Deer Farming in North Carolina

Deer Farming in North Carolina
NCWF weighs in on the link between captive deer and elk—and wildlife disease.

NCWF’s Camo Coalition Coordinator Dick Hamilton and NCWF board member Bob Brown were invited to participate in meetings of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s Cervid Disease Task Force.
The task force was to survey the safeguards and vulnerabilities in North Carolina to cervid diseases, both in captive facilities and in the wild. The primary concern is Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).

CWD is classified as a Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE) disease, much like Mad Cow Disease in cattle, Scrapie in sheep, and Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease in humans. It was first detected in 1967 at Colorado State University, in captive deer held in a pen next to sheep with Scrapie. In the 1980s it was found in wild mule deer and elk in Colorado and Wyoming. Through the 1990s it spread to Saskatchewan, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Montana. In the next decade CWD continued its march to a number of other states. Shipping captive deer and elk across state lines caused many of these outbreaks. The disease is fatal, there is no treatment or cure, and there is no test available for live animals. Since it involves a type of prion, or modified protein, the disease contaminates the soil and persists for long periods under extreme conditions.

In November, 2012 the NCWRC was set to vote on new rules for captive cervids in North Carolina. The proposed rules would allow for importation of cervids to captive facilities, reduction in the requirement for testing dead animals, and expansion of current facilities and licensing of new deer farms. As the vote was about to be taken, CWD was found in captive deer at a Pennsylvania deer farm, where these rules were already in place. CWD has since been found in three distinct populations of wild deer in Pennsylvania.

In addition to Hamilton and Brown, the Task Force included representatives of the North American and N.C. Deer Farmer’s Associations, the N.C. Department of Agriculture, the N.C. State Veterinarian, the Quality Deer Management Association, and USDA-APHIS. Other attendees included representatives of the Southeast Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study at the University of Georgia, the N.C. Farm Bureau, other deer hunters and other deer farmers. A great deal of information was supplied in written form and via PowerPoint presentations and videos concerning CWD and the deer hunting and deer farming industries.

Some of the facts presented are startling. Forty-nine percent of the mule deer in Wyoming have tested positive for CWD, and the state herd has declined by 50 percent over 10 years. Wisconsin spent $25 million on CWD-related activities in 2002-2006, yet hunting license sales have declined 10 percent. Virginia has spent $180,000 per year since CWD was detected. North Carolina spent $250,000 on a buy-out program that reduced the number of captive deer facilities from over 100 to 37. There are now 777 captive cervids in North Carolina, of which 240 are white-tailed deer and 74 are elk; the rest are exotic cervids. In 2006, North Carolina resident deer hunters spent $187 million on retail purchases, supporting 3,408 jobs and $20 million in state tax revenue. They also spent $ 20 million on travel-related expenses. The cost of inspecting North Carolina deer farms comes from the funds generated by hunters through the Pittman-Robertson Act. The NCWRC conducts surveys for CWD every 5 years; so far in 2013-2014, it has tested 3,843 samples, mostly of hunter-killed deer and all deer that have died in pens. Final results of testing of these samples had not yet been released as of the publication of this report.

After three all-day meetings, the Task Force came to a consensus on only three issues.

1) The fines for illegally holding or importing deer are minuscule and need to be substantially increased.

2) The state rehabilitation program for fawn deer should be ceased.

3) The NCWRC should complete its 2013-2014 CWD survey before the Commission votes on the rules. Other than those issues, the proponents of keeping wild deer wild and CWD out of our state and those wanting to enhance deer farming were at odds.

The problem most of the proponents of maintaining strong requirements see is that native cervids are a public resource, owned by all of us. This is codified in the Public Trust Doctrine of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. In some states, like Texas, hunters pay for “access” to shoot a captive deer or elk, but the landowner does not actually own the animal. In Pennsylvania, landowners may fence their land, and then pay the state for the deer they have trapped. They actually “own” the deer, and the deer farms are regulated by the Department of Agriculture, not the state’s wildlife agency.

Though CWD has not been shown through research to transmit from one species (i.e., cervids) to another (I.e., bovids), it is believed to have originally come from sheep with Scrapie. Since it can be transferred from one cervid to another, captive exotic cervids, such as red deer and Sika deer, could transmit the disease to white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and moose. Currently in Texas, the state with the most captive cervids on hunting and breeding preserves, captive deer are managed with year-round feeding, vaccination, artificial insemination and even cloning (from ear cells). Breeding bucks sell for as much as $ 400,000. And these artificially inseminated or cloned so-called “Frankendeer” sell to hunters for tens of thousands of dollars. But even Texas does not allow the importation of cervids.

Although the captive facilities in North Carolina are mostly “certified” by the USDA, they may not be disease free. Certification means CWD has not been detected in any deer that have died in 5 consecutive years. The farm in Pennsylvania with the CWD animal had been certified for 9 years, so clearly the certification program is inadequate. For those of us who have had captive deer pens for research purposes, we know that accidents happen – trees fall across fences (especially during hurricanes), workers leave gates open, etc. Wild deer often get “nose to nose” with captive deer through the fences, especially during the rut. And any facility that concentrates wild animals, for whatever reason, is subject to disease outbreaks.

Of the 37 deer farms in North Carolina, 24 have 10 or fewer deer. Most are “mom and pop” operations with a few deer as pets. Only two farms have more than 50 deer. You can’t shoot a deer behind a fence in our state, and there are no venison processing facilities for commercial sale of white-tailed deer. Thus the deer farms can only sell their deer out of state. This is not a large industry. Allowing the importation of cervids and expansion of the industry would have no significant economic, sociological or ecological benefit to our native wildlife or our citizens.

At risk, however, are our entire white-tailed deer and elk populations. By not allowing these rule changes, we help protect a multi-million dollar hunting and wildlife-watching industry, our $9.2 billion animal agriculture industry, and we help to protect our cultural heritage of wildlife as a public resource.

Hamilton and Brown, along with other members of the Task Force, have submitted their comments to the NCWRC as individuals. Before the Rules are amended, the NCWRC will hold public hearings on the matter, and CAMO and the NCWF will submit their official position statements. We will support maintenance of strong rules to prevent importation of deer into North Carolina.

Dr. Brown is the former Dean of the College of Natural Resources (2006-2012) at NC State University and former President of The Wildlife Society. He is currently a Board Member of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation and a Professional Member of the Boone & Crockett Club.

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