The governing board of the state's wildlife agency is looking into criticism that officers have been too aggressive in protecting deer and bears in North Carolina.
The 19-member board agreed Tuesday to ask the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission for a written report on the issues, following a pair of legislative committee meetings where the agency staff wasn't invited to speak.
Gordon Myers, the executive director, said the report will offer the board information to help them examine the controversies. The intent is to balance what so far has been a one-sided public discussion, a spokesman added.
Wildlife officers have been accused of overreacting to the threat of a disease that has never been detected in North Carolina by clamping down on farms where deer are raised. In recent years, the agency has resisted efforts to expand the industry and has killed thousands of deer to test them for chronic waste disease. It cannot be tested in live animals, and it is incurable, fatal and potentially spread by commercial operations. The deer are raised to stock game preserves, for their antlers and other products.
Deer farmers were vocal in their criticism of Wildlife Resources at a meeting in Raleigh last month and in Stecoah on Monday. But the majority of Monday's meeting in Graham County was devoted to airing complaints about a bear-poaching undercover investigation that ran for four years before it ended nearly two years ago.
Operation Something Bruin was conducted by the North Carolina wildlife agency, its Georgia counterpart and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Agents said they infiltrated poaching rings, which led to scores of arrests. Many were convicted, but several cases were dismissed. Seven men are still awaiting trial in federal court.
Suspects' families said the agents entrapped them into committing crimes and used strong-arm tactics when they searched their homes.
Rep. Susan Martin, a Republican from Wilson who is on the House committee looking into the wildlife agency, said she was bothered by what she heard about the bear operation at Monday's meeting.
"The testimony was rather disturbing," Martin said Tuesday. "There's definitely an interest in making sure citizens are respected. It sounds like they were not."
North Carolina commissioners are moving forward with new rules regulating deer farms, as required in legislation enacted earlier this year. The law allows new permits to be issued for the first time in a dozen years, and for deer to be imported into the state beginning in 2017.
The commission previously excluded white-tail deer and elk from the new law, because they are the animals most likely to carry the disease. Public hearings will be held in January before the rules are adopted.
Deer farmers say they have proven the industry is safe, since there hasn't been an outbreak here. There are currently permits for 786 deer and elk. Concerns are growing in other states that have much larger and more established farms.
Two weeks ago Ohio officials issued an order to kill about 300 deer on a farm and hunting preserve after one of its animals tested positive for the disease. On Oct. 29, the Northeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies issued a statement saying they were "extremely concerned" about the disease, noting it has appeared in five states within its region, including Virginia and West Virginia. The association recommends restricting or shutting down deer farms and halting or restricting sales of deer products.
Rep. Roger West, a Republican who represents four counties in the western corner of the state, couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday. He chairs the state House committee that was formed to look into a range of issues related to the Wildlife Resources Commission.