Hunters Exchange Fire Over What's Fair Game
RHAME, N.D.—After hours of scouting the bone-colored badlands at Cedar Ridge Elk Ranch here, hunter David Regal took aim and fired twice from his .300 Winchester Magnum rifle. One shot killed a bull elk that weighed 700 pounds, wore a 12-point set of antlers, and cost the shooter $8,500.
"I like to get the best there is," says Mr. Regal, 72 years old, who owns an excavating business in Michigan. He drove 1,100 miles here with his brother in a motor home, towing his black Hummer behind.
Cedar Ridge is one of North Dakota's dozen or so private hunting ranches, enclosed by high fences and stocked with farm-raised elk and deer. Here, well-to-do hunters like Mr. Regal pay for a guaranteed shot at some of the most majestic prey in the West.
On Nov. 2, North Dakota voters will decide on a ballot initiative that would do away with these ranches. What's surprising is that the battle over Ballot Measure 2 doesn't pit hunters against their natural adversaries, animal-rights activists, who have long opposed the ultimate blood sport. Rather, the debate is dividing hunters themselves.
As private hunting ranches proliferate nationwide, hunters are grappling with what it means to participate in one of the oldest American sports. Fights like the one in North Dakota have broken out elsewhere, and national hunting groups are piling into the debate.
On one side are hunters who say fencing in wildlife for profit is unethical and shifts hunting from its populist American roots. They say the reserves are creating an elitist model reminiscent of "King's hunting" for the European gentry long ago.
Leading the effort to ban the ranches in North Dakota is Roger Kaseman, a lifelong hunter who once lived off the land for two years in a remote Wyoming cabin. Private ranches are "handicapping the deer," says the 64-year-old, looking the quintessential mountain man with his full gray beard and thick hands. "We're selling off our hunting heritage."
Opposing the ban are hunters who contend the ranches offer a first-class hunting experience to outdoor enthusiasts while pumping money into rural economies. The measure is "an attack on hunting," says Shawn Schafer, who's executive director of the North American Deer Farmers Association, representing U.S. deer farmers and hunting ranches. Ban opponents also say the proposal threatens North Dakotans' property rights because the ranches are on private land.
The fight is playing out against a long, steady decline in hunting as an American sport. Nearly every year for the past 20, the number of hunting licenses issued in the U.S. has dropped, as older hunters retire, younger people choose other sports and rural populations decline, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, hunters make up less than 5% of the U.S. population, a record low.
Hunting has long held a special place in American culture. Early on, explorers and traders hunted game for meat and donned skins for clothing. They also fostered a hunting heritage radically different from what they had left in Europe. Here, wild game was to be held in the public trust, rather than in private game reserves available only to the elite.
President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid hunter and conservationist who built a cabin in North Dakota to hunt bison, helped cultivate the American tradition of "fair chase." The philosophy: A hunt should involve a skilled sportsman tracking free-ranging wildlife that have every opportunity to evade the pursuer. According to this creed—which emerged when big-game populations in the U.S. were dwindling amid overhunting—the hunt, rather than the kill, is the objective.
"The experience of being out in the wild and spending some time chasing elk is good for the soul," says Rod Gilmore, North Dakota regional director of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which is supporting the move to get rid of the private hunting ranches. "I could never see any personal satisfaction in shooting something that can't get away."
Hunter Ken Collette of Seattle opens a gate at the Cedar Ridge Elk Ranch in Rhame, N.D., where he said he hoped to get "a chance to finally shoot an elk."
With its vast stretches of golden prairies crossed by ragged peaks, North Dakota has long been a hunter's paradise. Lodges cater to hunters who come from across the U.S. to hunt deer, elk, moose, pheasant and quail.
The big "shooting ranches" that buy their own animals and then fence them in began to sprout in the past 20 years or so. They came about partly because of James Kroll, a Nacogdoches, Texas, biologist who in the late 1980s developed a way to artificially inseminate white-tailed deer. The breakthrough opened opportunities for deer and elk farmers who previously had raised the animals as hobbies or for niche businesses like wildlife photography.