Loss of the Wild

The rise of the captive cervid industry is raising concerns about disease—and harming the nation’s hunting heritage

  • Brandon Butler
  • Animals
  • Sep 28, 2016

Bred, fed, tagged and targeted for sale, captive deer (above and left) are often reared for unnaturally large antlers and shipped to fenced facilities where they’re shot by the highest bidder—the antithesis of fair chase.

IN APRIL THIS YEAR, troubling news broke in Texas when two new cases of chronic wasting disease (CWD) appeared in captive white-tailed deer, bringing the total number of such cases in the state to 25 since June 2015—and putting a spotlight on a growing problem across the nation.

There’s a burgeoning movement in this country of private individuals breeding captive cervids—including elk and white-tailed deer—for personal gain. Disease can brew among these confined herds and spread to wild populations. In addition, captive-raised animals often end up in fenced-shooting operations, where people pay money to kill the animals inside enclosures.

Under the guise of private property rights and economic growth, numerous state legislatures have rallied to support such operations, designating captive cervids as livestock to be regulated by state agriculture departments rather than as wildlife to be managed by wildlife agencies as part of the public trust. The National Wildlife Federation is strongly opposed to this trend, which challenges the very concept of wildlife, contributes to a disease epidemic and undermines the nation’s tradition of fair-chase hunting. Yet the push to manage wildlife as private livestock is building, leading to legislative showdowns and fears for the future of wildlife resources.

Birth of a Billion-Dollar Business

The first captive-deer operations began in the early 1970s as mom-and-pop efforts to earn extra money on marginal land. Today, there are more than 10,000 captive-cervid breeding and shooting facilities in North America, part of what a study from Texas A&M University calls “perhaps the fastest growing industry in rural America.” The industry includes raising native or exotic cervids for commercial production of antlers, meat, breeding stock, semen, doe urine (to attract bucks) and animals for fenced-shooting facilities—by some counts collectively a billion-dollar industry.

But it carries a price. “Because of the potential negative effects of deer farming, several states and some Canadian provinces have banned it,” says Kip Adams of the Quality Deer Management Association. Among the top concerns, he sites “disease transmission from farmed deer to native wildlife and domestic livestock.” This problem is already costing taxpayers millions of dollars to address—and threatening to snowball into an unstoppable scourge in free-ranging wildlife.

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A bony, listless wild deer spotted in Wisconsin this spring was euthanized by the state’s department of natural resources. It tested positive for chronic wasting disease, a fatal illness that has spread to 24 states

A Deadly Disease on the Move

Many diseases, including tuberculosis, brucellosis and pneumonia, can spread when cervids and livestock mingle. But CWD is now the most worrisome cervid disease. It belongs to a group known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), which include scrapie in sheep and goats and mad cow in cattle. TSEs are transmitted by prions, abnormally folded proteins that affect the brain and nervous system. Causing severe weight loss and listlessness, CWD is always fatal—and there is no vaccine or cure.

First identified in 1967 in captive mule deer in Colorado, CWD has now appeared in captive or free-ranging deer in 24 states and two Canadian provinces, due in part to the interstate transport of captive-raised cervids. The disease can also spread by direct contact through fences or when captive animals escape into the wild. Though the deer-breeding industry disputes the link between captive facilities and the rise of CWD in wild populations, the anecdotal evidence for a link appears irrefutable.

Missouri offers a case in point. CWD was first discovered in Missouri in a captive-deer facility in 2010 and another in 2011. Testing revealed a total of 11 CWD-positive captive deer in those two facilities. Since then, 33 wild white-tailed deer have been confirmed CWD positive in the state, with 22 found in the same counties where the positive captive deer were discovered. “As a private landowner who has invested a significant amount of time and money into optimizing my property for white-tailed deer, I am now suffering the aftermath of the discovery of chronic wasting disease, which I am convinced was introduced to our state through captive deer,” says Chris Kossmeyer, who owns a farm near the epicenter of the Missouri outbreak. “Transporting captive deer and the diseases they potentially carry is simply unacceptable.”

It’s also costly to taxpayers. In July 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmed a CWD-positive captive deer at a shooting preserve in southeast Iowa. The buck had been shipped there from a breeding facility elsewhere in the state. Because of disease fears, all 356 deer in that breeding facility were killed and tested for CWD, and 79.8 percent of the herd tested positive. Then, with taxpayer dollars, USDA paid the deer breeders $917,100 as compensation for their destroyed deer.

Such incidents have led to showdowns between wildlife conservationists—including sportsmen and women who value fair-chase hunting—and state legislatures pushing bills that support the well-funded captive-breeding and captive-shooting industries. Many NWF affiliates, including those below, have been fighting these bills.

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Nose-to-nose contact through fences may transmit disease to wild deer.

Fights to Redefine Wildlife

In 2012, a Tennessee legislator tried to pass a bill allowing deer “farming” in the state, saying it would bring farmers economic opportunity. The bill was defeated after exhaustive efforts by wildlife advocates such as the Tennessee Wildlife Federation (TWF). “The push to privatize a public resource marks a dangerous trend in our country,” says TWF Executive Director Mike Butler. “And deadly diseases associated with captive cervids threaten the nation’s multibillion-dollar hunting economy, which funds a huge amount of wildlife conservation.”

In 2014, the Conservation Federation of Missouri helped defeat two bills that would have reclassified deer as livestock, greatly reducing oversight of captive-breeding facilities. Unfortunately, in 2015, West Virginia passed a bill allowing residents to raise captive cervids under regulation of the state agriculture department. Likewise, the 2015 Farm Act in North Carolina contained provisions favoring the captive-deer business, and legislators sided with the economically important agriculture industry to pass the bill. “This should have been a stand-alone issue, but it was included in an omnibus farm bill with more than 100 entries,” says Tim Gestwicki, CEO of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. “The legislature knew it couldn’t pass as a stand-alone bill but couldn’t let down a few wealthy donors.” And earlier this year, Indiana passed a bill allowing for the expansion of several high-fence facilities in the state. “It disregards the principle of fair chase and blatantly ignores the disease threat that these facilities place on our wild deer herd,” says Erin Baird, executive director of the Indiana Wildlife Federation.

Ultimately, legislators who support the expansion of the captive-cervid industry tout supposed economic development but fail to acknowledge the potential devastation the industry may have on free-ranging wildlife, habitat and the tradition of fair-chase hunting, a recreational industry that—according to a 2011 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—helps generate some $38.3 billion annually from the sale of equipment, licenses, travel and related expenses.

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Deer bred to sprout freakishly large antlers can command six figures as breeding stock or more than $20,000 from trophy hunters.

Tainting our Hunting Heritage

Indeed, one of the insidious downsides of the trend to privatize wildlife is that it distorts perceptions of ethical hunting. Private game-shooting preserves offer “canned hunts,” where shooters pursue animals confined within high fences. Shooters may preselect their quarry based on photos showing the size and style of its antlers, often paying tens of thousands of dollars for the trophy. And deer breeders often genetically modify bucks sold to private preserves to produce antlers larger than any found in the wild.

This is the antithesis of fair-chase hunting as defined by the Boone and Crockett Club, which says fair chase is the “ethical, sportsmanlike and lawful” taking of any free-ranging, wild game animal in a manner that does not give the hunter an “improper” advantage. “Shooting penned animals certainly flies in the face of fair-chase hunting,” says Keith Balfourd, the club’s marketing director. Canned hunts also mislead the nonhunting public, who generally support ethical hunting but oppose shooting captive animals behind high fences. “Canned shooting does not represent hunting,” Balfourd says, “and damages the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation in which our hunting heritage is rooted.”

The rapid rise of wildlife privatization through the captive-cervid industry has occurred largely out of sight of the American public. But as more people become aware of the biological and social dangers this industry poses to wildlife, organizations such as NWF, The Wildlife Society and other groups are joining together to push for stricter regulations or complete elimination of the industry. If it continues to grow, the notion that wildlife is held in public trust could be destroyed forever.

Brandon Butler is executive director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri, an NWF affiliate.

More from National Wildlife magazine and NWF:

Chronic Wasting Disease: A Threat to Missouri Deer
Mule Deer Decline
Battle for Bighorns
Reducing Conflict on Public Lands

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