Ryan Sabalow, firstname.lastname@example.org July 14, 2014
X-Factor, a deer owned by Indiana deer farmer Russ Bellar, was bred for his enormous antlers and used as a stud in the fenced hunting industry. (Photo: Photo provided/Russ Bellar )
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon last week dealt a blow to the deer breeding and fenced hunting industry in what’s being called a bellwether case in the national debate over how to regulate a practice linked to the spread of disease.
Nixon vetoed legislation that would have transferred oversight of the state’s deer breeders from wildlife officials to Missouri’s agriculture department.
“White-tailed deer are wildlife, and they are also a game animal,” Nixon wrote in his veto message. “Putting them behind a fence does not change that fact.”
That’s the same argument made by Indiana wildlife officials who tried to shut down the state’s high-fence hunting operations a decade ago. And it’s expected to be part of the debate when Indiana lawmakers convene a summer study session on the subject in the coming weeks.
Wildlife advocates and deer breeders across the country — including those running Indiana’s 400 deer farms — have been watching the battle play out in Missouri. Operators of fenced-hunting ranches want to be regulated by agricultural officials to avoid tighter rules proposed by wildlife agencies.
Many state wildlife agencies are concerned about the risk of spreading disease, especially the always fatal deer ailment known as chronic wasting disease, as deer are shipped across state lines to be killed in the private preserves.
Those risks were uncovered this spring in an Indianapolis Star investigation that some wildlife researchers called the most comprehensive examination of the issues surrounding deer farming and high-fence hunting to date.
Chronic wasting disease, a brain disorder similar to mad cow, has been found in wild and farmed deer in 22 states. The Star’s investigation revealed that in half of those states, CWD was found first in a commercial deer operation. There is no live test for the disease, and wildlife officials across the country say escapes are common.
Because of such risks, 21 states have banned the importation of captive deer, saying they have been known to infect wild herds. Six members of Congress, citing The Star’s investigation, urged federal agricultural officials to ban the interstate movement of captive deer, saying a national industry, which breeds bucks with large antlers to be shot in “canned” hunts, isn’t worth the disease risks.
In Indiana, Senate President Pro Tempore David Long called for a study session, saying he would be willing to consider closing the state’s borders to deer imports. The session could start between the end of July and September.
In the wake of Nixon’s veto, wildlife advocates are waiting to see how the industry reacts and how aggressively it will push Missouri lawmakers to override it. They’re also waiting to see if the industry’s hiring of a public relations firm known for fighting tobacco bans, animal rights activists and fast-food calorie labels will be able to shape the debate, both in Missouri and in other states, including Indiana.
‘An acid test for a lot of other folks’
The $1 billion North American captive deer industry, consisting of 10,000 farms and hunting preserves, has enjoyed considerable lobbying clout in many states because it offers small landowners a lucrative alternative agricultural market. Some top breeding animals fetch six-figure prices, and it’s not uncommon for a big antlered “shooter” buck to sell for $10,000 or more.
The outcome of that debate in Missouri, a state where the hunting of wild deer contributes $1 billion to the economy, has added significance.
“It’s an acid test for a lot of other folks,” said Tom Draper, deputy director of Missouri’s wildlife agency. “How does a national industry weigh in, and what kind of money do they throw at it?”
Brian Murphy agreed. He’s the CEO of the Quality Deer Management Association, a Georgia-based white-tailed deer hunting and conservation group that’s critical of the interstate captive deer trade. “There’s no question,” he said, “that the outcome in Missouri will definitely impact moves in other states.”
As Missouri wildlife officials planned to add tougher disease rules, Missouri lawmakers slipped language into a pair of unrelated agricultural bills that transferred regulatory control of captive deer from the state’s wildlife department to agricultural officials. The deer would have been classified as livestock.
Industry leaders are lobbying to be regulated by agricultural officials because they consider their animals agricultural products. In many states, captive deer that are legally considered livestock can be hunted in fenced preserves without being subject to fair-chase hunting laws. They’re also exempt in many states from humane slaughter rules required for other agricultural animals.
Lawmakers supportive of the captive deer industry have inserted similar language into a spending bill in North Carolina.
Nixon wrote in his veto message that it was a shame he had to kill “worthy provisions advancing Missouri agriculture” in the portion of the bills that didn’t deal with deer, but it was necessary to kill the legislation to protect “long-standing successful conservation practices.”
Nixon spokesman Scott Holste told The Star last week that the Democratic governor also was concerned about CWD harming the state’s thriving 1.3 million wild white-tailed deer.
Shawn Schafer, executive director of the North American Deer Farmers Association, said his group hasn’t decided what to do next, but he said the farmers and ranchers in his group will fight to protect their livelihood.
“That’s what the industry is opposed to is the stifling of the industry,” Schafer said. “It is a legal business, in Missouri and Indiana and many other states. So that’s where we want to keep it.”
‘The battle lines are being drawn’
Brandon Butler, executive director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri, said he hopes other states follow Nixon’s example.
“I don’t think anybody likes to be pushed around by money-driven agendas,” he said.
The American Cervid Alliance, an industry association made up of 36 elk and deer breeding associations, announced in June it had hired Berman and Co., a national public relations firm, to change public perceptions of the industry and fight unfavorable legislative efforts.
The New York Times reports that the PR firm’s owner, Richard B. Berman, is known for creating official-sounding nonprofit groups such as the Center for Consumer Freedom to fight back against legislation his corporate clients don’t like, such as bans on indoor smoking and the push to restrict calorie counts in fast foods.
Clients’ messages often are promoted on websites that attack opponents.
For instance, the American Cervid Alliance noted that the firm created humanewatch.org, a website devoted to slamming the tactics of the Humane Society of the United States, an animal rights group opposed to the captive deer industry.
The firm also helps create op-eds to run in newspapers on behalf of its clients. The American Cervid Alliance already had at least one op-ed published in The Star, titled “Deer Farming Not a Threat to Wild Population.”
“The American Cervid Alliance would like to thank every person and association that helped retain our PR firm to make these opportunities possible,” the group wrote on its website linking to the op-ed.
Berman and Co. and the American Cervid Alliance didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
But Draper, the director of Missouri’s wildlife agency, said the captive deer industry already has begun a social media campaign aimed at overriding Nixon’s veto.
“The battle lines are being drawn,” Draper said. “It will be a vigorous fight, to say the least.”
A lobbyist for the Missouri Whitetail Breeders and Hunting Ranch Association could not be reached for comment.