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Charge: Fairlee Man, Woman Ran Unlicensed Hunting Ground

A man and woman have been charged with running an unlicensed private hunting preserve stocked with exotic game in Fairlee as state officials moved to shut down the operation yesterday.

Hunt the Ridge, a 129-acre private hunting grounds on Brackett Road in Fairlee was closed by Vermont Fish & Wildlife and Steven Hill, 51, and Chiaki Ito, 21, both of Fairlee, were indicted on seven counts of operating an unlicensed captive hunting facility, according to a VFW press release. They’re to be arraigned in Orange County Superior Court in Chelsea on Feb. 27.

Hunt the Ridge charged visitors up to $6,000 to hunt exotic wild animals, including several species of deer, elk, wild boar, Spanish goats, Texas dall sheep and moose, according to the release.

Hill declined to comment when reached by phone yesterday, but did confirm that Hunt the Ridge is closed. Ito could not be reached. Each face fines up to $7,000 and could lose their personal hunting, trapping and fishing licenses for up to three years.

Hill is a former employee of West Fairlee’s Wild Hill Preserve, one of two captive hunting facilities in Vermont allowed to continue operating after a VFW board in 2009 banned the future licensing of such facilities. The other exempt facility is Big Rack Ridge, a 700-acre preserve in the Northeast Kingdom town of Irasburg.

In New Hamsphire, the private Corbin Park Preserve contains elk, bison and boar on more than 20,000 acres, spanning parts of Cornish, Plainfield, Grantham and Newport.

But in Vermont “any of the captive (hunting) facilities that existed before (the ban) were considered grandfathered in, and (Big Rack Ridge and Wild Hill) were the only two,” said Major Dennis Reinhardt, a state game warden involved in a months-long sting operation against Hunt the Ridge prior to yesterday’s indictments. “Mr. Hill was aware of the regulations (prohibiting new captive game preserves),” Reinhardt said, noting that rulemaking “was about a seven-year process and I saw him at regulation hearings during that process.”

Undercover wardens paid $750 each to hunt a Spanish goat and wild boar as part of the sting against Hunt the Ridge this fall. About 200 animals remain on the grounds, according to the release. The captive hunting facility was listed on the websites hopfrog.com and thinklocal.com.

“The animals were very visible on the property,” said Reinhardt. “I personally have a hard time calling it a hunting facility, because to me, the word ‘hunting’ implies there’s some time and effort in the process.”

According to Vermont Fish & Wildlife Commissioner Patrick Berry, the movement to ban captive hunting facilities in Vermont was led by hunters avid about preserving the so called “fair chase” element of their sport.

“From a cultural standpoint, I think it’s clear that most Vermonters don’t view these facilities as legitimate grounds for hunting and recreation,” said Berry. “When hunters found out there were over 100 white-tail deer (at Big Rack Ridge), there was quite an uproar. In some states it might be acceptable, but in Vermont I think maintaining that sense of fair chase is very important to most (hunters).”

VFW officials also hope the ban on captive hunting facilities will help curtail the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a potentially fatal, transmissible neurological disorder producing lesions in the brains of affected animals.

According to Berry, recent press releases from state wildlife management agencies in both Iowa and Wisconsin have indicated a link between captive hunting facilities and the spread of CWD.

“In Wisconsin, more than 25,000 deer have been depopulated trying to eradicate CWD,” the commissioner said. “When the deer are in closer quarters, it can spread the disease more easily. We’re trying to prevent it from spreading into our wild forests. Once it spreads, it’s very hard to get rid of.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com.