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Opinion: Preserve hunts can have many outcomes

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Later this month friends and I are going on an Idaho elk hunt. We will hunt with Rulon Jones, the former Denver Broncos defensive end. Rulon owns property in both Idaho and Utah. Check his website at utahelkhunt.com. We can hunt 70,000 acres of unfenced land , or 10,000 acres of fenced land - what Rulon calls "the largest hunting preserve in the world." These horseback hunts are guided one-on-one, and we may choose either a spike camp with tents or the comfort of a lodge.

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I have chosen the fenced option as it guarantees a good shot at an elk. Though some readers will be repulsed with my choice, I am hoping that the rugged mountain acres offer the elk a fair chase scenario. At hunt's end, I'll promise you an accurate report, and I'll judge the quality of the hunt as fairly as I can.

Big game hunting preserves have become increasingly popular in the U.S. Preserve whitetail deer revenues now surpass $3 billion dollars annually. Because preserve hunting is so controversial, and because I am going to try a preserve hunt, I thought I would devote an entire column to the subject.

Hunting preserve game is enclosed within a high fence. On deer operations, the deer within the fences are usually superior genetically, and their diet is supplemented with nutrients that promote greater antler growth. Area size within the fence varies. This is a huge factor as my judgment will be based primarily on the fair chase element within the fence. I don't know if Jones works at improving genetics, but I'd bet he makes an effort to cull elk with inferior antler growth.

I feel qualified to discuss the topic as I've had some high-fence hunting experience. Twice I've hunted elk on Custer State Park's high-fenced 71,000 acres. I felt those hunts were fair chase as the fence didn't restrict elk movement in any way.

Hunting South Africa is a high fence operation. About thirty years ago, South African ranchers began to realize that raising indigenous game for hunting purposes was more profitable than raising sheep and cattle. These ranches have their own locker facilities, and the hunter keeps the hide, head, and horns while the rancher sells the meat. The rancher is literally paid twice!

The eight-foot fences of South Africa contain the game animals in their original habitat. Typically, the rancher buys a male animal and half-dozen females. If all goes well, and he can keep predators such as leopards under control, the rancher eventually has a herd. On South Africa's Eastern Cape, we observed great quantities of kudu, impala, red hartebeest, and springbok. The land parcel exceeded 75,000 acres, and the hunt was fair chase. Other than entering the ranch, I never saw the fence.

I recently read Larry Weishuhn's "A Dream Fulfilled" in the July-August issue of Sporting Classics. To say the least, I wasn't impressed. The fenced property totaled only 1,800 acres, the guide knew where the big bucks would be, and they walked right up to the bedded animal. Larry related that the buck was his biggest in fifty years of deer hunting. He will admire the head when it's on the wall, but I hope he isn't proud of it. Taking a South Dakota yearling whitetail buck would require more skill.

Am I being too critical of Mr. Weishuhn? Let me parallel his hunt to one of my own. In April 2009, I hunted red stag in New Zealand. I spent half of my hunt pursuing free-range stag on unfenced private property. I was successful, but his antlers were very ordinary -- not the product of genetic engineering.

The first half of my Zealand hunt was within a high fence on perhaps 3,000 acres. On the third day, after much climbing, slipping, sliding, and getting soaked (Oh yes, Mr. Weishuhn did get rained on), I killed a magnificent stag. The stag would make the SCI record book if I cared, and he was the product of intense genetic engineering.

Am I proud of this head? Not really. Other than not missing an easy shot, and perhaps managing money well enough to afford such a hunt, I didn't do anything noteworthy. His head is on my wall, and when I gaze on it, I marvel at the mass of antler development. I can tell you this. When you see a great red stag, it came from a preserve.

Before I ooh and aah at a set of whitetail antlers, I'd like to know if it was a free-ranging animal, or if it came from a preserve like so many of the hunts we see on TV. With regard to big-game trophies, I like what Richard Proenneke had to say in his book African Odyssey. "I don't begrudge a hunter his Dall ram if he climbs to the crags to get one and packs it down the mountain. If he does this, he has earned those curved horns to put up on his wall. Yet there are so many who have not earned what they proudly exhibit. Even though the hunt may have cost them thousands of dollars, they did not pay the full price for it."

I have a trophy collection. Some may admire the caribou antlers, the great eland, gemsbok, warthog, and kudu skulls from Africa, and of course the mighty red stag. They came with relative ease. Some whitetail antlers, antelope horns and a set of not-so-impressive moose antlers will go unnoticed, but they are my trophies. I paid the full price.

*See you next week.

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