(Raleigh) Two human generations ago, white-tailed deer were scarce. Now, good old days are here, with deer so abundant hunters and nature-watchers alike enjoy seeing them everywhere. However, a N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission proposal to relax restrictions on deer farms could set back the clock to the bad old days.

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is decimating deer populations in at least 22 states. The Commission found no CWD present during last season's testing, which it performs every five years. One way the disease is spread is by deer farms that unknowingly import infected deer. North Carolina remains CWD-free because it has only 37 deer farms and a moratorium against new ones. However, a provision of the 2014 Budget Act (Oversight of Cervids; Senate Bill 744; Section 14.26) will force the Commission to issue permits for an unlimited number of new deer farms.

"Legal guidance I received is we now must allow new captivity licenses to establish deer farms," said Gordon Myers, the Commission's Executive Director. "The compromise language also requires that we align our deer captivity rules with USDA standards for CWD."

One provision prevents importation of any cervids, hoofed animals like deer and elk that may carry CWD, until 2017. That is only three years away and once the CWD genie is out of the bottle, there is no way to put it back. It appears the agency and its board of commissioners knew that when they established rules for deer farms, which contain some of the strictest testing requirements in the nation. The legislature's first pass at relaxing those restrictions was an attempt at removing deer farms from Commission oversight and giving permitting authority to the N.C. Department of Agriculture. When that did not occur, the result was the provision passed in the 2014 Budget Act that forces the Commission to rewrite those protective rules.

Dick Hamilton, former Executive Director of the Commission, is now the N.C. Wildlife Federation's Camouflage Coalition Coordinator. The Camouflage Coalition is the federation's outreach arm to sportsmen.

"A few well-heeled individuals in the deer farming industry put pressure on the legislature because they want to have more deer farms," he said. "But the risk is too great for the state's 260,000 deer hunters because too much data on CWD hasn't been fully analyzed. The Commission wants to use a temporary rule. That is a flagrant misuse of the temporary rule-making process, which is supposed to be for emergencies. There is no emergency simply because someone wants to have another deer farm."

Dick Hamilton said deer farms want expand in North Carolina because, since it is CWD-free, they can export deer to other states for people to shoot them behind high fences, a practice is illegal in North Carolina because the state's hunters and the Commission consider it unethical. Deer farms also raise fallow and red deer for their antlers, which have decorative value.

What little biologists do know about CWD is that its causative agent is an out-of-the-ordinary protein or "prion" transmitted through direct contact. It may not be a living pathogen in the same sense as a virus or bacterium. Cause and effect are similar to mad cow disease in humans, resulting in brain degeneration. Once in the environment, CWD can infect deer for months, perhaps years.

"CWD is 100 percent fatal," Myers said. "However, it may take an infected deer years to show symptoms. Deer populations with CWD suffer a long-term and potentially irreversible decay that reduces age structure and overall herd health."

The threat is from someone bringing in a deer with CWD from another state, not deer farming itself. It comes from a desire to mix genetics to produce animals of superior quality. Under the proposed rules changes, the only source of deer for North Carolina farms will be animals already in the state for three years and after that, only animals certified CWD-free can be imported. However, opponents fear that the temptation to import "super bucks" to bolster in-state deer genetics will be too great to resist because CWD spread to other states that way and that testing protocols will continue to provide inadequate protection beyond that time.

If a CWD-positive animal is found in North Carolina, the CWD Response Plan includes having sharpshooters and hunters shoot large numbers of deer inside a 5-mile radius containment area for testing and control, establishing check stations and other onerous rules. Feeding and baiting deer will be prohibited. (www.ncwildlife.org/portals/0/Hunting/Documents/ChronicWastingDiseaseResponsePlan.pdf).

However, Dick Hamilton said establishing containment areas has not stopped the spread of CWD in other states and, while North Carolina's deer farmers generate income of no more than a few million dollars, white-tailed deer hunting is a $1 billion industry.

Joe Hamilton is founder and senior advisor of the Quality Deer Management Association. He said the cost to sportsmen only climbs higher the deeper they dig.

"The cost of monitoring these captive deer farms in other states is staggering and it is not borne by the deer farms, but by the sportsmen of those states and any federal dollars they receive cannot be used for that purpose," he said. "A deer farm pays only $50 for a license. Deer farmers have everything to gain from this and deer hunters have everything to lose."

Public hearings for temporary rules for the NCWRC's Captive Cervids Licenses and Permits Proposal:

  • Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. at Iredell County Extension Center, 444 Bristol Dr. Statesville, NC.
  • Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. at N.C. Wildlife Commission Headquarters, 1751 Varsity Dr. Raleigh, NC.

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