Deer Fight Spreading Faster Than CWD?

Nov 25, 2014
Five months ago, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon vetoed legislation intended to reclassify captive deer as livestock, not wildlife. If he hadn't, the legislation would have kept captive deer breeders from falling under a very strict set of regulations proposed by the state's Department of Conservation in order to prevent the spread of diseases between captive and wild deer herds.

The veto survived, despite a rancorous attempt to override that failed by a single vote. And Missouri deer breeders, despite that setback, say the fight is "far from over".

Deer farmers said the Department of Conservation was trying to put them out of business. The Department said it was doing its job -protecting the state's wildlife.

We've seen similar battles being fought across the country as the big-bucks business of deer breeding has taken off. With urine collected and sold as game attractants, semen sold for breeding and the enormous racks used for everything from trophy hunting to dog chews and pills for muscle growth and sexual potency, there's money to be made.

The breeding industry in Oklahoma, for example, says it's a $200 million addition to that state's economy. And the North American Deer Farmers Association says it's only appropriate that the deer controls move to agriculture departments because the animals they're growing are "livestock" not "wildlife".

But the industry position suffered a serious setback when a Pennsylvania herd that had been certified for nine years was found to have CWD. But scientists, state fish and game departments and many hunters aren't buying the "alternative livestock industry" argument, calling CWD the "ebola of the deer community" and fighting moves to separate pen-raised deer from their free-roaming neighbors on the other sides of the farmers' high fences.

Were there a test for CWD in living deer, their argument might not be so persuasive. But there is no test for living deer- and some state agencies have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars buying and destroying deer from deer farmers to check for CWD.

Earlier this year an Indianapolis Star investigative report identified more than 10,000 farms and hunting preserves in the U.S. and Canada. And many of them are falling in that questionable space between wildlife and agricultural regulation. As is the case in any large group, not every farmer or preserve operator was quite up to snuff.

Now it appears North Carolina is going to be one of the next states where the fight to separate deer farmers from deer hunters when it comes to regulatory oversight.

The Charlotte Observer reports that the state's deer farmers have hired a lobbying group to help push their assertion that they need to be reclassified. That push is headed by Tom Smith, the owner of one of the state's largest "captive cervid" operations with nearly 200 whitetail deer and elk on his 60 acre facility in Rowan county. Smith is also the former CEO of the state's Food Lion retail chain and a well-known figure in state business and politics.

They make the case that not only is deer farming a legitimate agricultural endeavor, it's also one that puts otherwise unproductive land in depressed economic areas to good use.

The executive director of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission disagrees, calling for stricter regulations to contain CWD, "the Ebola of the deer community" and keep it out of North Carolina.

Hunters, farmers and legislators appear divided on the issue nationwide and North Carolina isn't an exception there either. A task force was convened on the question, but couldn't agree on what to do next. When that effort stalled, the North Carolina Deer and Elk Farmers Association hired lobbyists to advocate for their position.

And at least one state representative says there "will" be legislation proposed to move deer farmers from wildlife to agricultural agency oversight.

As the fight over deer farming continues, we'll keep you posted.

--Jim Shepherd