately owned only with a license and only for limited purposes – not including hunting.”
But the owners of the deer preserves say that they can legally allow the commercial hunting of privately owned deer in the enclosures.
Zoeller, who as chief deputy attorney general authored the 2004 legal advisory opinion letter, urged the legislature then to pass a state law directly addressing the high-fenced hunting questions. But 11 years later, he’s still urging the General Assembly to step in.
Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.