A Case for Legalizing Hunting Preserves

The Alberta Elk Association (AEA) and the Alberta Whitetail and Mule Deer Association (AWMDA) are requesting changes in legislation and regulations to legalize “cervid harvest preserves” (CHPs), or hunt farms, in Alberta. The Associations are holding joint public information sessions across the province to make the public aware of the proposal and to hear their comments and concerns.

Game farming was legalized in Alberta (Canada) in 1991, when the Government of Alberta passed the “Livestock Industry Diversification Act” (LIDA) and Regulation that permitted game farming in the province. The Act limits game farming in Alberta to white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and moose. The Act does not permit paid hunting on these private operations.

Since the inception of the game farming industry in the province a decade ago, the industry has grown dramatically. The Associations now represent 560 game farms (about 410 elk and 150 deer farms) raising an estimated 50,000 animals (40,000 elk and 10,000 whitetail/mule deer in 2001). (In comparison, the 1997 wild deer populations in Alberta, based on aerial surveys, were about 230,000 white-tailed deer, 116,000 mule deer and 21,000 elk). Finding markets for these farmed animals and related products is becoming a major concern for the producers.

There are four major markets for the deer and elk raised on Alberta farms – breeders, velvet antler, venison (meat) and the hunting trophy markets. Elk velvet antler has been sold mainly to Korea for use as health food supplements. Within the last year, Korea has refused to accept antler from Canada and the United States due to disease concerns. When these markets will reopen is unknown.

Venison is a lean, healthy meat product, much prized in many parts of the world, especially Europe. However, when the price of velvet antler was high, elk were too valuable to slaughter for venison. With the establishment of the Alberta Wapiti Products Co-op (see article below), this meat market is finally being developed and will consume many of these animals.

Finally, many older whitetail bucks and elk bulls are sold to hunting preserves in the United States. In 2000, over 1,000 animals were shipped to the USA. The Alberta Associations argue that if cervid harvest preserves were permitted, these animals would stay in the province and generate new businesses, jobs and significant benefits for the local economy.

CHPs proposal

Here are the major points regarding the AEA and AWMDA proposal:

  1. A CHP would be licensed separately, not as an elk or deer production farm. A deer or elk farmer could own both enterprises but they would have to be operated on separate (and private, deeded, not Crown) land.
  2. The size of each CHP would be determined by terrain and available cover to ensure a memorable hunting experience and fair chase. The current proposed minimum size is 600 acres.
  3. Guides will be employed to ensure that all hunts are conducted in a humane and professional manner.
  4. All animals will be purchased from game farm herds that have healthy, tested animals. All animals that enter a preserve will be tagged and a DNA sample stored. All harvests must then have tags checked and DNA verified as required.
  5. All trophy heads and antlers taken from CHPs will be permanently marked to differentiate them from antlers taken from the wild.

A code of ethics has been developed to outline the Alberta Cervid Producers definition of an acceptable private hunting operation. These state that:

  1. The operation should ensure harvesting in an area which, through a combination of size, terrain and vegetative cover, provides an animal with a reasonable opportunity to avoid being found and, having been found, to evade the hunter indefinitely.
  2. Harvesting operations should offer hunting opportunities for physically challenged hunters.
  3. Trophy operations should be enclosed with adequate fencing that excludes wild animals from the enclosure and retains commercially- raised animals within the enclosure. Inside the trophy operations, only commercially-raised animals will be harvested.
  4. Trophy animals placed in a harvesting operation should exhibit their natural flight instinct.
  5. The animals should be self-sufficient for forage, water and shelter.
  6. Each hunt should include a guide to ensure humane harvesting.
  7. Hunters will be required to possess familiarity with their weapon of choice.
  8. All meat from harvested animals will be utilized in a suitable manner.
  9. Proper post-mortem testing must be conducted to monitor the herd health status.

Arguments for CHPs

Here are the main arguments put forward by the supporters of the proposal:

  1. Alberta farm-raised elk and deer are now being exported to the United States and Saskatchewan to hunt preserves. Keeping these animals for our hunting operations would accrue significant direct and spin-off benefits to the province, especially in rural areas.
  2. CHPs would provide additional diversification and investment opportunities for farmers and the game farming industry.
  3. Guides would benefit from having the option to diversify and have extended seasons, as well as increased employment opportunities.
  4. Since most of the clients are expected to be from the United States and Europe, CHPs would increase tourism revenues during the traditionally slow period of autumn.
  5. Public hunting will not be affected. In fact, CHPs would reduce the pressure felt by both the landowner and wildlife, and may improve traditional hunting opportunities.
  6. In Alberta, paid hunting is already legal for bison, wild boar and pheasant – so why not deer and elk? Adding cervids to the approved list would enable operators to attract more clients by bundling several prime trophy animals into one hunt.
  7. Some 26 states and provinces allow captive shooting operations for deer and elk. In Canada, these are Saskatchewan and Quebec. In the United States, Idaho, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York allow some sort of hunting preserves. In New Zealand, the paid hunting industry has become a significant earner of overseas funds with substantial benefits to deer farming, the guiding and hunting fraternity, and the tourism industry. Industry earnings are estimated to be $NZ10 million annually. The experiences with jurisdictions that allow cervid harvesting preserves have been positive. None of the disasters purported by the opponents have materialized.
  8. Hunters in Alberta deserve a choice. They should be free to choose between a public hunting or a private hunting experience, or enjoy both. Right now, Alberta hunters would have to go to Saskatchewan to experience a quality private hunt for deer or elk.

And more and more hunters are looking for a choice. There are many reasons for this:

  1. Fewer places to hunt – public lands are being gobbled up by development and private hunting leases. More land is being posted, and many farmers and ranchers don’t permit hunting on their lands (can’t blame them). Hunting preserves are an alternative.
  2. Overcrowding – with less land and more people interested in hunting, public lands near large population areas get pretty crowded during the hunting season, especially on opening day. This has negative implications for hunter safety, quality of the hunting experience and availability of quality trophy animals. Hunting preserves strictly limit the number of hunters at any one time.
  3. Short seasons – in many areas, hunting seasons are short – from a few days to a few weeks, usually in the late fall. Unless you can get time off work, this usually means only a few weekends are available to you to go hunting. Hunting on preserves can be done from August to December, and even longer.
  4. Lack of quality animals – it is getting increasingly difficult to bag a trophy buck in the wild. There are many reasons for this. One is that selective hunting – shooting the biggest bucks – results in a drain on the genetic pool by removing the best breeders. Bad winters and poaching also take their toll of animals. Preserves offer quality trophy animals that are raised on deer and elk farms.
  5. Time constraints – everyone these days seems to have to work harder and longer. It is not possible for many people to spend the time scouting before hunting season, and spending days locating and tracking down that trophy animal. Many people have several weeks vacation time, and most of that better be spent with the family! Busy people who like to hunt are looking at options. Preserves offer longer seasons, and one to three days is all you usually need to harvest a trophy.
  6. Expectation of success – people with money are usually successful in their fields of endeavor. Therefore, they expect (and require) success in their pursuit of a trophy. They are not too excited at the prospect of spending two weeks with an outfitter and not even seeing a world-class trophy. These type of people expect results! Clients of hunting preserves usually experience 100% success rate due to the availability of a large number of quality animals.
  7. More disposable income – with the American and Canadian economies having done so well in the last decade, there is much more disposable income available. This includes people who like to hunt, and they are willing to spend some of their cash on a quality hunting experience. Many more people can now afford to hunt in a preserve.
  8. Expense – cost of public hunting seems to be going up – everything from the cost of fees to transportation to accommodation. The cost gap between public hunting and hunting on a preserve is getting narrower.
  9. Skills – the skills required for getting a trophy animal in the wild are considerable – you have to be in excellent physical shape and be a good shot. As with all things, this requires lots of practice, which in turn takes time and facilities – all which most of us don’t have! Preserve hunting does not require the same level of skill, and is ideal for people with physical limitations or disabilities.
  10. Safety – as already mentioned, hunting in a crowd of people with high-powered rifles is anything but safe. Preserves limit the number of hunters at any one time.
  11. Health concerns – trophies harvested in the wild run the risk of having diseases such as CWD or TB. Preserve animals have been tested and are known to be disease-free.
  12. Availability – if you want to hunt a wild trophy elk, you probably have to put your name into a draw. Many people won’t be drawn in their lifetime. However, many preserves can offer you a hunt for a trophy elk any time you want.
  13. Out-of-state fees and requirements – if you want to hunt wild deer and elk in another state or province, you get dinged with hefty license fees. Also, you are usually required to use the services of an outfitter and guide. Heck, for the same money, you can experience a quality trophy hunt on a preserve with all the advantages mentioned above.
  14. Many rules and regulations – have you looked at the rules and regulations associated with public hunting recently? It is nearly impossible to remember them all, and you constantly run the risk of inadvertently violating one of them. Yes, preserves have rules too, but things are a lot simpler.
  15. Zealous conservation officers – most fish and game officers are a decent lot. However, there are a few who take their roles too seriously and harass hunters. I really don’t like to be stopped, searched and questioned when I haven’t done anything wrong. This is not an issue with preserve hunting.
  16. First Nations – in Canada, Natives have the right to hunt big game all year round. In certain regions, this has an impact on the numbers and quality of game animals available, and on the limits and length of seasons for other hunters.
  17. Gun laws – in Canada, with the new firearm regulations, buying and owning a gun is becoming a real hassle. Many people who hunted previously have gotten rid of their firearms to avoid registration. However, these people can still hunt on a preserve if the operators provide the rifles or bows.

Hunting on a preserve offers a quality hunting experience devoid of all the hassles and problems described above. It is no wonder that people that love to hunt are turning to hunting preserves!

Hunting in general is declining. In Alberta, the number of hunters between 1980 and 1997 dropped by 42%. The number of Alberta hunters dropped from 56,804 in 1993 to 44,188 in 1996. In Canada, the number of licensed waterfowl hunters dropped from 525,000 in 1978 to 197,000 in 1999, a drop of 62%. A lot of reasons are given for this decline – increased costs, decreased access to quality hunting areas, aging populations, increased restrictions to owning firearms (Canada), and the urbanization of populations.

Objections to CHPs

I attended the public information session held in Edmonton on July 4, 2001. The concerns expressed by some of the speakers opposed to CHPs reflect the following common themes:

  1. Land taken away from wildlife – the concern is that the land used for fenced cervid harvest preserves will not be available for native deer and elk and other wildlife species. This is an absurd argument: Alberta has 142 million acres with 60% (85 million acres) of that being public land. Even a hundred CHPs at 600 acres each (60,000 acres) would account for less than .0004% of the land mass of Alberta. Urban expansion, logging and oil exploration activity remove much more land from wildlife habitat than CHPs ever will!
  2. Fair chase – hunting behind wire does not constitute “fair chase.” Several of the major trophy organizations, such as Boone and Crockett, do not recognize deer or elk trophies taken on hunting preserves. However, as several speakers pointed out, fair chase varies greatly both in the wild and on hunting preserves. Many wild deer are bagged on the first day of hunting season by individuals driving the roads and fields in their trucks – hardly fair chase in my books. On the other hand, an experienced whitetail buck is almost impossible to find, let alone bag, in a few acres of bush, whether in the wild or on a hunting preserve. In this case, reality is much different than perception, and fair chase is not a valid argument against CHPs.
  3. Privatizing and commercialization of wildlife – several organizations expressed opposition to taking and using wildlife for private commercial ventures. The harvest preserve operators do not, and never intended, to stock their preserves with deer and elk from the wild. All the animals would be obtained from licensed, regulated game farms. Several misconceptions need to be clarified here. First, all livestock at one time or another came from the wild. Second, deer and elk were originally captured from the wild to begin the game farming industry. But the practice is strictly prohibited now, and game farmers face stiff penalties if they are caught adding wild animals to their herds. Most would not want to anyway for two major reasons: a) concern about bringing in diseases to their herds; and, b) no genetic records on the wild animals. Game farmers keep careful records to constantly improve their genetics. Most would not want to add unknown, wild genetics to their breeding program. Over the last few years, whenever a city or county decided to shoot wild deer to reduce populations that were causing problems, we’d get e-mails suggesting these deer be captured and given to game farms. Almost unanimously, the deer farmers said they wouldn’t want these animals for the reasons stated above.
  4. Disease – there is a concern that enclosed deer and elk are more susceptible to catching and spreading disease. A related concern is that if the diseased animals escape, they would spread it to the wild animals. Certainly, the CWD cases in Saskatchewan are behind these worries. There are disease issues with all livestock. Right now, Foot and Mouth Disease is of much greater concern than CWD, which is quite rare. Although the disease risks can never be completely eliminated, they are being managed by regular testing of game farmed animals. As well, the code of ethics suggests that all harvested animals be tested.
  5. Negative impact on public hunting – this fear keeps coming up even though CHPs have stated that public hunting opportunities are not threatened, and in fact will be enhanced. In places such as Saskatchewan and Michigan, where hunting preserves exist, public hunting has not been impacted at all. Hunters in these jurisdictions have a better choice of the hunting experiences.
  6. It’s wrong – the animal rights organizations and some individuals strongly believe that killing of deer and elk for sport is wrong. The rights of these individuals to hold and articulate these beliefs must be respected. However, as long as hunting remains legal, the rights of individuals to pursue these activities free of harassment should also be respected. These are value conflicts, and no amount of arguments is likely to change one or the other’s set of beliefs.
  7. Cost – some expressed a concern about the amount of public funds or taxpayer dollars that would be required to support CHPs, especially if there was a disease outbreak. The Associations are not asking for any public funds to set up and operate CHPs. The costs associated with monitoring and controlling diseases are already allocated to organizations responsible for all livestock in Alberta and Canada.

Conclusions

Based on the analysis above, I cannot see any logical reason for the Government of Alberta to deny the Associations’ application to legalize Cervid Hunt Preserves.

The major reasons for approving CHPs are:

  1. Preserve hunting of bison, wild boar and pheasant already exists in Alberta with no significant problems or negative impact.
  2. In places like Saskatchewan and Michigan, where hunting preserves have been in operation for some time, there have been no major problems (as predicted by the opponents). Rather, these jurisdictions have enjoyed significant economic benefits for operators and rural communities.
  3. This will not be an issue in the next provincial election, as it does not affect the vast majority of Albertans. The strong support by rural Alberta for the Conservatives will continue if they approve changes to allow CHPs.

The opposition to harvest preserves is mostly based on beliefs that CHPS are ethically wrong. The opposition comes from people that are least likely to be affected by CHPs.

The approval of CHPs would be consistent with the philosophy and goals of the government to support private enterprise and choice, e.g., Charter schools, private clinics, privatization of liquor stores, etc. CHPs support private enterprise, encourage tourism, and give the hunting public a choice, without taking anything away from existing opportunities.

So let’s quit stalling, and get on with this initiative that is in the best interests of the province. Let’s approve CHPs as proposed by the Alberta Elk Association and the Alberta Whitetail and Mule Deer Association, so that we can begin enjoying the benefits!