Two generations ago, white-tailed deer were scarce. Now deer are so abundant hunters and nature-watchers alike enjoy seeing them almost everywhere. However, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission proposal to relax restrictions on deer farms could change that.
Chronic Wasting Disease is decimating deer populations in at least 22 states. The commission found no CWD present during last season’s testing, which it performs every five years. One way the disease is spread is by deer farms that unknowingly import infected deer. North Carolina remains CWD-free because it has only 37 deer farms and a moratorium against new ones. However, a provision of the 2014 Budget Act (Oversight of Cervids; Senate Bill 744; Section 14.26) will force the commission to issue permits for an unlimited number of new deer farms.
“Legal guidance I received is we now must allow new captivity licenses to establish deer farms,” said Gordon Myers, the commission’s executive director. “The compromise language also requires that we align our deer captivity rules with USDA standards for CWD.”
One provision prevents importation of any cervids, hoofed animals like deer and elk that may carry CWD, until 2017. That is only three years away, and once the CWD genie is out of the bottle, there is no way to put it back. It appears the agency and its board of commissioners knew that when they established rules for deer farms, which contain some of the strictest testing requirements in the nation.
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The legislature’s first pass at relaxing those restrictions was an attempt at removing deer farms from commission oversight and giving permitauthority to the N.C. Department of Agriculture. When that did not occur, the result was the provision passed in the 2014 Budget Act that forces the commission to rewrite those protective rules.
Dick Hamilton, former executive director of the commission, is now the N.C. Wildlife Federation’s Camouflage Coalition coordinator. The Camouflage Coalition is the federation’s outreach arm to sportsmen.
Hamilton said deer farm proponents want to expand in North Carolina because, since it is CWD-free, they can export deer to other states for people to shoot them behind high fences, a practice is illegal in North Carolina because the state’s hunters and the commission consider it unethical. Deer farms also raise fallow and red deer for their antlers, which have decorative value.
“CWD is 100 percent fatal,” Myers said. “However, it may take an infected deer years to show symptoms,” Myers said. “Deer populations with CWD suffer a long-term decay, reducing the age structure and overall herd health.”
The threat is from someone bringing in a deer with CWD from another state, not deer farming itself. It comes from a desire to mix genetics to produce animals of superior quality. Under the proposed rules changes, the only source of deer for North Carolina farms will be animals already in the state for three years, and after that only animals certified CWD-free can be imported. However, opponents fear that the temptation to import “super bucks” to bolster in-state deer genetics will be too great to resist because CWD spread to other states that way and that testing protocols will continue to provide inadequate protection beyond that time.
If a CWD-positive animal is found in North Carolina, the CWD Response Plan includes having sharpshooters and hunters shoot large numbers of deer inside a 5-mile radius containment area for testing and control, establishing check stations and other rules. Feeding and baiting deer will be prohibited. (www.ncwildlife.org/portals/0/Hunting/Documents/ChronicWastingDiseaseResponsePlan.pdf).
However, Hamilton said establishing containment areas has not stopped the spread of CWD in other states and, while North Carolina’s deer farmers generate income of no more than a few million dollars, white-tailed deer hunting is a $1 billion industry.
Joe Hamilton is founder and senior advisor of the Quality Deer Management Association. He said the cost to sportsmen only climbs higher the deeper they dig.
“The cost of monitoring these captive deer farms in other states is staggering and it is not borne by the deer farms, but by the sportsmen of those states and any federal dollars they receive cannot be used for that purpose,” he said. “A deer farm pays only $50 for a license. Deer farmers have everything to gain from this and deer hunters have everything to lose.”