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The Peril and Profit in Bagging Big Antlers Behind High Fences

May 6, 2002 New York Times from Jim Yardley
LOMETA, Tex. - The seven-mile fence around Randy Shipp's rugged Central Texas ranch stands eight feet tall, because his most lucrative animals can jump seven feet.

Mr. Shipp owns cattle and horses, but first and foremost he is a deer rancher. He has a breeding shed, where he tries to engineer prize bucks using $500 samples of deer semen. He fattens his herd with metal feeders. And he collects his reward every winter, when hunters arrive from around the country and pay him $4,000 each to shoot a trophy for the fireplace.

"White-tailed deer have kept this ranch a family ranch," said Mr. Shipp, 47, who says he cannot earn enough from farming and cattle. "If I need to sell my cows to keep my deer herd, I will."

More than a century ago, ranchers began hemming in the frontier with barbed wire. But with cattle ranching rarely profitable today, more and more high fences like Mr. Shipp's have risen across rural Texas and in other states, enclosing so-called game ranches, where the money comes from raising and hunting white-tailed deer. A host of ethical, economic and environmental questions are rising, too.

Hunters debate the fairness of what critics call canned hunts. Biologists debate whether game ranches help spread chronic wasting disease and other wildlife plagues. Game ranchers, meanwhile, argue that high fences protect habitat and help preserve it from encroaching development.

The ranches are controversial in many Western states with vast public lands. Wyoming and Washington ban them, while Oregon allows them for raising meat or breeding, but not hunting. Montanans approved a measure in 2000 restricting game ranches and banning paid hunting on them. Legislation on the issue is pending in Eastern states, including New York and Pennsylvania.

In Texas, where 97 percent of the land is privately owned and as many as four million acres are believed to be behind high fences, public opinion appears divided. Politicians have passed laws permitting the high fences, though without addressing the questions that arise as private landowners fence wildlife, a public resource. The ranches have even won support in some unlikely quarters.

"Not only am I in favor of the practice of using high fences to breed deer for contract hunting," Joe Nick Patoski wrote in a Texas Monthly article titled "A Tree-Hugger's Case for High Deer Fences," "but also I think it may be one of the few good things to happen to the land in this state since the days of the open range."

Dr. James Kroll, director of the Forest Resources Institute of Texas at Stephen F. Austin State University, says game ranches help not only habitat, but rural economies, too. "The way we look at it is, anything that preserves wild places is a win-win for nature, especially for wildlife," he said.

The first high fences in Texas went up in the 1930's, to enclose African animals in exotic-game ranches, which still exist. But high fencing for native white-tailed deer, and the industry that has grown with it, has taken off only recently. Texas certainly does not suffer a deer shortage; it has four million, one for every five people.

Dr. Robert D. Brown, head of the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Science at Texas A&M University, regularly spars with Dr. Kroll at public meetings on wildlife issues. He says game ranches can be likened to "deer feedlots" and can also upset the ecological balance, especially if ranchers, eager to improve hunting, keep too many deer. "The fence itself is not the issue," Dr. Brown said. "Really, the issue is what goes on behind the fence."

Rumbling along in his pickup on a dirt road through oak trees and prickly pear, Randy Shipp said he was sensitive to criticism that fenced hunting was not true hunting. On an hourlong drive, a handful of deer could be seen flashing through the trees, but the deer, and the fences, were mostly out of sight.

"You can basically see that it's not a canned hunt," Mr. Shipp said.

He began ranching in Central Texas three decades ago, when he managed more than 6,000 acres of farmland and cattle pastures for an uncle. In 1975, after his uncle died, Mr. Shipp began selling leases to deer hunters and made $400 a month on low-fence hunting alone. The estate was divided among relatives, and Mr. Shipp said that today his was the only parcel still in ranching.

"If the white-tailed deer industry is destroyed, this ranch here will be nothing but homes for people in Austin," he said.

Mr. Shipp surveyed his ranch by helicopter in 1989 and found only 20 deer. He put up a high fence in 1990, and halted hunting for three years to rebuild his deer population. He got a state permit to double the deer hunting season to four months, in return for restoring natural habitat. He has more than 130 deer today, and he said native plants and turkeys and other wildlife had also rebounded.

In winter, hunters come from as far as New York for three-day trips. Those seeking trophy bucks spend $4,000 to be guided by Mr. Shipp. He limits the number of bucks killed each year and forbids the shooting of animals near feeding stations. But about 85 percent of his hunters bag a trophy buck.

This helps explain why the Boone and Crockett Club, which oversees national hunting records, refuses to certify deer shot inside high fences. The club said an animal must be able to escape in a fair hunt, yet Jayar Daily, a club spokesman, allowed that it was possible to have "fair chase" within high fences, depending on a ranch's terrain and size. Still, neither the club nor anyone else has drafted guidelines to clarify the issue.

Animal protection advocates point to abuses, like the shooting of animals near feeding troughs or breeding pens. The most potentially far-reaching concern is disease. Chronic wasting disease, akin to mad cow disease, has spread through deer and elk in Colorado, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Montana. Some experts believe the transporting of captive deer and elk has allowed the disease to spread. In a preventive move, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission last month banned imported white-tailed deer.

The emphasis on bagging a big deer that is a central attraction of game ranches also concerns some hunters.

"My personal feeling is that the emphasis on the size of the antlers has done two things," said Charlie Jeffers, who owns a low-fenced, 3,000-acre ranch in the Texas hill country. "It's shifted the emphasis to be on the animal harvest, rather than the hunting experience. And it has increased the price of hunting to an extent where a lot of people aren't able to participate."

But Mr. Shipp was philosophical. "As the barbed wire was going up, everybody thought it was bad," he said. "Now, everybody wants their places fenced. We're just in changing times."

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