Charly Seale: Fix Deer Farm Regulation
October 2, 2014
The Charleston Gazette
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
By Charly Seale
In the last legislative session, West Virginia came very close to passing a measure that would open new paths to economic growth. Throughout the country, including in West Virginia, deer and elk are raised on private ranches for food, velvet and hunting purposes.
Members of both parties in the Legislature proposed a perfectly sensible way to regulate these farms: As farms, under the Department of Agriculture. Under current law, the Department of Natural Resources regulates cervid farms, leading to non-free-ranging animals being treated as wildlife.
Unlike deer and elk that range freely and run wild across the state, farmed cervids are contained on fenced facilities. However, natural resources administrators claim that the existence of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a rare cervid disease that is not transmissible to humans, means that these farms should remain under the strict control of the Division of Natural Resources.
Presently, cervid farms are highly regulated in how they go about their businesses. But too often they face persecution from wildlife agencies that want to ban interstate transport of deer and elk or ban the opening of new farms in certain areas. In turn, the scary claims of wildlife agencies in West Virginia and other states spur fear in the hunting community. If hunters should be concerned about something, however, it isn’t deer and elk farming: It’s the practices of the wildlife agencies themselves.
The very Division of Natural Resources that bashes deer farms in West Virginia is considering a plan to import wild elk without following the same federal protocol that cervid farms do.
Before deer and elk can be sent across state lines by a farm, the facility must be CWD certified, a program administered by the USDA. This means that every eligible mortality (any animal over 12 months of age that dies) in the facility must be tested for CWD for a minimum of five years. Many ranches have been certified for over 10 years. (Ranches must also be fenced in, conduct regular inventories, individually identify animals, and test for other diseases.)
This is a strict protocol for mitigating the risk of CWD spreading. But the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries did not follow this federal protocol when they recently reintroduced elk into the state. The same is true of the Missouri Department of Conservation, which also reintroduced elk without following USDA protocol. Missouri didn’t follow established protocol, but then had the audacity to play the blame game with cervid farms.
Now, West Virginia has plans to reintroduce elk in the southern part of the state. In truth, neither the farmed nor the free-ranging animals that might be imported into West Virginia are likely to pose a threat to the native deer populations. The best evidence available indicates CWD is not particularly contagious. USDA states “the scientific knowledge we have suggests that CWD is not highly infectious.”
Further, CWD is rare. According to USDA data, roughly four in 1,000 free ranging cervids tested upon death for signs of CWD show the disease, higher than the rate of farmed cervids. And just to be safe, if CWD is found in a farmer’s herd, the herd has to be depopulated. This can ruin a farmer’s investment and reputation, and provides a strong incentive against taking steps that might risk infecting the herd.
So what is the Division of Natural Resources doing with its finger-pointing and scare campaigns? It’s simple — they’re demonstrating why they shouldn’t regulate cervid farming. Agriculture regulators simply have much more experience dealing with the issues that present themselves in farming. They know how to assess risk and govern farms.
Cervid farmers aren’t asking for a unregulated free-for-all. We’re just asking to be treated like other agriculture industries.
Charly Seale is president of the North American Elk Breeders Association.