A sweeping agriculture bill that would change how the state oversees the controversial deer farming industry is moving closer to the House floor.
Sponsors hope the provision will make peace between the state and its deer farming industry, which for more than a decade has complained of state over-regulation and fearmongering related to what some wildlife officials call the “Ebola” of deer and elk herds.
The provision, in the 24-page Farm Act of 2015 – a Senate-approved package that cleared a House checkpoint Tuesday – would transfer oversight of deer farms from the state Wildlife Resources Commission to the Department of Agriculture, a move deer farmers applaud.
They raise and sell deer for game, meat or antler products, and are keen to expand their economic footprint in North Carolina. But they say WRC has suppressed them with unfair or outright harsh treatment.
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During a legislative committee meeting last November, lawmakers heard testimony about wildlife officers storming an Asheboro deer farm and hastily shooting animals determined to be unpermitted. And the number of deer farms has plummeted over the past dozen years after WRC buyouts and moratoria on new operations.
The farmers have alleged that WRC is bent on driving captive deer operations out of business in North Carolina with inflated concerns about a cervid-killing neurological affliction called chronic wasting disease.
Cervids are an animal family including white-tailed deer and some breeds of elk. WRC says the concern is real, and that the disease can easily travel among cervids – it can live in the soil for years – but deer farmers have contended the fear is overblown and that it can exist in the wild without influence from captive herds or escapees.
Chronic wasting disease, comparable to mad cow disease, has been detected in more than 20 U.S. states and Canadian provinces, according to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries of Virginia, one of the disease-positive states. There are no known cases of it in North Carolina, but its presence could be detrimental to wild herds and hunting, a big-money industry WRC oversees.
Past concerns have involved deer farmers importing out-of-state deer that may be infected.
That’s currently prohibited and would continue to be under the Farm Act, but some are wary that any change in law to favor deer farm growth could lead to illegal imports, and subsequently disease.
“Is it really worth taking this risk?” Bob Brown, a vice chairman of the N.C. Wildlife Federation, asked the House Agriculture Committee during a review of the bill Tuesday.
Under the bill, WRC would continue regulation of wild populations and hunting. The Agriculture Department would regulate the production, sale, possession and transportation of farmed cervids and could make rules related to captivity permits. The proposal would continue the ban on out-of-state cervids until the establishment of a federally approved wasting-disease test that can be performed on live cervids.
That doesn’t exist yet; only a post-mortem test does.
WRC Executive Director Gordon Myers said he supports the bill for its new safeguards, and his agency would maintain a law enforcement aspect.
Any live farmed cervid transported on a public road would be subject to WRC inspection to ensure that the animal has proper permits. State records show 37 deer farms online today, but that’s a number whittled down from a decade ago, when WRC spent $250,000 buying out operations and enforced moratoria on new ones.
According to WRC, there were 190 farms, more than half of them unlicensed, in 2002. Because the Agriculture Department deals with farms, meat and veterinary issues such as disease, deer farmers say they’d be better represented there. Brad Hoxit, president-elect of the N.C. Deer and Elk Farmers Association, noted the Agriculture Department also has farm-product promotion programs that could help the industry flourish.
“We can grow and become an economic driver for our state,” Hoxit told the committee.
But Rep. William Brisson, D-Bladen, wasn’t convinced on the transfer.
During committee debate, he reiterated that North Carolina is free of wasting-disease cases, “so obviously (WRC has) done a pretty good job.” With that in mind, he warned against the transfer.
If a case of the cervid disease pops up after the Agriculture Department assumes regulation, deer farmers and hunters alike could blame the transition.
“It becomes a big liability,” said Brisson.
The Farm Act passed the Senate in May. The House committee gave it support in a split vote on Tuesday, with a few non-deer-related amendments, and sent it on to the House Finance Committee for further review. If the full House passes it, the Senate would have to agree to any changes before it could go to the governor for signing.
The bill additionally touches federal standards for wood heaters, the speed limit for agricultural spreader vehicles and the development of a pilot American Eel Aquaculture Plan.
Benjamin Brown writes for the NCInsider.com, a government news service owned by The News & Observer. www.ncinsider.com