Canned Hunting Ranches in Maine Update

By Jayne Winters  (February, 2015)  

A 2012 CBS news story reported that canned hunts are big business: there are an estimated 1,000 game preserves in at least 25 states [over 500 in Texas alone], with some 5,000 “exotic ranches” in North America. Most of these ranches operate on a “no-kill, no-pay” policy, so the owner does his best to ensure clients get the trophy kill they came for, often by offering guides who are familiar with the animals’ locations and habits, including congregating around feeding stations [similar to bear baiting]. Many states have limited or banned canned hunts, but there are currently no federal laws regulating the practice.

Domestic deer farms began to appear in Maine during the late 1980s, followed by game ranches - now called “Commercial Large Game Shooting Areas” [CLGSA] - in the 1990s. Regulation of game ranches used to fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife [IF&W], but IF&W professionals contended that non-native animals, e.g., boar, elk, buffalo, were captive and instead of being wild game species, should be regarded as domestic, like cattle. The Department of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry [“DACF”] now oversees the licensing and monitoring of game farms/ranches. Just as livestock are the property of their owners, game species can be dealt with as the owners wish, provided they meet program requirements. Most would agree there’s no sport in shooting a cow on a farm, so why is shooting an elk or buffalo on a game ranch any different? Both are fenced in areas with no chance of escape. Both typically depend upon humans for care and sustenance. Does the species really matter? 

Under Maine’s 1999 commercial large game shooting area law (which the owner of Hillside Game Ranch helped draft), ranches have no seasons or bag limits. They are required to be licensed and submit to annual inspections; the bill grandfathered licenses for the ten existing game “parks” and prohibited new ones. In 2003, the Legislative Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry Committee voted unanimously not to pass a bill that sought to ban the hunting of animals in enclosed areas. The reason? Primarily “because two years previously we gave these people the green light to invest in these businesses and you can’t pull the rug out from under them,” said then Representative Nancy Smith, D-Monmouth. Jon Olson, Executive Secretary of the Maine Farm Bureau Association agreed, stating, “It is totally unfair to have them lose their investments by a legislative stroke of the pen.” Many game ranches now include lodging and meal packages to promote longer stays and generate more income. Risk is always a consideration when investing in a new business. The “unfairness” noted above apparently only applies to the business owners, not the animals.

It’s interesting to note that under Title 7 MRS, Part 3, Chapter 202-A, §1341 defines a Commercial Large Game Shooting Area as “an enclosed area in which large game are kept and a fee is charged to pursue and kill or pursue and attempt to kill large game.” There is no mention of “hunt” or “fair chase” which has always been the divisive factor between proponents and opponents of this enterprise. Several years ago, one reserve owner stated in an interview that “…old hunting traditions are crumbling anyway. Hunters’ access to land is diminishing as more property owners post their land or sell it to developers. People don’t have the time to take weeks off and go hunting. We have more animals to make it fairer for the hunters. Whereas in the wild, the animals have the upper hand.” The “upper hand”?! Whatever happened to the personal satisfaction and pride that a true hunter gets from learning an animal’s behavior, tracking it, enduring the elements, and perhaps, if patient enough, coming home with the result of honest, hard work?

DACF licenses these operations, but IF&W is responsible for the protection, preservation and enhancement of the state’s native white-tail deer population. Although red deer can’t interbreed with white-tails, diseases that might be transmitted from captive to native deer are always a concern. Particularly worrisome is chronic wasting disease [CWD], a lethal infection that affects the nervous system of cervids (members of the deer family including deer, moose, caribou, elk, etc.), resembling mad cow disease. It can live in the environment outside of a host for up to five years.

There have been several incidents of non-native deer escaping farms in Maine, including locations in Frankfort, Danforth, Phippsburg, Skowhegan and Lexington. In 2003, a deer that escaped from a northern Maine farm wandered 40 miles over a few days before it was found. On another occasion, a deer traveled 18 miles from Dixmont to Brooks in just two days. In October 2009, several red deer escaped from a farm in Levant. The owner wasn’t sure how many got loose, but thought less than ten. One month later, only five had been accounted for. In September 2012, there were disputed claims about fallow deer escaping from a Nobleboro farm. The owner acknowledged someone broke into pens to obtain fallen antlers, but said as far as he knew, all his deer were accounted for - despite sightings of 12-15 fallow deer running free in the area.

In April 2013, Eric Peaslee reported to Agriculture his discovery of about 30 large mammal skeletal remains (including a horse) on acreage in Jefferson leased to his uncle for a hunting park. There was no evidence any of the animals succumbed to a bullet; they apparently died from neglect and/or disease. It was also reported that one elk and three red deer escaped the preserve after park gate locks were cut. Peaslee contacted the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department regarding the vandalism and theft of the lock; the Sheriff’s Office declined to investigate. One deer was eventually captured after eight days, turned over to the state and “disposed of.” No further investigation was ever undertaken by Agriculture or Fish & Wildlife.

In a January 2014 telephone conversation, state veterinarian Michele Walsh clarified that the game licensure program previously managed by a contracted deer biologist was assigned to her in April 2013. She confirmed there was no Department of Agriculture investigation or report regarding Eric Peaslee’s complaint. The hunt park was not licensed at the time, but after state inspection, eventually met requirements and was reissued its license. [The game farm’s web site, however, states that the ranch is currently closed.]

Thankfully, Chronic Wasting Disease has not been detected in Maine since monitoring began in 2001. There is currently a prohibition on the importation of cervids; IF&W’s web site indicates the only deer being hunted are those being raised in the State of Maine. Monitoring surveillance and control is costly, however, diverting scarce state dollars and staff from other much-needed programs.

Ms. Walsh explained the process for commercial large game area license renewal. Licenses are good for one year, with an issue date of September 30. Informational packets are sent by the Department to park owners each summer with a September 29 deadline for renewal applications to be submitted. Owners have one opportunity to submit their applications. Once received, the site is placed on an inspection list; the Department schedules the inspection for that fall and the owner must be present. If the site does not meet state requirements, a written notice of insufficiencies is provided to the owner for correction, re-inspection and an opportunity for renewal licensure. Application fees are $500/yr for a deer farm, $1000/yr for commercial large game areas; there is also a $25 transport fee per each animal. Mandatory reporting of the number and type of animal ‘harvested’ during the previous 12-month period is also submitted with application.

Agriculture is not currently issuing additional permits; prior to 2012, a licensed owner could sell the facility to a new owner provided the location hadn’t changed. Three years ago, however, Senator Douglas Thomas of Somerset submitted LD 1822, An Act To Allow the Change of Location of a Licensed Large Game Shooting Area, which the IF&W Committee passed. The number of permitted facilities was eleven in 2014, but now stands at nine.

For additional information, see Maine’s Deer Farming Directory can be found at



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