Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has ended the “great deer debate” — for now anyway.
Nixon vetoed two bills Tuesday that would have designated captive deer as livestock instead of wildlife while shifting management of the whitetails from the Department of Conservation to the Department of Agriculture.
In doing so, he brought temporary closure to a heated debate between Missouri deer farmers, who said they were fighting to stay in business, and the Department of Conservation, which maintained it should manage all wildlife, wild and captive.
At issue is the threat of chronic wasting disease, a fatal disease that was found in 10 deer in recent years in high-fence hunting preserves in Macon and Linn counties in north-central Missouri. The disease was later found in 11 wild deer.
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Though there was no proof of where the disease originated, the Department of Conservation proposed tough regulations on deer farms to reduce the threat of the disease. Deer farmers reacted by lobbying hard to get management of their facilities transferred solely to the Department of Agriculture.
Deer farmers won the first two rounds, getting bills passed in both the Missouri Senate and House. But Nixon ended their quest when he vetoed both bills Tuesday.
“For more than 75 years, our Department of Conservation has been held up as a model for wildlife management agencies across the country because of its incredible success,” Nixon said. “Redefining our deer as livestock to remove the regulatory role of the department defies both its clear record of achievement as well as common sense.
“White-tailed deer are wildlife and also game animals — no matter if they’re roaming free or enclosed in a fenced area.”
In a special meeting of the Missouri Conservation Commission on Tuesday, Nixon also cited the exclusive authority the commission has to manage wildlife under the state constitution.
“It is unfortunate that the legislature insisted on amending this unconstitutional provision to two pieces of legislation that otherwise contain worthy provisions advancing Missouri agriculture,” he said.
Brandon Butler, executive director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri, the largest citizens’ conservation organization in the state, applauded the governor’s action.
“We’re very proud of the governor’s decision to protect Missouri wildlife,” Butler said. “We felt that the bills were only beneficial to a very small special-interest group.
“The governor made a strong statement that these bills weren’t in the best interest of Missouri wildlife.”
Sam Jones, president of the Missouri Whitetail Breeders and Hunting Ranch Association, found fault with Nixon’s actions. And he said the issue isn’t dead.
He and fellow deer farmers are hoping the General Assembly will override Nixon’s veto. And if that doesn’t happen, he hinted that the issue might end up in court.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that they (the Department of Conservation) are trying to put us out of business,” said Jones, who owns two hunting ranches and one deer-breeding facility in Callaway County. “They’re trying to regulate us out of the picture.
“We’ve maintained all along that we’re not the problem. I’ve run one of my hunting operations for 20 years and I’ve never had any problem with disease. We test regularly and meet all the requirements. And most of the hunting ranches in Missouri are the same way.
“But because of one incident (in which chronic wasting disease was discovered in hunting operations in north-central Missouri), we’re the bad guys. We’re being targeted, and that isn’t right.”
Aaron Jeffries, assistant director of the Department of Conservation, denies that the state agency is targeting the deer farms. Instead, he said, the department is taking proper steps to prevent the spread of a disease that could cripple Missouri’s wild deer herd and hunting industry.
“This legislation (was) 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 are inside or outside the fence.
“(Chronic wasting disease) is a big threat and we have to deal with it.”
To reach Brent Frazee, The Star’s outdoors editor, call 816-234-4319 or send email to email@example.com.