Retired NASCAR driver Tony Stewart open his Columbus-area ranch for some commercial deer and turkey hunting, potentially becoming one of the first hunting grounds to take advantage of a law passed earlier this year legalizing high-fenced hunting in Indiana.
Hidden Hollow Ranch, Stewart's 414-acre property west of Columbus, would host guided deer and turkey hunts for groups of up to 12 paying guests, who would likely stay overnight at the residence, according to a Bartholomew County zoning application.
County zoning officials voted 4-0 on Dec. 19 to allow conditional use of the property for a bed-and-breakfast-like hunting and fishing facility.
In the 2016 legislative session, Indiana lawmakers passed a law allowing hunting of farm-raised deer on fenced preserves — a controversial practice that had been tied up in the courts for a decade.
The state Department of Natural Resources had tried to ban high-fenced hunting, but a court eventually ruled that the agency did not have the authority to shut down those hunting operations or regulate privately owned livestock. It marked a win for a billion-dollar industry and provided an in-state market for Indiana's 400 deer farms.
High-fenced hunting regulations do not limit the number of deer on those preserves or the number of deer that hunters can kill.
Some criticize captive hunting as "easy killing" of trapped animals bred to be trophies. A four-part IndyStar investigative series in 2014 examined the ethical concerns of high-fenced hunting and the risks of deer breeding spreading diseases across the country.
In July, Hidden Hollow Ranch filed paperwork to become a domestic limited liability company, registering its office at the Brownsburg address of Tony Stewart Enterprises, according to the Indiana Secretary of State's business database.
The property is "entirely enclosed with a black wrought iron fence," according to the zoning application, standing 10-feet tall around most of the perimeter and 8-feet tall along Youth Camp Road, where the gated entrance is located.
Hidden Hollow Ranch features woods, a lake, streams, a pole barn, the residence and a second dwelling, the application said. The business also wants to build a 4,000-square-foot structure to store feed and equipment.
It's unclear who would be invited to hunt on Stewart's property, or whether the hunting parties would be open to the public. The application noted that most hunts would accommodate five or fewer guests. Each hunter would have to hold a license to hunt, according to Denise Derrer, spokeswoman for the Indiana State Board of Animal Health.
Commercial hunting grounds are licensed through the Indiana State Board of Animal Health. Information on whether Hidden Hollow Ranch had applied for or received such a license was not immediately available, Derrer said, while the agency was closed over the holidays.
Some neighbors, including lifelong hunter Gene Hopkins, who lives about a quarter-mile from Stewart's ranch, expressed concerns about hunting at the property.
Hopkins worried about the effect that a high-fenced hunting preserve could have on wildlife in the surrounding area. If an animal on the ranch were infected with tuberculosis or chronic wasting disease, officials would take steps to depopulate wild herds nearby — within a 10-mile radius, in the case of chronic wasting disease, he said.
"We're talking outside the fence now," Hopkins said. "We're talking the deer I hunt, the deer all my neighbors hunt, the deer anyone in a 10-mile radius hunts. So the impact, the risk there to me is significant."
Hopkins, legislative chairman and past-president of the Indiana Bowhunter Association and president of the Indiana Sportsmen's Roundtable, described himself as a fan of Stewart, but not a fan of captive hunting facilities.
Stewart's representatives were not immediately reachable for comment.
In 2010, Stewart announced that his Bartholomew County property would be turned into a "laboratory" for Mississippi State University biologists to study deer and habitats. He also partnered with the Catch-A-Dream Foundation to give hunting and fishing experiences to children with life-threatening illnesses.
A three-time Sprint Cup Series champion, NASCAR team owner and Columbus native, Stewart is well-known for his love of hunting and the outdoors.
He makes celebrity appearances at Bass Pro Shops store openings, an outdoor gear retailer that sponsored him as a stock-car racer.