Wildlife & Nature

Captive Hunting on Track to Be Banned

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The importation of elk for captive hunting could introduce chronic wasting disease to Rhode Island’s white-tailed deer population. (istock)

PROVIDENCE — Five years after the plan was first introduced, lawmakers are on the cusp of banning captive hunting practices in Rhode Island.

Also known as “canned hunting,” captive hunting refers to the practice of importing wild animals into a specific, fenced-in location for the intended purpose of hunting game that, in theory, cannot escape. Critics of the practice have argued that legalizing captive hunting would be a backdoor way into introducing wild game and even diseases that currently have no presence in Rhode Island, and would interrupt local hunters’ longstanding free-chase traditions.

Now a statewide prohibition on the practice is on the verge of becoming law. Identical bans (S2732A/H7294A) were introduced in the House and Senate earlier this year. Substitute versions of each bill passed their respective chambers, and the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee has passed the Senate version in concurrence. On Thursday the House approved its version of the bill by a vote of 69-0.

“The fact that this is moving is really great,” said Michael Woods, chair of the New England chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “It’s been our priority list for a long time.”

Woods and other longtime critics of the practice have argued to lawmakers that, no matter how well-constructed any fence is for captive hunting, wildlife would inevitably find a way to escape.

Imported wildlife would pose a potential biohazard threat to wildlife and threaten all other hunting in Rhode Island, such as chronic wasting disease (CWD), a fatal neurological illness that impacts deer, elk, moose, and other cervids. There are no cases of CWD in Rhode Island, but once introduced into the state, it would be impossible to eliminate from native deer populations.

The disease is non-existent in New England, but there have been reported cases in New York state, the Midwest, Texas, and Utah.

“It could seriously wipe out the indigenous wildlife here in Rhode Island,” Minority Leader Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, said before the House vote on Thursday.

It’s been a long journey. Captive hunting was mostly unknown in Rhode Island until 2018, when The Preserve, a luxury resort and private sporting club on more than 3,500 acres in Richmond, lobbied the General Assembly to legalize the practice so it could begin importing wildlife, legally, for its members. At the time, the bill, if passed, would have allowed any shooting preserve with 500 acres or more to “permit the taking of animals other than domestic game birds” so long as a hunting license was purchased and other state regulations met.

The first bill banning the practice was introduced the following year, in 2019, which met with some opposition from The Preserve. But, Woods said, the annual prohibition bill hasn’t garnered any public opposition in quite a few years.

Banning captive hunting isn’t the only change lawmakers are about to make to hunting. The House and Senate are also on the verge of passing a pair of bills (H7562/S2297) that would transfer control of the fur-bearing mammals list, which specifies which animal species have state hunting regulations imposed on them, from state lawmakers to the Department of Environmental Management.

The change would allow DEM to adjust the list via the usual rulemaking process used by all state agencies, instead of having to pass a new law to put animals on or off the list.

Woods said the change was needed as animal populations change in Rhode Island. Thanks to climate change, human development, and a host of other difficult-to-quantify factors, animal species are moving in and out of Rhode Island every year.

“You go back 20 years or so, and you never saw black bears in Rhode Island,” Woods said. “They simply didn’t come here. But over the last two decades, they have become a more frequent occurrence.”

Hunters aren’t allowed to legally take new animal species that are moving into Rhode Island, like black bears or porcupines, even if they harm livestock or destroy crops.

Without a change to the law, residents won’t have any legal options to take black bears or any other wildlife that are destroying crops or harming livestock because they aren’t listed in the statute.

The third bill (H7358A) under consideration by lawmakers would give motorists who hit deer the first right of refusal to take the carcass, and allow DEM to create regulations governing possession of an animal carcass.

Vehicle collisions with deer are more common than people think. According to data from the latest deer harvest report from DEM, the department received 1,544 reports of deer strikes by automobiles, a total increase of 20% over the prior year. In comparison, that’s in addition to the 2,705 deer reported harvested during the same hunting season, a ratio of two-to-one.

The total number of deer strikes is on par with Massachusetts, a much bigger state with more deer, more hunters, and more vehicles. In the same time frame, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife reported 1,806 deer strikes out of almost 15,000 deer harvested statewide.

While the bill wouldn’t curb deer strikes, it would incentivize hunters to take roadkill off state and municipal roads. For hunters, the current policy of leaving perfectly usable meat on the side of the road that would otherwise go uneaten by humans is a massive waste.

If the driver does not take the deer, DEM will intervene to process the carcass.

H7358 was passed by the House by a 69-0 vote on Thursday. It now goes to the Senate for a committee hearing.

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