Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Risky Business

A doe suffering from Chronic Wasting Disease
 Under existing Tennessee state law, it is illegal to transport live whitetail deer into the state and it is illegal to domesticate any whitetail deer, imported or native. That could all change if House Bill 1112 and its counterpart Senate Bill 1568 are voted into effect by the state legislature. The bill, titled “The Whitetail Deer Breeding and Farming Act” is aimed at legalizing the importation, farming, and commercial shooting of whitetail deer in the state of Tennessee.

If passed, the bill will require deer farmers to import all farmed deer from out-of-state sources and will allow those same deer to be shot in small enclosures by paying customers. Some use the term “canned hunt” to describe the harvest process, but I will not, because that activity has nothing to do with hunting. I prefer to call those operations canned shooting preserves.

The bill includes language intended to reduce the potential for introduction of disease, but in so doing, it creates a huge regulatory burden on the TWRA without providing adequate funding. If the bill passes, something will have to give. Either the TWRA will be financially incapable of providing the specified oversight, or it will be forced to divert resources from other activities.

Keep in mind, we the sportsmen of Tennessee, provided the funding years ago for the re-introduction of our present deer herd and today we fund the operation of the TWRA through our license fees and taxes on hunting and fishing gear. I, for one, don't want my contributions to be diverted away from the good work the agency does and certainly don't want to fund the policing of the activities of a few people who would willingly put our valuable wildlife resources at risk for their own personal gain.

As a Tennessean and as an avid hunter, my opposition to this legislation is twofold. First, I believe that legalizing the importation of whitetail deer opens the door to CWD, a very serious, very deadly disease that has the potential to wipe out our entire deer herd and our deer hunting heritage. Second, I believe that our hunting heritage is based on ethics and sportsmanship, not raising pen-raised animals to the shot by the highest bidder.

How the Bill is Being Presented (with my rebuttal)

Like many Tennessee hunters, I was unaware of the pending legislation until recently. Then, a couple weeks ago a member of TnDeer posted a link to this video of a presentation by a Texas deer farmer before the Tennessee House Agriculture Committee.

As I watched the testimony, my blood pressure began to rise as the presenter weaved numerous half-truths about the risks and benefits of deer farming and artfully dodged potentially contentious questions about canned shoots. But when the bill's sponsor, Rep. Frank Niceley, spoke after the formal presentation I really couldn't believe what I was hearing.

At 1:09:05 in the video, Rep Niceley addresses the audience and says, “I've been involved in the wild animal hauling business for the last ten or fifteen years and I have hauled deer to game preserves all over this country and you can't realize how much money is in this.” Wow! I guess that's what you call disclosure, but it leaves little doubt about his motive in sponsoring this bill, particularly since one of the stipulations is that any newly established farm has to import their stock from out of state.

At 1:09:38 Rep. Niceley says, “Tennessee was a pioneer in hunting preserves years ago, most people don't realize that.” Very true. Most people also don't realize that the current explosion of nuisance wild boar in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and on the Cumberland Plateau is a direct result of imported European Wild Boar escaping from those early hunting preserves.

The marauding pigs have cost us, the property owners and taxpayers of the state countless millions of dollars in property damage and eradication costs and it seems very unlikely that we will be able to control their numbers without significant additional spending. In fact on the Cumberland Plateau, year-round hunting seasons with unlimited daily bag limits have failed to stem the tide. The TWRA has now begun to pay for professionals to help with the eradication efforts.

Fast forward a week or so to this videotaped session of the House Conservation and Environment Subcommittee. In his opening remarks, Rep Niceley explains that this bill doesn't create deer farming. He says, “We've farmed deer in Tennessee longer than any living soul can remember. We farm every kind of deer in the world. We farm elk, moose, axis, sitka, fallow, you name it, muntjack, you name it. If it's a deer in the world, we can legally bring it in under strict health guidelines.” He goes on to say, “The only thing this bill does is add one kind of deer to all the other deer in the world that we can farm. It adds whitetail deer.” He then asks his opponents why, if we have been able to farm all those other types of deer, why can't they add just one, the whitetail.

Well, Rep. Niceley, that's an easy one. Because when deer farming was first allowed in the state, CWD had not been discovered. Furthermore, none of the species you mention have native herds roaming around outside the fences. Why does that make a difference? If a CWD-infected axis deer escapes, it is much less likely to transmit that disease to the native whitetail population than if the escaped deer is another whitetail.

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)

The transportation and confinement of whitetail deer can potentially lead to the transmission of a variety of nasty diseases into livestock and wildlife populations, but there is one disease that represents a clear and present danger to Tennessee's wild deer herd and to Tennessee's hunting tradition. That disease is called Chronic Wasting Disease or CWD for short.

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a transmissible neurological disease of deer and elk that produces small lesions in brains of infected animals. It is characterized by loss of body condition, behavioral abnormalities and it always results in death. CWD is classified as a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE), and is very similar to mad cow disease in cattle, scrapie in sheep, and Creutzfelt-Jakob Disease in humans.

There is no known reliable test for the presence of CWD in live animals. The only accurate tests today require tissue samples from the brain and lymph nodes of suspected animals – which can only be collected from dead animals.

The two most significant factors affecting the spread of CWD are the transportation of diseased animals and the confinement of those animals in high-density habitats (particularly deer farms).

Proponents of the current bill would like to downplay the seriousness of the potential threat to our state, claiming that the bill includes safeguards to prevent the spread of disease. Those safeguards are dubious at best since there is no accurate testing for the presence of CWD in live deer and infected deer can live and pass along the disease for years without any visible symptoms. As mentioned above, those safeguards also depend on rigorous enforcement activities which are not adequately funded under the bill.

Other Enforcement Issues

Anyone who has ever kept livestock knows that eventually, just about every fence is going to fail. Whether it is from trees falling on it during windstorms, floodwaters washing it away or eroding the soil out from under it, animals digging under it, unintentional breach by leaving gates open, or vandalism aimed at removing animals from the property, eventually a fence is going to fail. And when it does fail, it isn't going to take a captive herd of whitetails long to escape. According to the Minneapolis StarTribune, over the past five years, almost 500 captive deer and elk have escaped from Minnesota farms, and 134 were never recaptured or killed.

All it takes is one CWD-infected deer escaping and mingling with native deer and a catastrophic epidemic can begin. Intentional release of non-trophy captive whitetails (primarily does) has also been documented when the cost of feeding and maintaining captive animals exceeds their value as breeding stock or meat.

Willful disregard of the safeguards is another issue that well-intentioned, yet weakly-enforced regulations will be powerless to combat. With trophy-class whitetail bucks fetching tens of thousands of dollars, the incentive to skirt the law for a quick dollar will prove irresistible to some. In this case a Minnesota smuggler reaped $300,000 in sales from a single customer in Texas (which has closed its borders to imported deer in order to reduce the risk of CWD). In another case, the Colorado DNR covertly established a game farm several years ago to investigate rumors of an active black market in cervids and discovered that the practice of smuggling non-certified animals into the state was rampant.

Wisconsin's CWD Experience

Rather than speculating about what could possibly happen if CWD is introduced into our native deer herd, let's look at Wisconsin to see an example of what is happening.

CWD was first discovered in Wisconsin in 2002. Now, less than a decade later,Wisconsin is at the epicenter of the CWD epidemic in the United States. The difficult situation the state now finds itself in is succinctly summarized in this opening paragraph of the State's fifteen-year plan for combating the spread of the disease.

After more than eight years of chronic wasting disease (CWD) management in Wisconsin, it is increasingly clear that controlling CWD in Wisconsin’s free-ranging white-tailed deer will be extremely challenging and will require a substantial commitment of human and financial resources over an extended period of time. Disease management in free-ranging wildlife populations generally is difficult, expensive, and controversial, particularly when significant wildlife population reduction is a part of the plan.

Pay particular attention to the words “significant wildlife population reduction.” What that means in plain English is that in one CWD-positive area of the state encompassing about 375 square miles (240,000 acres), the DNR has undertaken the task of eradicating every single wild deer. That's right, every single wild deer, over 25,000 of them!

Those of us who have spent years hunting whitetails know that endeavor is almost certainly going to be a futile effort. Not only that, but it is going to cost the state's taxpayers dearly, both in terms of direct expenses for testing, monitoring, and for paid sharpshooters, but also indirectly in the form of lost revenue on hunting licenses and taxes on hunting-related spending.

In addition to the deer testing and deer eradication expenses, now State of Wisconsin is appropriating money to pay $465,000 for the purchase and permanent quarantine of 80 acres of CWD-tainted land that was formerly a deer farm.
Estimates of the total direct and indirect economic impact of CWD on the state of Wisconsin vary, but $50 million to $100 million seems to be a very conservative number.

Ethical Issues

Make no mistake about it, the primary purpose of deer farming is to raise large-antlered bucks destined for canned shooting operations. That's where the money is. To produce those large racks, farmers feed their bucks a variety of supplements and inject them with growth hormones to stimulate antler growth.

Once the bucks grow to a shootable size, they are either sold to canned shooting operations or are turned out into the farmers' own shooting area where they can be harvested by anyone willing to write the appropriate-sized check. Some operators like World Class Whitetails of Ohio even allow you to go online to pick out “your deer”. When you arrive, it will be there waiting for you in a 200 acre enclosure with minimal cover. This article written several years ago describes a typical day there.

I don't pretend to speak for all Tennessee hunters, but the dozens that I communicate with on a regular basis overwhelmingly oppose such practices on ethical grounds. Whitetail deer are wild animals and should remain wild. We do not support the genetic and chemical manipulation of wildlife and we do not support the unsportsmanlike harvesting of deer in canned-shooting operations.

We like our heritage of fair-chase hunting and do not wish to see that ethic tarnished for the profit motives of a few. We do not want to be like Texas, where most trophy-class bucks are killed in fenced enclosures while feeding under a corn-feeder. We appreciate the beauty and elusiveness of a wild whitetail. We do not want to see our hunting heritage endangered by the risky importation of potentially diseased deer.

We do not want to see deer farming in Tennessee.

What to Do

Get involved!

Time is of the essence. The Conservation and Environment Subcommittee of the Tennessee House of Representatives will vote on the deer farming bill on Tuesday, March 29, 2011. If you oppose this risky and offensive legislation, please get in touch with the committee members. The Tennessee Wildlife Federation is taking a leading role in mobilizing concerned sportsmen. Their website includes links and easy instructions on reaching committee members. Please take the time to call or write.

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