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Billings Gazette - "Judge Tosses Challenge to Game Farm Initiative"

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Location: Helena, MT

Billings Gazette - "Judge Tosses Challenge to Game Farm Initiative"

A voter-passed initiative imposing restrictions on game farms in Montana did not result in an illegal taking of property from owners of such farms, a judge concluded Monday.

The government does not have to compensate owners because the 2000 law did not actually take away their property and was part of a legitimate state effort to prevent the spread of disease from game farm animals to wildlife, said District Judge Dorothy McCarter of Helena.

She noted that, although game farm owners challenging the law had financial losses after it took effect, they knew their business was a highly controversial and regulated industry and that future restrictions could affect their ability to make money.

Len Wallace, one of the game farm owners involved in the lawsuit against Initiative 143, assailed the judge's ruling by saying, "Montana's judiciary has shown an intellect and responsibility of a drive-by shooter.

"Evil at its core is deception," he said. "Montana deceived game farmers into believing they would have a business, and game farmers invested millions of dollars and years of efforts into those businesses. If theft is defined as taking property by deceptive means, that certainly defines I-143."

Wallace, who formerly had a game farm in the Bitterroot Valley and now lives in Idaho, said he doubts he will appeal the decision to the Montana Supreme Court because he doesn't believe the result would be different.

Bruce Buhmann, a game farm owner from Blaine County who joined in filing the suit, could not be reached for comment Monday night.

Attorney General Mike McGrath applauded the ruling as an appropriate summary of where the courts stand on whether someone's property has been taken without proper compensation, in violation of the constitution.

"Just because there was a potential detriment to the owners' interest, that was not a taking, and they're not entitled to compensation for that," he said. "The opinion fairly reflects the state of existing law not only in Montana but in the United States."

The suit by Wallace and Buhmann was one of several challenges to I-143, which banned the shooting of captive game-farm animals for a fee, the licensing of new game farms, expansions of existing farms or the transfer of licenses.

Len and Pam Wallace and Bruce and Shirley Buhmann sued the state in June 2002, seeking more than $22 million in damages for lost profits and investments.

McCarter said the couples knew what they were getting into when they launched their farms and that such businesses "were a matter of legislative grace and that the state could, at any time, impose new limits on their operations."

The fact that a regulation reduced the value of their property and prevented profitable use of the property does not mean an unconstitutional taking occurred, she said. McCarter added the owners "should have anticipated the possibility that future regulations could impede their anticipated business profits."

I-143 represented a proper use of the state's police power to, in this case, protect the state's hunting heritage and stop the possible spread of a wasting disease, she said.

"The intended effect of I-143 was to reduce the number of game farms and captive game animals in Montana, thereby reducing potential contact between captive game animals and wild game," McCarter wrote. "This clearly bears a reasonable relationship to the state's interest in protecting wild game populations from the spread of diseases and from genetic pollution by game farm animals."

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