WATSON - A local game rancher has been doing everything he can to keep his livestock and continue his boar hunting services, despite a ruling that all boars must be disposed of by April 1 under an invasive species order. While fighting this battle, he's also been battling cancer. (See related story.)
For the past 10 years, Jeff DeBacker, 58, of Watson, has invested time, effort, and money into creating a successful game-hunting ranch supported in large part by cliental who want to shoot Russian boars.
"This business took off like crazy," DeBacker said during a recent interview at his home in southern Marquette County. Hunting packages include a guide, lodging and meals.
Jenny Lancour | Daily Press
Jeff DeBacker stands alongside the 10 foot fence of his game-hunting ranch in Watson. DeBacker is currently fighting to keep the ranch open following regulations declaring feral swine an invasive species.
In addition to the boar, the preserve also has elk, whitetail deer, fallow deer, red stag deer, rams, and buffalo enclosed in three fenced-in areas on the 2,100-acre ranch.
Not including land and property taxes, DeBacker estimates he's invested more than $500,000 on 10-foot-high fencing, feeders and labor and nearly $1 million in game animals.
DeBacker also continues to grow potatoes on about 130 acres but said he got out of the dairy business when he sold his cattle two years ago.
DeBacker says his game ranch has been a major investment for himself and his wife, Reba.
"Reba and I invested our entire savings to build a hunting preserve - the Superior Game Ranch. It was a huge risk for a struggling farmer but one that we were willing to take because we believed in the American dream," he said.
The business - which represents nearly 70 percent of their livelihood - brings in more than 400 clients annually with the majority of them hunting hogs. About 75 percent of the people are repeat customers seeking more boar or bigger game, he said.
"During the winter months, most bring their families and stay in our cabins. It's like a winter retreat for them," he said.
"After years of managing a successful business, we now find ourselves threatened with our very existence," he added.
The threat is a ruling last fall which classifies boar as an invasive species which must be disposed of by April 1. Boars found in the wild can be killed under state regulations.
Because boars are said to have escaped from ranches and harmed the environment, the Department of Natural Resources tried to shut down the businesses using legislation, said DeBacker. This effort failed, so the DNR used the invasive species order, intended for species like the Asian carp, he said. Boars were declared an invasive species resulting in the allocation of federal monies to the DNR, he added.
"It's a way the DNR are targeting game ranchers. They're using different loopholes and laws to get after us. We should be working together," he said.
"We have managed these animals in a safe and humane way for many years without harm to the environment before the DNR decided that they were invasive," he added.
DeBacker said he does not consider his boars as invasive species, but considers them as livestock raised on a farm. He also added the invasive species order is unclear whether or not regular farm hogs fall under this category.
DeBacker also noted the DNR rules relate to "feral" swine which means swine which have escaped captivity and are running wild.
"My hogs are not escaped. They're under my husbandry," he said.
"It's our responsibility for our animals to be fed and watered and taken care of," DeBacker added, noting this includes providing adequate fencing to keep the boars confined.
"It's obvious our fences are over and above what we need. We don't want other animals, like predators, to come in here," DeBacker explained. "We don't want any of our game to escape," he said, adding that none of his boars have gotten loose.
"We're pretty religious about fence inspections," he said, adding he has about 700 hogs contained on his ranch property in addition to the other game.
"We regularly check our fences and maintain the highest standards of compliance with all federal and state laws and regulations, along with principles of responsible game management," the rancher said.
"Our meat supply is free of hormones and additives. We are regulated by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and have a long history of working cooperatively with them with regular testing for Chronic Waste Disease and tuberculosis," he added.
Currently there are four boar ranches in the Upper Peninsula and one large breeding plant in Baraga, said DeBacker. About 25 boar ranches operate downstate where many others have closed up because of the invasive species order, he said.
For the past several months, DeBacker has stepped up efforts in the fight for his and others' rights to continue operating boar ranches in Michigan.
He has spoken on the legislative floor and written letters to the governor and several state legislators, expressing his willingness to cooperatively work with the DNR and the department of agriculture. DeBacker would like to see laws developed to regulate boar ranches, and fine businesses when necessary, rather than do away with them.
"The animals are an important part of our business and to our customers," DeBacker said.
"Our business also provides employment for numerous individuals and suppliers. We pay considerable taxes, contribute to the community in many ways, donate hunts to groups like the Make a Wish Foundation, disabled veterans, disadvantaged youth, paralyzed individuals and many others."
DeBacker has hired an attorney to halt the order to dispose of his boars by April 1. The rancher has also received support from farmers associations. State Rep. Ed McBroom personally visited the DeBacker game ranch last summer and supports his efforts to keep boar ranches legal.
During a recent visit to Delta County, when asked about the swine issue, McBroom said he believes in reasonable regulation of boar hunting, not extreme regulation.
"Let's get some regulations together," he said. "Let's work together. Let's be a team."
State Sen. Tom Casperson agrees regulation of game boar is an alternative worth trying.
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Jenny Lancour, (906) 786-2021, ext. 143, firstname.lastname@example.org