Deer Farming Stirs Emotions Again


During the 1990’s one of the hottest bills in the legislative session one year was a proposal backed by the West Virginia Farm Bureau.  The measure was aimed at reducing the number of deer in West Virginia.  Farmers were fed up with crop damage and were wanted to increase the allowable number of deer killed each year.  Opponents labeled it the "deer slaughter bill."   The debate became bitter and both sides dug in their heels for quite a fight.   

The measure ultimately died following one of the biggest public hearings in the history of the legislature.   The public hearing was so well attended it was moved to the State Culture Center in Charleston and it was easy to see the sportsmen of the state were there to show their displeasure.  Camo and blaze orange were the dominant attire of the crowd as speaker after speaker railed against the increased harvest.  

The underlying debate of the bill was with whom wildlife management decisions lie should.  Sportsmen and sportsman’s groups argued vehemently those decisions should be made by trained wildlife biologists within DNR anchored in sound science and research.  They railed against the idea of elected politicians making those determinations.  The fear was a politician could potentially be swayed toward action by constituents and not by science.  

Tuesday, the capital is expected to again be swarmed by camo and blaze orange.  This year’s battle is over whether deer farms should remain under the regulation of the DNR or whether a bill which proposes to move them into the bailiwick of the Department of Agriculture should pass.

Advocates make a compelling argument for the change.  Testimony during committee hearings indicates they have a lucrative opportunity to market whitetail venison to restaurants and consumers.  Urine, antlers, semen, and even a full deer on the hoof are other potential products which a deer farm could generate.  The deer farmers further claim the ability, with the oversight of Agriculture, to do all of this in a safe and disease free manner.  

Wildlife biologists cringe at the possibilities.   They fear the chance for disease spread is peaked by a near certainty live deer will be moved from place to place in West Virginia and possibility form state to state.   There is a load of money in raising a whitetail buck with an uber-rack and selling it to a private hunting preserve.   Some will pay big money to shoot the buck with the giant antlers.  

Research shows captive deer pens are incubators of wildlife disease, but particularly chronic wasting disease.   Once the pryons for CWD are there nobody knows how long they’ll survive.  Indications to date are they’ll stay forever, long after the captive deer have been moved on to market.   Such contamination poses a serious risk to the wild whitetail population. 

Furthermore, DNR Director Frank Jezioro and others have remarked there’s tremendous trouble in marketing whitetail venison for sale.  He believes it will only enhance the opportunity for poachers.  The deer farming lobby counters all of their meat is properly handled by inspected slaughter houses and stamped with USDA certification before it’s sold.  Jezioro still believes it makes the risk worth the reward to poachers.

The North American Wildlife Model has been in place in the United States and Canada for approximately 100-years.   The model is based on the premise wildlife belong to the people and not to private property owners.  To further explain, a person may own the land–but the wildlife on that land is public property.  In other countries, if game is on your land it’s considered your game.  The North American Wildlife Model has generated unprecedented levels of wildlife in the United States.  The model served to help bring some wildlife back to flourishing numbers when they were on the brink of extinction because of "market hunting."    Opponents of the shift in regulatory authority for deer farms in West Virginia fear the bill erodes the effectiveness of the North American Model and puts all deer in jeopardy.

It’s a slightly different issue from the 1990’s, but the sides remain the same.  The Farm Bureau favors the deer farmers and the Department of Agriculture.  Sportsman’s groups are backing the management decisions by trained wildlife biologists at DNR.   The bill appeared to be on a fast track to approval in the Senate on Friday–but on final reading was suddenly moved to the Senate rules committee. 

Therefore the legislation lies in limbo and may die a slow death there for the session.  It also could just as easily be returned to the floor and on its way later in the session.   I’m guessing a lot of lawmakers will have an eye out for how much camo and blaze orange show up in the marble halls of the Capitol Tuesday and how many calls and e-mails they receive on either side of the issue. 


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