Don’t Fence Me In
Don’t Fence Me In
by Craig Boddington
This is an edited and abbreviated version of the full article as printed in “Fair Chase”, the official publication of the Boone & Crockett Club
In recent years one of the issues the Boone and Crockett Records Committee has continuously attempted to deal with is the business of fenced animals. In some contexts the answer is simple.
The Boone and Crockett Club records system tabulates listings for native North American big game. Non-native big game animals are excluded from the Club’s records program. A much knottier problem arises when it comes to the disposition of native big game animals that are confined within game fences. Again, some questions are easier than others. Due to the tremendous value of large specimens of high-profile species there is now a growing “game ranching” industry.
The most common situations are whitetail deer and elk, partly because of availability of captive-reared individuals, and partly because of demand. Mind you, it is quite possible for an operator to offer a quality experience (if not a quality “hunting” experience) with a captive herd. Horror stories are also possible. These days there are some very big elk and some very big whitetails confined on some very small properties, awaiting someone with a big enough checkbook. Personally, I don’t blame the operators; we have a free enterprise system, so I blame the shooters who support this industry. I also blame all of us, collectively, for placing such a premium on size of antler and horn that some of us have forgotten what our sport is all about. Montana has taken decisive action, outlawing game ranching. Maybe that’s the wave of the future. However, to date this has not been an issue for the Boone and Crockett Club’s North American Big Game Awards Program, because animals that qualify for inclusion must not only be hunted by legal and ethical means; they must also be taken from unfenced breeding populations.
So now we get to the real rub. What about native game in natural habitat, existing in breeding populations, hunted legally and ethically... but confined by game-proof fencing?
In the context of fair chase and the impact of questionable hunting practices upon the future of the hunting in an increasingly urban society that lacks an appreciation of hunting as a recreational pastime, the harvest of farmed animals from non- breeding populations is very important to the Boone and Crockett Club. The Club’s concern to date has been focused on how to maintain a system of records for native big game in a country where stewardship of wildlife lies in the public domain; and how to keep that records system as clean and pure as possible in the context of legal, ethical “fair chase” hunting.
The proliferation of game-fenced ranches in recent years has presented the problem to the Club’s North American big game records committee of how to deal with free-ranging North American big game animals taken in native habitat, from breeding populations, but within game-fenced acreage.
Game fencing is becoming much more common, especially in Texas where the state has official programs aimed at better managing habitat and whitetail deer on private land. In certain situations in Texas, wildlife may be considered a commodity for sale or exclusive use of the private property owner. This has come about for several reasons.
As a state, Texas is something like 98 percent privately owned, with an accordingly strong tradition of protecting property rights. Unlike most parts of the U.S., wildlife in Texas has long had economic value; Texans have grown up understanding that, in order to hunt, they needed to either own their own land (or have friends or relatives who did), or invest in a hunting lease. Texans love their whitetails, and have long been in the forefront in managing deer for quality. In order to manage a ranch for quality deer, both habitat and deer numbers must be managed. Hunting and fences are two important tools for a sound habitat and herd management program. Fences are as important in keeping deer out of an area as they are in containing them. Unless all of your neighbors are like-minded or your property is huge, the only way to really manage for quality is to fence the land.
So we have a situation where some hunters and landowners, and not just in Texas, are producing spectacular whitetail deer (and occasionally elk and other species) that have antlers large enough for inclusion into the Club’s records book. They are producing them without tricks, from breeding populations in native habitat, and they are hunting them by legal and ethical means. The only problem is that many of these animals are coming from game-fenced acreage, and under the current rules are not eligible for inclusion into Boone and Crockett Club’s Awards Programs. Obviously this rankles many hunters, so the discussions have been long and heated.
Personally, I have come full circle on the issue. The whitetail is a homebody, a creature of close cover and edge habitat that normally establishes a very finite home territory. If you know anything about whitetail deer it will be apparent that, in proper habitat, a whitetail confined within a relatively small area is not handicapped in its ability to evade hunters. Many years ago a Texas outfitter had a huge, hand-raised, non-typical buck in a brushy pen of just a couple of acres. He wanted to show him to me, so we went to look. No deer. Perplexed, we walked that entire pen for quite a while looking for him. Still no deer. My friend was horrified, certain that either the deer had escaped or had been purloined. No, he was just being a whitetail. The next day he was standing placidly by the gate on the inside.
Expand that concept to the fenced hunting ranch of several hundred to a few thousand acres, and it’s clear that there is likely no ethical issue, nor should any be implied. Knowing all this, and having some experience with game ranching in South Africa and elsewhere, for years I imagined that there must be some way to recognize the great animals taken under such conditions.
I’ve finally circled back to the simple fact that there isn’t a way to recognize big game taken from fenced ranches under the Boone and Crockett Club’s current North American Big Game Awards Program, and I applaud the strength and determination of the records committee in holding a very difficult line: Excluding North American big game animals taken within a game fence into Boone and Crockett Club’s Awards Program as we know it today.
This is unquestionably patently unfair to the landowners and hunters who have done so much for quality deer management and have produced spectacular animals, using game fencing as just one of their tools. I still support the decision, because the ultimate problem is really quite simple: How do you decide how much acreage is enough, which management practices are acceptable and which are not... and who decides?
It depends on the habitat, as well as the size of the area for the animal, using its natural defensive behavior, to elude its pursuers. In some areas a mature whitetail deer could take good care of himself in a few dozen or a few hundred acres, but he couldn’t if you put him in a fenced parking lot of several thousand acres. Where do you draw the line?
Who draws it? Could you realistically create a formula for acreage versus habitat, inspecting and certifying properties on a case-by-case basis, deciding what constitutes “fair chase” and what doesn’t?
This isn’t just about whitetails, either. The rules are the rules for all North American big game, as it should be. To behave naturally and use their senses and defenses properly, elk require a lot more country than whitetails, and how could you fence strongly migratory animals like caribou and create a “natural” situation? Mind you, the records committee does not impugn or imply that a great whitetail taken by ethical means from a breeding population on a large fenced area is a lesser trophy than a buck of the same size taken on unfenced acreage. It’s a can of worms. Our records system is, admittedly, a work in progress, but it’s a work of several generations now, and crossing a line that is now very clearly black and white is a very difficult task.
It’s said that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. I’m not personally rabidly against fencing, and I have enjoyed several good hunts within fenced areas . . . not only on other continents, but here at home as well. I have hunted whitetail deer on game-fenced ranches, and I make no apology. A great whitetail taken by ethical means from a natural, free ranging, breeding population is a super trophy . . . whether it qualifies for inclusion into Boone and Crockett Club’s Awards Program or not. Very few of us actually hunt “for the book” anyway, but these are personal decisions we must all make.
The entry requirements for the Club’s North American Big Game Awards Program are clear, and if you are hunting behind a game fence—under any circumstances— your animal will not be accepted. This is not fair to all, but on the whole I think this is fair for our sport, because some animals taken behind fences are not from breeding populations, and should not be allowed to compete with, nor gain the recognition of, animals taken in unfenced circumstances. And, of course, some fenced areas are smaller than others...
Whether or not you choose to hunt behind a game fence is purely a personal decision. I personally have issues with hunt-
ing our native big game behind game fencing. Partly this is be- cause there are unfenced options, and partly it’s because there have been so many abuses. If you don’t have a problem with fencing that’s okay by me so long as it’s legal, ethical, and you understand the end result will not qualify for the Boone and Crockett Club’s records book.
This is all a very personal matter and I deal with it on a case-by-case basis. I know I don’t want to hunt whitetail or elk behind a fence because I have lots of unfenced options, and the idea of hunting North American wild sheep on a game farm horrifies me. But I’ll probably hunt in South Africa—behind a game fence—a few more times before I’m done, and I enjoyed a really great hunt here in the U.S. for which I make no apology.
I went on a bison hunt near San Acacio, Colorado. There are a few genuine, native range, free range, breeding population bison hunts that Boone and Crockett Club will accept, but very few and all by permit drawing. I wanted a midwinter bison, a big bull, for a head mount, under the best circumstances I could find. I hunted a big bull that was free-ranging on 60,000 acres — none of it game fenced, and the southern quadrant not fenced at all. That’s free range, and southern Colorado is native habitat. However, that bull was not part of a current breeding population, and no hunting license was either available or required.
By Boone and Crockett Club’s standards the spectacular bull does not qualify for the North American Big Game Awards Program. I can live with that. My bull is a great trophy taken on an enjoyable hunt.
I have no problem with his exclusion from Boone and Crockett ‘cause them’s the rules, but I won’t have any severe attacks of conscience over participating in such a hunt, either.