Verdict cuts happy hunting grounds

Private landowners fear liability after ruling in shooting

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ALLENTOWN -- As Pennsylvania's two-week rifle deer season gets under way today, some hunters, particularly in Eastern Pennsylvania, say they no longer have access to their favorite stomping grounds because private landowners are worried about liability.

Farmers and other landowners have either restricted hunting, or banned it altogether, following a recent jury verdict in Lehigh County in which a landowner was found partly liable for the accidental shooting of a pregnant woman by a hunter.

Brian Dietrich, 42, who runs a dairy farm and raises corn, soybeans and alfalfa, said he plans to limit hunting this year to close friends and family. In the past, he would allow almost everyone who asked to hunt on his land in northern Lehigh County.

"I have too much at stake, and too much of an investment, to have it compromised," he said.

The clampdown stems from a lawsuit involving the near-fatal shooting of Casey Kantner, who was 18 when she was shot in the head as she sat in a car outside her home north of Allentown two years ago. Authorities say the shot was fired by a hunter from a 140-acre orchard near Ms. Kantner's house.

Ms. Kantner, who survived, sued both the hunter, Craig Wetzel, and the landowner, Daniel Haas, for negligence. Ms. Kantner won her lawsuit on Sept. 8, with a jury finding Mr. Wetzel 90 percent responsible for the shooting and Mr. Haas 10 percent responsible.

Although a second jury has yet to determine monetary damages, the verdict sent ripples through the hunting community.

Anthony Ezolt, 46, a lifelong hunter from Berks County, said he lost his "ace in the hole" hunting spot, a 171-acre farm where game was plentiful, after the landowner banned hunting.

"He almost felt guilty in telling me," Mr. Ezolt said. "What could I say? I really wish I could hunt, but I don't blame him. I would do exactly the same thing." Now Mr. Ezolt will have to content himself with hunting on state land, "where everybody else hunts."

Pennsylvania Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser said some people, fearing lawsuits, have dropped out of a state program that enrolls private landowners who permit the public to hunt on their land. Most of the participants in the 70-year-old program are farmers hoping to reduce crop damage caused by deer and other wildlife. The program covers nearly 4.4 million acres of private land -- dwarfing state game lands, which comprise 1.4 million acres.

Although Mr. Feaser was unable to say how many landowners have pulled out, he said the game commission is concerned and wants people to keep their land open to hunters. "The benefits far outweigh the negatives," he said.

The verdict caught Pennsylvania's hunting and farm lobbies by surprise. For decades, they had relied on a 1966 state law that shields landowners who allow hunting from certain forms of liability. However, the law does not specifically mention accidents that happen on neighboring land, and it was not used as a defense at trial.

Now hunters and farmers are pressing the Legislature to beef up protection for landowners.

"The future of hunting on farmland in Pennsylvania could be in jeopardy if farmers are held responsible for the actions of those who hunt on their land," Carl Shaffer, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said in a statement.

The House of Representatives passed a measure last week that would prevent landowners from being held responsible for the negligence of hunters on their land, even if someone off the property is harmed. But the bill died in the Senate because that chamber did not have enough time to consider it before the end of the legislative session. The measure is expected to be reintroduced early next year.

Until then, landowners are taking precautions.

David Jaindl, whose Lehigh County farm raises 750,000 turkeys a year, said he began restricting hunting on his land two years ago, partly for fear of liability. "The ruling certainly didn't help," he said. "Until that decision is changed, I think property owners will have a continuing concern."

The Kantner case comes at a time when Pennsylvania hunters are already complaining about deer management policies that they say have drastically reduced the size of the herd, and about the ongoing, seemingly inexorable loss of private hunting land to subdivisions, strip malls and other development.

Many hunters have simply given up: The number of licenses issued by the Game Commission declined by more than 25 percent between 1981 and 2005. Only 964,000 licenses were issued last year, a 40-year low.

"I have two junior hunters, and they don't expect much when they go deer hunting," said Mr. Ezolt, the hunter who lost his prime spot. "They don't get excited about going. I'm watching it slip away, and it's sad."



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