One by one Tuesday morning, deer farmers stood before state lawmakers to accuse the state Wildlife Resources Commission of targeting their industry, unfairly stoking fears about a disease fatal to white-tailed deer and being overly aggressive while raiding farms with un-permitted deer.
“I had to go get nerve pills. I stayed up for days. My wife cried for weeks,” Asheboro deer farmer Wayne Kindley told a House committee of a 2011 visit wildlife commission officials paid to his farm. He said they hastily shot nine of his deer they had determined were unlicensed and treated him and his wife “like criminals.”
“You guys need to put a check on Wildlife,” Kindley on Tuesday told the committee that oversees the operations of the wildlife commission, a state government agency the legislature created in 1947 to sustain fish and wildlife and regulate sportsmen activities such as hunting.
In all, five farmers and one wildlife manager spoke at the meeting, which follows a late-October vote from the commission to exempt white-tailed deer or elk from a new state law lifting a moratorium on deer farms.
North Carolina has 37 farms that raise deer for their antlers and meat and to sell outside the state for hunting.
The decision to keep the moratorium on white-tailed deer and elk has pitted deer farmers, who want to expand their herds and build a bigger industry, against hunters who are worried that such expansion could introduce disease into the state’s deer population. Hunters had pushed to exclude white-tailed deer and elk because of their vulnerability to chronic wasting disease, a fatal and contagious affliction comparable to mad cow disease.
Neither members of the commission nor its supporters had the chance to speak at the meeting, though the commission’s executive director, Gordon Myers, afterward rebutted the claim that his agency is attacking the industry.
“The wildlife commission is focused on risk management for disease introduction and transmission,” Myers said.
While confirmed in other states, North Carolina has no known cases of chronic wasting disease, and Myers said he wants to keep it that way. State law currently forbids the commission from issuing permits to bring out-of-state deer or elk into North Carolina before July 2017 to prevent importing the disease.
A map current as of October from the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance shows at least 14 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces with confirmed cases of the disease in captive populations. Additional states have seen wild deer infected.
Carl “Skip” West, third vice-president of the North American Deer Farmers Association, said there’s no evidence of captive deer infecting wild deer. The wild is where the disease originates, he said.
Speaking to the WRC oversight committee Tuesday, West suggested North Carolina would be wise to loosen up on deer farms for their ability to provide hard workers a living and improve the economy.
Jon Charles, a deer biologist and president of Delta Wildlife Management, told the committee that chronic wasting disease fears are overblown in North Carolina when it comes to deer farms and that he has tried on numerous occasions to educate the Wildlife Resource Commission but never hears back.
“A lot of the (WRC) commissioners – well, obviously all the commissioners – they don’t have any experience in the captive cervid (deer) industry,” Charles said.
Tommy Hall, a Union County deer farmer, told the committee he too has tried to impress upon commissioners that the disease threat is exaggerated. He said some are engaging in “fear mongering, nonfactual information and lies.”
Rules have worked
But Dick Hamilton, a former director of the wildlife commission, who is now coordinator of the Camo Coalition, a network of sportsmen under the N.C. Wildlife Federation, said after the meeting that the state’s tight eye on the disease is why North Carolina is free of it. “There’s still deer farmers, and they’re still making a living,” he said.
But there aren’t nearly as many deer farms as there used to be in North Carolina, said Tom Smith, the retired CEO of Food Lion who now presides over the N.C. Deer and Elk Farmer’s Association. That’s because, in part, of the wildlife commission’s buying out deer farmers and to a moratorium on new ones (now lifted by the language in the state’s current budget), he said. Today, there are 37 permitted deer farms in the state.
Smith and associates have urged the legislature to strip the commission of deer farm authority and place it within the N.C. Department of Agriculture.
“We are farmers. It should be under the agricultural department,” Smith said. “It would seem North Carolina Wildlife would realize this and recommend that we be transferred to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. Instead, they have fought every attempt.”
Committee members raised questions Tuesday but directed them only to the six speakers, keeping the commission or other parties from rebutting. That concerned Rep. Ken Waddell, a Chadbourn Democrat.
“We’ve heard the comments of deer farmers,” he said. “Are we going to be able to hear from folks who might have opposition to deer farmers?”
Rep. Roger West, a Marble Republican and the committee’s chairman, wasn’t eager.
“Well, you know some of the things I’ve heard at my end of the state, I’m not sure I want to hear from them,” he said. “That’s intimidation, and I don’t want to be intimidated in this committee.”
“Well, I don’t want to be intimidated,” Waddell replied. “But I want to get all the facts together.”
Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat from Wagram, called the farmers’ comments shocking.
“If this is true, we need an investigation,” he said.
But it’s not the full picture, Myers said. “This meeting provided, I would say, a single perspective.”
Benjamin Brown writes for NCInsider.com, a government news service owned by The News & Observer.