HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) In struggling rural economies, deer hunting and farming can bring big bucks.
The $103 million Pennsylvania deer industry is greater than that of sheep, goats, tobacco or Christmas trees and has created 3,500 jobs in the state, said Glenn Dice, a vice president of the North American Deer Farmers Association.
Despite their economic boost, big bucks put behind fences in "canned hunting" operations often raise concerns for neighbors in the surrounding community.
On March 15 in Perry County, more than 100 residents, many donning camouflage hunting hats, poured into the Carroll Township municipal building to hear Ian and Brenda Beal and their business partner, Rich Huff, present plans for a hunting ranch on their 170-acre property along the 7000 block of Spring Road.
Ranches. Preserves. Canned hunts. Trophy hunting.
Call them what you will. Accompanied by a guide, fee-paying guests, who don't need a hunting license, enter a fenced-in area to shoot antlered members of the deer family.
After fielding mixed testimony from residents of a neighboring development of 35 homes, three Carroll Township zoning officers unanimously approved the land usage.
Keystone Valley Ranch could open as early as the fall, said Brenda Beal, who was not surprised by the turnout at the hearing.
"I grew up a hunter," she said. "I know there are anti-hunters. They have their opinion. I have mine."
"Fair chase" hunters believe canned hunts such as the one proposed cheat the system.
Animal-rights activists call them barbaric. But those who earn a living with hunting ranches don't understand the sudden outrage about an activity that dates to prehistoric man and nomadic tribes, minus the 10-foot-high wire fence and pay to play.
"Once you put a wild animal behind a fence, it's not wild," said Sarah Speed, Pennsylvania director for the Humane Society of the United States. "These deer are so acclimated to humans, they're expecting a feeding but getting a bullet."
A curious doe at Harry Strawser's 30-acre farm, Mountain Ridge Whitetails near Hummelstown, might lick a hand that pokes through the 8-foot-high wire fence.
Among 100 whitetails on his farm, these tame fawns are strictly for breeding, not killing, as animal activists insinuate, Strawser said.
To accompany his livestock operation, four years ago Strawser purchased a 400-acre hunting preserve, Mountain Run Ranch, in New Bloomfield, Perry County, where he annually books about 30 hunts from September to January.
Sportsmen, who pay $2,500 to $11,000 depending on the hunt, aren't getting to within point-blank range to blow away Bambi with AK-47s, Strawser said.
"I have no idea how many deer I have up there. The perception out there is so skewed. If you think you're going to come onto my ranch and see the deer, don't count on it," Strawser said. "I'll pay you $1,000 for any deer on my property that you can get within 50 yards of."
Also, if a weapon is illegal in Pennsylvania, it's illegal on Pennsylvania ranches. Hunters are prohibited from shooting within 150 yards of any habitable dwelling.
It's not all about the hunting, either. Strawser sold $23,000 in antlers last year, he said.
Pennsylvania is the second-best state for deer farming after Texas, Dice added.
Ted Onufrak, president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, said ranches are safe havens to teach first-time hunters and children.
"Most hunters I know would rather hunt the traditional way than go into a fenced-in area," Onufrak said. "There's a purpose for it, but it's a small niche in the hunting arena."
Like Strawser, the Beals have a livestock license for breeding deer and ranching from the state Department of Agriculture.
While the Pennsylvania Game Commission doesn't regulate canned hunts, spokesman Jerry Feaser said officials ensure that hunting preserve owners don't trap wild animals behind their fences.
"They may not take wild deer and put them in there. Wild deer belong to all Pennsylvanians," Feaser said. "That would be like taking tools from a PennDOT shed and using them for your own purposes."
While owners of unenclosed private property also can charge fees to hunters, they lose protection from the Recreational Use of Land and Water Act, which provides liability protection if someone is injured on the land, Feaser said.
"I don't want to wake up in the morning to gunshots," said township resident Randy Miller. "I personally don't want to be hearing gunshots seven days a week, all year long."
Opponents of the new site have 30 days to file appeals with the Perry County court, said Karen Balaban, solicitor for the Carroll Township zoning board. Those who supported the Beals at the hearing said they believe justice has been served.
"I heard a gunshot yesterday," said township resident Diane Everitt. "This is Perry County, and if you don't like it, sell your place and move back over the mountain."