Hunting trophy bucks: What side of the fence are you on?
Hunting ethics: Free range vs. high fences
The Fortress, near Guthrie, is a representative site
By Jody Noerdlinger
Just east of Guthrie off SH 105 -- mixed amid the cedars, pin oaks and sumac -- live 20 does and more than 40 whitetail bucks, most with trophy-size antlers.
The deer are free to roam the 250 acres of rolling hills and open meadows which contain plentiful native grass and tree cover. But those 250 acres are surrounded by an eight-foot-high wire fence to keep them from escaping.
Welcome to The Fortress, one of Oklahoma's 32 commercial big game hunting areas. The Fortress is representative of high fence hunting, an approach that generally guarantees hunters will bag a huge buck (some measuring more than 200 inches on the gross Boone and Crockett Club scale) and that they will pay between $2,000 and $12,000 to do so.
Such commercial hunting preserves have existed for decades in Oklahoma, but there are more now than five years ago, especially for big game.
"Bigger-antlered deer seem to be the craze," said Jim Edwards, assistant chief of law enforcement for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
High fence hunting is growing in popularity, but it also generates controversy.
Some hunters believe that if the animals have no chance to escape, than the chase is not fair. Flourishing on the Internet are stories of irresponsible hunters who engage in "canned hunts" by paying to shoot deer confined to small areas.
In many states with a long tradition of hunting — Minnesota, North Dakota, and Colorado, for example — conservation groups, as well as hunters, adamantly argue against this practice.
Opponents claim that wildlife habitat is reduced, wild animal populations are threatened by diseases that might originate in managed herds, and hunting that should be free to the public is undermined.
Some states, such as Montana and Indiana, have outlawed high fence hunting altogether, and others have referendums against the practice in the works.
Frank Gagliardi of Oklahoma City, a geologist at Chesapeake Energy, has been an avid deer hunter for 37 years and was named one of Bass Pro Shop's 100 top customers for the month of August.
He considers the decision to hunt behind a high fence up to the individual.
"It's what you want from a hunt and how you want to remember your trophy," he said. "My opinion is that I would just as soon know that my deer was taken in nature, and nature is not fenced."
On the other side of the high fence controversy, proponents cite several advantages. Commercial game facilities and the breeders who supply their stock add much-needed diversity to rural economies. Plus, guaranteeing that managed game will be available in a designated area can actually relieve pressure on wild animals.
Another factor, says Jason Hirzel, owner of The Fortress, is that many hunters lack the time required to locate, attract, and wait for deer in the wild.
In a high fence situation, the hunt usually lasts about three days, and the hunters only pay full price if they get their deer. In addition, Hirzel cites the price of a managed deer hunt, which can cost $2,000 or less, versus the price of leasing land in Oklahoma.
"You can pay $1,500 per gun for a 160-acre lease, put up stands and feeders, and plant food plots, and then not even get a deer," he said.
Commercial hunting areas are licensed and regulated by the state Wildlife Department. Edwards said high-fence hunting businesses must follow a specific set of rules.
"There must be an eight-foot fence, so the animals cannot escape, and there cannot be any ingress of wild animals on the property," he said.
Native deer normally must be driven out of the area before the fence is installed, and large deer imported from other states need a veterinarian-approved permit to guard against disease, he said.
"The (game) wardens do spot checks to approve these facilities," Edwards said. "If we do have someone acting unscrupulously, we have the option to pull a license at any time."
As far as the ethical debate about high fence hunting, Edwards said it's always existed. But a canned hunt and a high-fence hunt are not necessarily the same thing, he said.
"The key word that preys on people's minds is commercial," he said. "But some of these areas are as large as 3,500 acres, and you actually have to go out and hunt."
Oklahoman Paul Newsom, host of the television show, "Paul Newsom's Great Outdoors," showcased The Fortress on the Men's Channel in December.
"Whitetail deer hunting has become an incredible phenomenon in the last few years," Newsom said.
As far as the concept of fair chase is concerned, Newsom said, "To me, it's getting the opportunity to be in the woods, waiting for the animal you want to take. Every hunter has a threshold on where he wants to be when he pulls that trigger."
Newsom said the terrain at The Fortress is rugged enough and the deer are wild enough to avoid detection, regardless of the high fence.
"At The Fortress, I saw a huge deer the first day, and I didn't see him again," he said.