NC deer farmers, hunters battle over regulation of growing herds

A deer feeds at Clear View Whitetails in Markleville, Ind., which breeds deer for the hunting market.
A deer feeds at Clear View Whitetails in Markleville, Ind., which breeds deer for the hunting market. The Star

North Carolina deer farmers, who breed the animals to sell as game and for their meat and antlers, are making a high-profile push to expand their industry, pushing for more permits and less-onerous regulation.

Hunters and wildlife conservationists, who fear the growth of deer farms puts the state’s wildlife at risk for a deadly disease, are pushing back.

Emotions spilled out in public last week when the farmers’ side of the dispute was aired in a legislative committee meeting chaired by a state legislator openly sympathetic to their cause. The state’s deer farmers, sensing an opening in the Republican-controlled General Assembly’s anti-regulatory climate, have found new voice in what has been a 12-year fight.

The farmers have organized, claiming state wildlife officers have used storm-trooper tactics to kill their animals to test them for disease and that the hunters and conservationists have exaggerated the risks.

Leading the charge is Tom Smith, the wealthy former CEO of Food Lion and a regular contributor to political campaigns. He heads a statewide association of deer and elk farmers, which has hired an influential lobbying firm in Raleigh. Smith, who lives in Salisbury, has one of the state’s largest “captive cervid” operations; state records show he has almost 200 white-tailed deer and elk on 60 acres in Rowan County. Cervids are the family of deer, elk and moose.

They hope to persuade the legislature to allow new farms to open and to move regulation of the industry from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. They argue the animals are livestock and not wildlife – a position strongly opposed by the other side.

The deer industry is still small in North Carolina, but in some other states it has grown rapidly over the past few decades, and national interests are watching closely. Advocates say it provides a profitable way to use small and otherwise unproductive land in economically struggling rural areas.

“That’s what this is about,” said Shawn Schafer, who runs the North American Deer Farmers Association from his home and farm in North Dakota. “It’s not a slam against the wildlife agency. I think the wildlife agency has done a phenomenal job managing the wildlife in North Carolina. But they’re not doing a very good job of growing this diversified, alternative livestock industry in North Carolina.”

Gordon Myers, executive director of the Wildlife Resources Commission, disagrees. He and conservationists say regulations must be kept strict to ensure the feared “chronic wasting disease” – which the former dean of N.C. State University’s natural resources college calls “the Ebola of the deer community” – remains out of North Carolina.

“Introduction and subsequent spread of this insidious disease could start a long-term and irreversible decay of North Carolina’s white-tailed deer and elk, both of which are public trust resources,” Myers said.

A growing industry

Deer farming has grown rapidly around the country over the past few decades. An investigation by the Indianapolis Star this year found there are at least 10,000 farms and hunting preserves in the United States and Canada. They often fall into gaps between state agriculture and wildlife regulators, the newspaper found.

As the industry has grown, chronic wasting disease has been found in 22 states. The disease is fatal and there is no test for it in live animals. It remains in the soil even after the sick animal is gone.

Deer raised on the farms are selectively bred to produce unnaturally large racks, which appeal to some hunters. The antlers are also sold for a variety of uses, including dog chews and pills touted for healing, muscle growth and sexual potency.

Urine is sold to hunters to attract game, semen from trophy deer is sold to farmers and breeders, and venison meat is sent to specialty stores. The breeding industry in Oklahoma claims to bring in more than $200 million a year to that state’s economy.

Large bucks are sold to hunting preserves, high-fenced pens where hunters can shoot their pick of deer. Hunting preserves are illegal in North Carolina except on the Cherokee Indian land in the western corner of the state.

Brad Hoxit has about 100 white-tailed deer on a farm in Transylvania County and organizes hunts on the Cherokee preserve. He said the potential to expand the market in North Carolina is certain. And he disputes the argument that this is a fight between farmers and hunters.

“There are thousands of deer hunters who support deer farming,” Hoxit said. “There are thousands of North Carolina deer hunters that go to hunting preserves out of state and kill white tail deer and elk.”

Slow start here

But during the past 12 years, deer farming has had a rough time getting established in North Carolina.

In 2002, concerns about chronic wasting disease increased around the country as the disease spread from the West. There were 110 people with permits for captive cervids in North Carolina at the time, and officials realized there were no restrictions on bringing deer in or sending them out of state, no requirements for fencing, no testing of dead animals.

The Wildlife Resources Commission was given the authority to regulate them, and it spent about $250,000 buying thousands of captive deer and killing them, giving the meat to charities. That winnowed the farms considerably, and they have been diminishing ever since. State records show there are currently 36 permits for 786 deer and elk. Only three farmers have more than 75 cervids, and 26 of the farms have fewer than 10 animals each.

In 2012, wildlife officials proposed allowing deer to be imported to North Carolina from herds that have been under federal compliance for five years and had no signs of chronic wasting disease. New rules would have allowed new and expanded farms.

But then a deer was found to have contracted the disease at a Pennsylvania deer farm, from a herd that had been certified for nine years. That put the brakes on opening up the industry here.

“That same deer could have come into North Carolina,” said Dick Hamilton, who was executive director of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission at the time.

A task force with representatives from the different interests convened but couldn’t agree on what to do next. That’s where the issue stalled until this year, when the N.C. Deer and Elk Farmers Association, which has been around since 2002, hired lobbyists.

They succeeded in getting the state House to include in its budget – rather than in a separate bill where it could have been more fully discussed – transferring regulation to the agriculture department and easing restrictions. The Senate didn’t go along with that provision. However, the final state budget allowed for importing deer beginning in 2017, and said new permits could be issued for captive deer farms in North Carolina.

Because of that law, the Wildlife Resources Commission last month approved temporary rules prohibiting new permits for importing white-tailed deer and elk, citing potential legal challenges.

“Any new deer facility is a risk,” said Hamilton, who is a lobbyist for the N.C. Wildlife Federation. “Regardless of how small it is, it’s too big to gamble our deer resources.”

‘These are not farms’

Chronic wasting disease is neurological and devastating to infected deer. “It causes a characteristic spongy degeneration of the brains of infected animals resulting in emaciation, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions and death,” says a national group called the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance.

Videos on the group’s website portray infected animals in a bedraggled, wasted-away state and struggling to stand. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers believe the disease is spread by animal-to-animal contact or by exposure to contaminated feed, ground or water.

There’s no evidence of human vulnerability, the federal agency says.

Schafer, from the national deer farmer association, contends the risk to deer is overblown and said opponents are relying on “armchair biologists” and not real science. He said most of the deer in North Carolina don’t live long enough to contract the disease.

“There are very few really old deer in North Carolina,” he said. “The sportsmen do a wonderful job of whacking them. What they don’t, the Chevys and Fords do.”

But Robert Brown, former dean of the College of Natural Resources at NCSU and former president of The Wildlife Society, has researched captive deer. In a letter to the House committee, he said chronic wasting disease posed a grave threat that could kill deer, cost taxpayers a lot of money to try to control it after the fact, and threaten the $20 million in excise taxes the state collects each year from the hunting economy.

Randy Raney said he’s equal parts hunter and conservationist, boasting hundreds of deer kills done according to a proper sportsman’s code. To him that means contempt for deer farms; he’s fighting them and penned hunts across the country.

“I have been for 30 years strongly opposed to deer pens,” the native North Carolinian said. “I’m not going to give them the benefit of calling them deer farms. These are not farms.”

Raney now lives in Florida, but he talks of returning to the Tar Heel State – likely its mountains – to enjoy its lush nature and good hunting.

“I don’t want to come back up and find chronic wasting disease,” he said. “I really don’t.”

Legislation is coming

The farmer lobby hopes to build on its gains in the next legislative session and will try again to move regulation to agriculture.

Rep. Roger West, a Republican from Marble in Cherokee County, said there will be legislation stripping deer farms from the wildlife commission’s authority.

“I would author that in a heartbeat,” West said. “I think that’s one way to resolve the issue so maybe these people can move forward.”

West is chairman of the House committee that oversees the Wildlife Resources Commission. The committee was formed by House Speaker Thom Tillis but has had only one meeting – the one last week when wildlife commission officials were criticized by farmers and not allowed to speak.

The hunters and conservationists are ready to fight any attempt to move deer farms from under the commission’s control and say they will begin by trying to convince the next speaker of the House not to reappoint that committee, which expires when the new session begins. They intend to make a legal argument that the farms illegally take a public resource for personal gain.

They say they have thousands of hunters in the state – a potential political voting bloc – who will rally to their support. The other side also has its resources.

Smith, who contributes regularly to campaigns, gave at least $15,600 to N.C. Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler between 2000 and 2012. His campaign has been one of the most consistent individual recipients of Smith’s money in the state.

Smith also donated $1,000 to West roughly a month before the committee meeting. West said he has no allegiance to Smith. The Nov. 18 committee meeting marked the “first time I’ve ever met the gentleman,” West said.

West said there might not be any effective way of stopping chronic wasting disease from reaching the state if white-tailed deer carry it. Even if the law keeps them from being imported, deer cross state lines as they please.

“It’s here,” West said. “We just don’t know it.”