Missouri House debates bill that would change how captive deer are managed

05/13/2014 2:51 PM

05/13/2014 11:08 PM

As the Missouri General Assembly enters its final days of the 2014 session, a heated debate over a bill that would affect the state’s deer management is reaching its boiling point.

The measure calls for transfer of management of captive deer from the Department of Conservation to the Department of Agriculture.

The two agencies currently share responsibilities. But the House bill would would designate captive deer as livestock, not wildlife, and would give the Department of Agriculture sole management responsibilities. In the process, the move would bypass some of the Department of Conservation’s stringent proposed regulations.

Those draft proposals, which include banning the importation of captive deer, required double fencing to discourage the interaction of wild and captive deer, and tighter testing requirements, are aimed at reducing the risk of spreading chronic wasting disease.

Several years ago, the Department of Conservation found the contagious, fatal disease in 10 deer in a captive whitetail facility in northeast Missouri. It later discovered the disease in 11 free-roaming whitetails in the area. No one knows for sure where the disease originated. But the Department of Conservation started an aggressive campaign to control the disease. That included tougher regulations on the operation of Missouri’s captive deer facilities.

“As this legislative session comes to a close, politics are at play that could significantly alter the future of white-tailed deer in Missouri,” said Brandon Butler, executive director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri. “The fate of captive deer is in the hands of the House, and the deer breeders are pulling out all stops.

“We feel it is critical that management of all deer — wild and captive — stays with the Department of Conservation.”

But deer farmers say they are being unfairly targeted. They see themselves as leaders in testing of their captive herds and making sure there are no threats of disease. That’s in the best interest of their livelihoods, they say.

They feel they have become scapegoats in the fight against chronic wasting disease. And they are waging a strong lobbying effort to get things changed.

The Senate version of the measure to transfer the management of captive deer to the Department of Agriculture passed 23-9. Now the measure is in the House and both sides are fighting for votes.

“We don’t want to be unregulated,” said Sam Jones, president of the Missouri Whitetail Breeders and Hunting Ranch Association. “What we want is to be managed by a science-based agency that manages on fact, not speculation.

“We feel the Department of Conservation’s proposals go way too far. We’ve never heard of policies like this.

“We’re not the problem. Our industry is clean. We monitor our captive deer herds.

“But for some reason, we’re taking the blame.”

Missouri has issued permits to 39 big-game hunting preserves with captive deer and 221 wildlife breeders with deer. The Department of Conservation said that the majority of those wildlife breeders hold fewer than 50 deer apiece. And only eight of the ranches have more more than 100 deer.

Still, James said, it’s an industry worth saving.

“If this bill is defeated, our industry will die,” he said. “It might be a slow death, but captive deer facilities will go away.

“The cost of meeting those new regulations would just be cost-prohibitive.”

No one knows for sure what would happen if the Missouri Department of Agriculture assumes complete control of managing the captive deer. A spokesman for the state agency said that the Department of Agriculture does not comment on pending legislation.

Aaron Jeffries, assistant to the director of the Department of Conservation, denies that his agency is trying to put anyone out of business. The goal, he said, is to protect deer and the huge hunting industry it supports.

“This legislation is concerning because we feel it is a dangerous road to go down, designating one species of wildlife as livestock,” Jeffries said. “Our job is to protect deer, whether they’re inside or outside the fence.

“(Chronic wasting disease) is a big threat and we have to deal with it. Yet, we’re striving to find a balance among the different interests.”

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