Farm bill pits deer farmers against conservationists

Image credit: Flickr via LSmith2010

Image credit: Flickr via LSmith2010

RALEIGH — Many provisions in the N.C. Farm Bill, Senate Bill 513, are not controversial, but among those more tame provisions is a much-discussed section that would move the regulation of deer farming from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and allow farmed deer to be transported within the state.

“Logically, it just makes more sense to have a livestock program placed in the same department as all the other livestock programs,” said Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Sampson), a sponsor of the bill.  Jackson added that “practically, giving the Department of Agriculture primary regulatory authority over captive cervid facilities marks a shift from a reactive animal disease control approach to a proactive one.”

Supporters and opponents of the move agree that the provision would promote deer farming while raising the risk of spreading disease from captive to native deer populations. How risky the provision would be, however, is hard to know with any certainty.

The bill includes a provision that precludes importing deer and elk until a test for Chronic Wasting Diseaese, or CWD, that can be used on live animals becomes available. Currently only dead animals can be tested for CWD, a disease that is a threat to captive and wild deer populations and has not yet been found in North Carolina animals.

“No one can realistically say there is no risk,” said Richard Hamilton of the N.C. Wildlife Federation, a group that advocates for wildlife and habitat. Hamilton says CWD “follows deer farming” and that it is unrealistic to expect deer farmers to check every deer for the disease.

North Carolina’s deer farming community sees the move as a way to encourage deer farming and expand it from the few farms currently growing deer in North Carolina.

Tom Smith, the former Food Lion CEO who has been involved in deer farming for 20 years, noted that the Department of Agriculture employs more veterinarians than the Wildlife Resources Commission, and ticked off other reasons he supports the transfer.

“They understand nutrition. It’s agribusiness, and that’s what they do,” said Smith. “If farmers want to grow deer for venison, they can help.”

Asked about the opposition from the Wildlife Federation, Smith brushed it off.

“They just don’t like an industry with deer,” he said.

Currently North Carolina is home to just 37 deer farms, according to Geoff Cantrell, spokesman for the Wildlife Resources Commission. While they are found statewide, they are concentrated in the Piedmont and foothills regions, Cantrell said.

Neither the agriculture department has not taken a position on the move, adopting a stance that it will handle captive cervids, as penned deer and elk are officially known, however the legislature wishes.

Gordon Myers, executive director of the Wildlife Resources Commission, spoke in favor of the bill. And both agencies stressed their current and future commitment to cooperation on the issue.

“We have a longstanding relationship with the Wildlife Resources Commission and we expect that to continue if the transfer is approved,” agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said in a statement.

The Department of Agriculture and Wildlife Resources already perform joint inspections of deer farms, according to agriculture department spokesman Brian Long.

Smith said that the Department of Agriculture has the experts to handle a disease outbreak, should it come. Troxler echoed that sentiment.

“Our department has a lot of expertise in dealing with farm-animal diseases, and we will apply that expertise in the oversight of cervid farms if this bill becomes law,” Troxler said.

In a separate section of the bill, farmers would be able to burn polyurethane tarps used to inhibit weed growth and in fumigation activities. Other news outlets have reported that these tarps are currently recycled, but Jackson and farming advocates say that almost all of the tarps end up in landfills.

The bill was approved by the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday and will head to that chamber’s Finance Committee next. Since the House has made some changes to the bill, the Senate, which passed a previous version May 19, would need to agree to the House version or request a conference committee to work out the differences.