State Politics

Restrictions on NC deer farms challenged

A white-tailed deer looks out over the Blue Ridge Parkway near Biltmore Forest, N.C. A North Carolina man is contesting the state's 12-year-old ban on commercial operations that sell white-tailed deer or elk as part of a small industry that wants to expand here.
A white-tailed deer looks out over the Blue Ridge Parkway near Biltmore Forest, N.C. A North Carolina man is contesting the state's 12-year-old ban on commercial operations that sell white-tailed deer or elk as part of a small industry that wants to expand here. AP

A North Carolina man is contesting the state’s 12-year-old freeze on commercial operations that sell white-tailed deer or elk as part of a small industry that wants to expand here.

Michael Ellington applied for a captivity license to start a white-tailed deer and elk farm, but the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission said it wasn’t accepting applications for those animals.

This week, Ellington filed a petition for a contested case with the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings, which is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit against a state agency. Ellington’s petition says the wildlife agency’s response was vague, arbitrary, wrong and didn’t follow proper procedure.

“The reason we have an independent Office of Administrative Hearings is issues like this can be taken out of the agencies’ internal sandbox and they can be required to specifically state the reasons why this permit shouldn’t be issued; and if can’t they should issue it,” said Ellington’s attorney, Michael C. Byrne of Raleigh.

A spokesman for the Wildlife Resources Commission said Wednesday that it hadn’t yet received the petition and couldn’t comment.

The small deer farming industry in North Carolina has recently begun trying to grow. The animals are raised and sometimes bred to sell as game and for their meat and antlers. For the past 12 years, there has been a moratorium on the operations, prompted by concerns about a potentially devastating disease that has spread in some states through these farms.

Deer farmers argue that they have proven the enterprise is safe, since the affliction – chronic wasting disease – has not been found in North Carolina. There are currently permits for 786 deer and elk in the state, held by 36 owners. Most of the farms have fewer than 10 animals each; only three farmers have more than 75.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly authorized the wildlife commission to resume issuing permits for captive North Carolina deer, and beginning in 2017 to allow the importing of deer from other states. In response, the Wildlife Resources Commission approved temporary rules to accomplish that, but prohibited new permits for white-tailed deer and elk, citing unspecified “potential legal barriers.”

There are an estimated 1.35 million white-tailed deer in North Carolina, and they are the most often hunted of any game species here. Some hunting and conservation advocates who are opposed to deer farms say the animals are protected by a “public trust” doctrine that prevents them from being used in private enterprises. There also are legal questions about whether white-tailed deer can be sold at all, since they are classified as game.

The wildlife commission has asked the governor’s office and the state attorney general’s office to review the legal issues involved in public trust law, according to an email last week from the commission to Ellington that is included in his petition.

Ellington’s petition says that if public trust resources include species native to North Carolina, that hasn’t been a barrier in the past. Licenses or permits have been issued for bobwhite quail, ringneck pheasants and different species of ducks, foxes and bobcats, the petition says.

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