Missouri’s captive deer industry scored a major win over the state Department of Conservation this week when a judge blocked regulators’ efforts to stop imports of bucks and does to breeders and private hunting preserves.
Osage County Associate Circuit Judge Robert Schollmeyer sided with the state’s deer farms on Thursday in ruling against a ban on bringing in deer from other states — an effort designed to control a brain-eating disease that threatens both wild and captive deer herds.
The judge said that rules already in place by the Missouri Department of Agriculture go far enough to keep tabs on the risk of chronic wasting disease. His order said the Missouri Department of Conservation’s attempt to lock out deer from other states poses too great a danger to the captive deer industry and its ability to offer customers the trophy bucks they seek.
“(Deer ranches and breeders) are allowed to import white-tailed deer, white-tailed deer-hybrids, mule deer and mule-deer hybrids into the state,” Schollmeyer wrote.
The Missouri Deer Association and several operators sued the Missouri Conservation Commission to stop the import ban. Schollmeyer issued a temporary injunction about a year ago in advance of a hearing on the facts. This week’s ruling shot down the import ban, pending a likely appeal.
Missouri is home to more than 100 breeding facilities and private hunting preserves with their own deer herds. They support an industry where hunters come to expansive ranches — typically covering thousands of acres surrounded by 8-foot fences — to bag trophy deer that can be nearly impossible to find in the wild.
Hunters often pay thousands of dollars to hunt the deer on private reserves. Most deer hunted in the wild in Missouri are less than 2 years old. Those hunted at deer farms are often 3 years old or older, meaning they’ve grown more impressive antlers. Breeding at those private hunting grounds also can provide more distinctive trophies, with features such as uneven racks.
But chronic wasting disease has been a threat to the industry and to the state’s wild deer population. Earlier this year, state conservation officials stepped up testing of sick and road-killed deer in southern Missouri counties after outbreaks of chronic wasting disease showed up in northern Arkansas. The Department of Conservation also plans to test deer in 29 Missouri counties when firearms deer hunting season opens in November.
Chronic wasting disease, which is similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease, burrows holes in brain tissues and can cause weight loss and tremors. It’s fatal and incurable and strikes elk, moose, white-tail deer and mule deer. It spreads through contact with other deer and infected soil.
Missouri has documented roughly three dozen cases of the disease since 2011. Although there is no evidence that it poses a risk to humans the way mad cow disease can, health experts generally recommend humans avoid meat from infected animals.
The ban on bringing deer from other states was part of a plan to keep the disease in check. But deer breeders and ranch operators said reasonable measures were already in place from federal authorities and the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
“It is absurd that one state agency would attempt to ban what another agency from the same branch of state government allows subject to certain regulations,” the Missouri Deer Association said in a news release after the judge’s decision on Thursday.
Under those rules, deer can be brought to the state only if they’re certified healthy and come from herds at low risk to carry the disease. No government-certified test promises that an animal is free of chronic wasting disease. The definitive test can be done only on a carcass. Instead, officials track whether deer come from herds that don’t appear to be infected.
The industry argues that importing deer brings genetic diversity to their herds that produces the trophies high-end hunters demand.
Jean Paul Bradshaw, the attorney representing the deer industry in the lawsuit, said the win allows the industry to thrive without creating a significant risk of spreading disease. He argued that his clients have a strong motivation to keep the disease at bay and their stock healthy.
“My clients have millions invested in a herd,” he said. “So it’s a huge financial risk for them. They have a big incentive to keep their deer from infection.”
A spokesman for the Missouri Department of Conservation did not return a call on the lawsuit on Friday.