WASHINGTON, Jan. 18, 2017 - So far, farm organizations have watched from the sidelines as captive deer and elk operations expand against mounting challenges by sportsmen, wildlife groups, animal health agencies, conservationists, and others.

In North America, the idea of breeding captive cervids (deer, elk, reindeer, moose), for meat production or as targets in commercial shooting preserves began nearly a half-century ago as supplemental income schemes by small landholders.

But by the time Texas A&M University researchers did a nationwide survey on such operations 10 years ago, they found penned-up cervids (mostly white-tail deer) on 7,828 farms, including 1,000 each in Texas and Pennsylvania. Amish farmers, with 1,600 sites, had long been keeping deer as an alternative or supplemental meat source. Also, a 2013 tally of 37 of the contiguous states (omitting the West) by the Quality Deer Management Association found 6,350 deer breeding farms and shooting preserves.

“We did that first [2006-2007] study when the industry was growing quickly,” but when most of the venison sold at retail in the U.S. was being imported from New Zealand, said David Anderson. He is the Texas A&M agricultural economist who headed the earlier study and who is completing a follow-up survey with the help of the North American Deer Farmers Association and the Texas Deer Association.

Anderson doesn’t have new tallies yet on cervid farms or their deer herds, but says he expects to find “expansion in the type of products” produced on such farms. That will include antlers, breeding stock, semen, doe urine (to attract bucks) besides venison and live animals for private shooting preserves. So his survey, slated for release possibly in April, is also gathering data on growth in “agribusinesses that supply that industry – feed stores, fencing . . .  equipment, stuff like that.”

The burgeoning industry is getting noticed. “I will tell you, through the last few years, captive cervid issues, and the disease implications that go with them, have been front and center in a number of our states,” says Ron Regan, executive director of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Broadly speaking, he says, the controversies around raising captive wildlife on farms are in two areas. One issue is that fencing wild species in small areas promotes the spread of diseases and risks transmitting diseases from captive wildlife and domestic livestock and free-ranging wildlife. Thus, hunting and wildlife groups see the captive herds as a serious health threat to wild herds, and many states prohibit the commingling of wild deer with captive deer.

The other issue is that putting wildlife in pens for easy shooting is the antithesis of American sportsmen’s traditional reverence for “fair chase” hunting, and it separates thousands of deer and elk from traditional state-sanctioned public hunting so they can be high-priced trophies to be shot in pens.

With cervid farming, Regan says, “You end up having two completely different sets of constituents . . . farm-diversification and property-rights folks. Then (on the other side) you have your hunters, anglers and conservationists concerned about fencing in wildlife and the disease implications of transporting and holding deer.” That puts farmers and ranchers on both sides of the issue: some breeding deer and running hunting preserves themselves; others, wanting, instead, to promote and protect healthy, free-ranging wild cervids on their land.

Meanwhile, state and provincial agencies, Regan points out, are charged with protecting fish and wildlife species as a public trust. “In most states, the law ends up defining critters as domestic or wild,” he says. “Things that get called domestic become the purview of the state ag agencies; things that are called wild become the purview of the fish and wildlife agencies. So anything that takes an animal defined as a wild animal in state statute and turns it into a private property . . . catches the attention of fish and wildlife agencies.”

State legislatures in some states have taken to arguing that same question – wildlife or farm animal – for cervids. States and Canadian provinces require hunting permits to shoot deer and many of them define deer as wild animals and prohibit holding them captive. In recent years, however, wildlife and sportsman groups fought back efforts in the Missouri and Tennessee legislatures to accommodate deer farming, while lawmakers in West Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina joined the ranks of states promoting captive deer operations.

Major farmer and rancher organizations tell Agri-Pulse they take no positions either pro or con on captive cervids issues, though Kathy Simmons, chief veterinarian for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, says her organization “recognizes the potential risk of the transmission of some diseases from wildlife species to cattle, and as such, supports surveillance and disease research on wildlife populations . . .” Lia Biondo, spokesperson for the United States Cattlemen’s Association, expressed a like view. Meanwhile, “We’ve not said a word about any of that,” Will Rodger, policy communications director for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said of the topic.

For ranchers, one significant factor is that, although dangerous diseases such as pneumonia and brucellosis move readily between wildlife and domestic livestock, cattle are not susceptible to chronic wasting disease (CWD) – the lethal cervid disorder now getting a lot of attention by wildlife groups. Further, USDA and state animal health agencies cooperate in a Cervid Health Program that tracks and tries to prevent transmission of CWD, polices interstate transport of deer and elk, and so forth.

It is worth noting that one wildlife species raised on ranches – American bison – are, like cattle, not vulnerable to CWD. Further, bison resist most diseases that sicken cattle, says Dave Carter, president of the National Bison Association, and face few disease threats from wildlife. Cattle and bison are both free of brucellosis, he notes, except that infected elk in the Yellowstone Park pose a risk for that disease to bison there. Also he says, bison ranchers have found that they must keep their herds at a distance from flocks of sheep, which can infect bison with a deadly disease called malignant catarrhal fever.


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