Recently, there has been a rise in the growth of private, for-profit, captive enterprises that raise cervids to be used in “farming” operations or canned shoots. ©John T. Andrews

Fall in Wisconsin, where I live, is colorful. Leaves in our forests turn vivid purple, red and yellow; and deer hunters in our woods dress in vivid orange. As in many places, there is a long and valued heritage of lawful and ethical deer hunting here; and, luckily, we have public lands and publicly owned wildlife to support our tradition of locally sourcing food.

Just two months ago, I wrote to you about the peril of privatizing public lands—not only for hunters but for anyone who enjoys any type of activity or recreation in our jointly owned places. Now, there’s a movement to privatize another public resource: wildlife.

Could privatizing prey animals—including elk and white-tailed deer—and other wild creatures prove just as dangerous as limiting our access to our shared lands?

Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin each have more than 500 for-profit, deer-breeding operations. ©John T. Andrews

Economic booster, or disease and disaster?

Recently, there has been a rise in the number of private enterprises that breed, sell and allow the shooting of captive cervids, mammals belonging to the deer family, in what’s known as “canned hunts.”

Sometimes dubbed the fastest growing industry in the rural United States, there are now more than 10,000 captive-cervid breeding and shooting facilities in North America. Most often, the animals in these establishments are bred for large antlers to make them attractive as breeding stock or for trophy hunters, who pay money to kill them inside fenced-in enclosures.

Under the guise of standing up for private property rights and creating income generators for the economically stressed in rural areas, several state legislatures have rallied to support such operations. Bills are introduced to redesignate captive cervids from wildlife to livestock, which would then be regulated by state agriculture departments, rather than by wildlife agencies as part of the public trust.

Hunter and author Ted Kerasote says canned shoots have nothing to do with authentic hunting: procuring healthy, organic food; participating in timeless cycles; honoring lives that support us; and reconnecting with wildness. ©Justin R. Gibson

Some states, however, have banned deer farming, fearing disease transmission from farmed deer to native wildlife and domestic livestock. In fact, earlier this year, two new cases of chronic wasting disease (CWD) appeared in captive white-tailed deer in Texas. So far, a total of 34 CWD-positive deer have been discovered in that state: 25 from white-tailed deer in captive deer breeding facilities and nine from free-ranging mule deer. CWD has now appeared in captive or free-ranging deer in 24 states and two Canadian provinces, due in part to the interstate transport of captive-raised cervids.

And that is costing you money. In July 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmed a CWD-positive, captive deer at a shooting preserve in southeast Iowa. The buck had been shipped there from a breeding facility elsewhere in the state. All 356 deer in that breeding facility were then killed and tested for CWD. The majority of them—79.8 percent—tested positive. With taxpayer dollars, the USDA paid the deer breeders $917,100 as compensation for their destroyed deer.

Contrary to fair chase, or saving species?

Privately owning a public resource, such as wildlife, and then using it to sell hunting privileges is contrary to the principle of “fair chase,” according to the Boone and Crockett Club, a hunter-conservationist organization founded in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt. The club defines fair chase as the “ethical, sportsmanlike, and lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging wild, native North American big game animal in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper advantage over such animals.” In January 2015, the club issued a position statement that reads, in part, “crossing the line from wildlife to agricultural commodity represents a fundamental shift in American culture” and “the opportunity for future generations to freely hunt wild species is worth much more than an industry seeking short-term profits.”

Ted Turner claims his bison help rewild the West. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Canned hunts are not only in opposition to the ethics of the Boone and Crockett Club but to the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, in which our hunting heritage is rooted and whose first principle is that wildlife belongs to the people.

Supporters of wildlife privatization counter that in some cases, private ownership can save species that otherwise would go extinct. They point to elephant populations in Africa. The number of elephants in Kenya dropped from 65,000 to 19,000 between 1979 and 1989, while the number of elephants in Zimbabwe—where elephants were legally sold and private ownership of elephants was allowed—increased from 30,000 to 43,000. Here, at home, is the example of CNN-founder Ted Turner’s privately owned Yellowstone Park bison, some of which would have faced slaughter. In effect, say his proponents, he is rewilding the West.

A few years ago, the governor of Wisconsin tried to privatize deer hunting by transferring the management of the state’s deer herd to private corporations. While we’re not carefully watching, we could lose access to our public lands—and now, our wildlife.

Do you think privatizing a public resource is a dangerous trend, or a much-needed economic opportunity for struggling, rural communities?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,