A big-game guide, Butler had spent years bringing elk hunters on packhorse hunts deep in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness before taking a job at Big Velvet Game Ranch in Montana in the mid 1990s. At first, Butler says, he welcomed the steady paycheck from taking clients into the high-fence enclosures to shoot huge domestic bull elk. But things started going sour when his boss announced an expansion in the operation, fencing in a section of his land that Butler knew was critical winter range for wild elk and mule deer. This was before chronic wasting disease (CWD) appeared on Montana game farms, but Butler had read about the disease problems of the elk industry in Canada.
What disturbed him most, though, was the contrast between real elk hunting and what was being fabricated at the ranch. "If the clients told me that they wanted it to be like a real hunt, the first day I'd drive them around a part where there were no elk, and we'd walk downhill along the ridges awhile. Then the next day, we'd drive up and get one." Their primary interest lay in what the animals would score on the Boone and Crockett scale, says Butler. "The experience just doesn't mean anything to them."
Many hunters say they would never go after confined game. They call it "canned hunting" no matter how big the enclosure is and say it threatens the foundations of the sport. But those who pursue game at the estimated 1,000 high-fence operations across the country (there is no national regulatory system, so getting an exact number is impossible), and many who don't, say it's a choice left to the individual. The size of the enclosure, and the type of terrain inside, they feel, determines what is fair chase and what isn't.
The operators of these high-fence hunting ranches say they are simply filling a demand for hunting opportunities in a world where public lands are swamped with hunters, wild big-game animals are taken long before they reach maturity, and complex regulations have killed the heart of the traditional experience. In a society where a lot of hunters are pinched for time, flush with cash, and eager for a very large trophy, such a business can be very successful.
In 2000, Montana passed a controversial ballot initiative banning the practice of selling hunts for captive big-game animals. A total of 20 states have some laws to limit high-fence shooting operations, and most have enacted bans on importing domestic deer and elk in the wake of CWD problems on game farms in various states.
But the high-fence industry continues to expand, driven by a market for "hunting experiences" targeting everything from hogs and bears to giant domestic bull elk and farm-raised bucks.
CONFLICT IN ELK COUNTRY
Ranches located in America's elk country are the sources of greatest concern and conflict because of the heightened risk of disease transmission, the blocking of crucial big-game migration corridors by high fences, and the strong belief that their imitations of a challenging wilderness hunt cheapens the real thing.
In August 2006, as many as 160 domestic elk escaped from the Chief Joseph Idaho, a high-fence hunting operation near Yellowstone National Park. Their owner, Rex Rammell, a veterinarian and elk rancher, had long been in conflict with the Department of Agriculture officials charged with monitoring his breeding and trophy shooting operation. These elk lacked the tags required by law, and the escape was not reported; agriculture officials discovered it on a visit to the ranch. Rammell has since claimed that the elk could have been lured back into the repaired enclosure with their favorite treat of molasses-soaked barley, but Idaho wildlife officials did not give him the opportunity to try. Sharpshooters and hunters with special tags killed more than 30 of the fugitive elk, including one that had drifted into Wyoming.
The escaped elk are believed to have been healthy, although questions remain over whether the introduction of their genetics into wild herds will cause harm. But the incident galvanized opposition to the high-fence hunting industry in Idaho. "This is the train wreck we've seen coming for a long time," Steve Huffaker, then director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, told local newspapers.
Doug Schleis, publisher of Wild Idaho News, wants the ranches outlawed. "The essence of elk hunting in our state is the experience of wild country and the effort it takes to hunt an elk," he says. "Of 17 shooter-bull operations in Idaho, only six are bigger than 450 acres. We have one as small as 10 acres, one at 25 acres, one at 60 acres. The hunting public here doesn't want this place to become like Texas."
THE LONE STAR WAY
Even though wildlife is considered a public resource in Texas, it is not illegal to fence it in, as it would be in other states. Gameproof fences have been used as a deer management tool here, and to harbor various exotic big-game animals, for decades.
"In the late 1960s we started to see these fences used by landowners who wanted to manage their deer, to keep overpopulated deer herds out," says Kirby Brown, the executive vice president of the Texas Wildlife Association, a group including hunters, landowners, and wild-life advocates. "It's not like out West here, where big game has to migrate to winter range, or travel some big distance to feed. The average home range of a whitetail here is about 640 acres, one square mile. So, in my opinion, high fences are not the issue here. The size of the enclosure does make a difference—it's not very sporting when you can see the fence on the other side."
The problem with the Texas model, Brown acknowledges, is that there is a tendency to raise deer like livestock and then try to hunt them like wild big game.
Mike McGee believes that he has found one solution to that problem at his high-fenced Dead Man's Pass Ranch near Del Rio, Texas. McGee runs a whitetail breeding program in pens on the ranch, separate from the 4,800-acre hunting enclosure. "I put one of our breeder bucks in a 7-acre pen with 10 does—I can tell you that you'd like to come back in your next life as a buck on our ranch—and when he's done, we'll dart him again and put him somewhere he can rest up for another year. The does are then released onto the main ranch. It's the same thing they do with cattle or sheep."
McGee stresses that the experience at Dead Man's Pass is about far more than just killing a trophy deer. "A lot of our clients are looking for all the things that go with it—shooting pool, throwing washers, pigging out on really good food." Business is booming, McGee says. "People call here who say they would not hunt high-fence, but I usually convert about 80 percent of them. There are more people wanting to buy hunts than there are hunting operations."
APART FROM HUNTING, OR A PART OF IT?
None of that makes sense to Jim Posewitz, retired wildlife biologist for the state of Montana, director of Orion: The Hunter's Institute, and author of Inherit the Hunt: A Journey into American Hunting, which is often used as a text in hunter-education classes across the nation. "There is an evil seed buried here," Posewitz said in a discussion of high-fence hunting. "By selling these facsimiles of real wild animals, these people degrade the whole reality of hunting. They strip away the concept that man the hunter is engaged in an important activity. Suddenly, what was wild is domestic, what was difficult to obtain is easy, what was once valuable is trivial. It is a tremendous threat on many levels."
Although animals in high-fence operations are almost always evaluated on the Boone and Crockett Club scale (which is also used to determine the harvest price), the club will not list any domestic animal, or any animal taken behind high fences, in its book of wild big-game records. Several years ago, responding to the proliferation of huge-horned, pellet-fed domestic elk and deer, B&C issued a statement specifically banning canned-hunt animals from record-book consideration if they have been "transported for the purpose of commercial shooting" or are "confined by artificial barriers, including escape-proof fenced enclosures."
Merle Shepard, vice president of the Safari Club International, takes a broad view of the situation, one that makes room for both the traditionalist hunters who would never shoot a domestic game animal, and the hunters who might want to take a trophy behind the fences. "I've been working for 10 years to try and find a way for those two groups to coexist," he says. According to Shepard, a recent poll taken by SCI revealed an interesting contradiction. "Basically, 83 percent of the people polled thought that you should have the right to hunt behind high fences. But that same group said that they would not participate in the activity themselves."
Shepard echoes many high-fence operators and many sportsmen when he says that this conflict should be resolved within the hunting community. "We have to tolerate each other, because as we fragment into smaller and smaller groups, we make an easier target for the antihunters out there."
The debate is far from over. In a recent Internet hoax, a massive 566 B&C bull elk was shown in a dramatic photo captioned with a claim that it was killed by a bowhunter in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, the very region where Earl Butler guided pack-string hunts. The bull did green-score 566 before shrinkage, but it had never seen a wilderness of any kind, having been raised, and shot with a rifle, on a game farm in Quebec.
As the story unfolded, photos of the same bull, alive on the farm and eating placidly out of what appeared to be a dog dish, were discovered and circulated. Hunters following the hoax made up a nickname for the animal, which would have been revered had it truly grown to such magnificent size in the wilderness.
They called it the Alpo Bull.
THE ANTIS' VIEW
Hunting organizations don't monitor the high-fence industry, but their counterparts do. "Canned Hunts: Unfair at Any Price," a publication of the Humane Society of the United States, summarizes the statutes and regulations governing shooting preserves in those states that have laws concerning them.