The practice of farming cervids (members of the deer family such as whitetail deer, moose, and elk) in the United States has been around since the late 1800’s, and has existed elsewhere in the world for millennia; however, commercial cervid farms are a more recent phenomenon and have taken on a contentious rancor in recent debates. Most recently, debates have primarily centered on whether the state fish and wildlife agency or the state agricultural agency should have management authority over their state’s captive cervid industry.
The practice of farming cervids (members of the deer family such as white-tailed deer, mule deer, moose, caribou and elk) in the United States has been around since the late 1800’s and has existed elsewhere in the world for millennia. However, commercial cervid farms are a more recent phenomenon, and in some states have become a point of contention. Farms range in size from small, part-time operations to those that are large scale and professionally managed. The function of these farms can differ from serving as breeding stock producers, trophy hunting preserves, commercial venison producers, and/or commercial scent collection facilities.
Breeding farmed cervids for various uses has created philosophical divisions within the hunting community and has raised concerns over the spread of wildlife diseases, such as chronic wasting disease (CWD). Proponents of farmed cervid facilities celebrate the large economic impact of the industry – particularly in rural economies – as well as the potential benefit for recruitment of new hunters who wish to experience a successful hunt. On the other side of the debate, opponents of farmed cervid facilities argue that they privatize a public trust resource for personal financial gain, threaten wildlife health, and ultimately violate the tenets of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation – lauded as the most successful model of wildlife management in the world. A debate has emerged within the wildlife management community regarding which state agency (agriculture, or the fish and wildlife agency) should have regulatory oversight over such farms. Many professionals working within state fish and wildlife agencies spent their educational careers focusing on the study of wild game species, such as the white-tailed deer, rather than studying traditional livestock (cattle, swine, etc), which is what many professionals within agricultural agencies focused their studies on. Epidemiological considerations primarily center on the transmission of CWD, which has potentially far-reaching implications not only for the farmed cervid industry, but for free-ranging cervid populations as well. Concern over CWD is at the center of the current debate over whether farm-raised deer should be classified as livestock or as wildlife, and by extension, which state agency should have regulatory authority over the industry (or whether the authority should be shared by both agencies).
Points of Interest
- In 2012, there were 5,241 cervid farms in the United States; Texas had the most farms (1,756).
- In 2007, the farmed cervid industry generated $3 billion in economic activity and supported 29,199 jobs.
- More recent data from Texas (2017) reports that “the total impact of the industry to the Texas economy, combining the breeding and hunting components, is $1.6 billion annually.”
- Standard regulations on the farmed cervid industry necessary for licensure and operation within most states include health certificates, import permits, and negative brucellosis and tuberculosis tests.
- Forty-eight states and eight Canadian provinces have adopted rules that go beyond the standard regulations and may include additional testing requirements or limitations on the importation of farmed cervids.
- There is presently no approved way to examine the presence of chronic wasting disease in a live animal, though research is ongoing.
- In recent years, many states have grappled with the issue over which state agency should have regulatory authority over farmed cervids, including: Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, and West Virginia.
- Indiana – In 2015, The Indiana Court of Appeals granted judgement on a longstanding case between the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and an in-state deer hunting preserve, ultimately determining that the DNR does not have authority to regulate any privately-owned wild animals. Their interpretation of Indiana Code section 14-2-1-2 stated that legally owned wild animals or those being held in captivity under license or permit are not property of the people of the State of Indiana and therefore are outside the management purview of the DNR.
- Missouri – In 2014, the Missouri Legislature passed two bills (SB 506 and HB 1326) that would have transferred management authority from the Missouri Department of Conservation to the Missouri Department of Agriculture. Governor Jay Nixon vetoed the bills, which was sustained by only one vote during a subsequent veto override attempt. In 2018, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that all deer in Missouri, including captive cervids, are wildlife and fall under the regulatory authority of the Missouri Department of Conservation.
- North Carolina – In 2015, North Carolina enacted legislation (SB 513) that removed cervid farms from the oversight of the Wildlife Resources Commission and granted authority to regulative captive cervid facilities to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
- West Virginia – In 2015, West Virginia enacted legislation (SB 237) that transferred the management and regulations of farmed cervids from the state Division of Natural Resources to the state Department of Agriculture.
- Presently, nine states place sole regulatory authority of their farmed cervid facilities with their fish and wildlife agency, nine states place sole regulatory authority with their agriculture agency, and 32 states allow joint management of farmed cervid facilities by both their agriculture and fish and wildlife agencies.
Transferring the regulatory authority of farmed cervids from the state fish and wildlife agency and categorizing farmed cervids as livestock blurs the lines between farmed and wild animals and devalues cervids (particularly the white-tailed deer) as an iconic conservation success story that was hard won on the backs of American sportsmen and women. Therefore, state legislators are encouraged to appoint primary management authority of their farmed cervid facilities to their state’s fish and wildlife agency – the very agencies who, through working with sportsmen and women, were responsible for bringing these species back from the brink of extirpation in many areas to the burgeoning populations we see today. If joint management is pursued, a formal Memorandum of Understanding between the agencies should be reached that recognizes the fish and wildlife agency as the lead agency while clearly delineating the responsibilities of each agency to eliminate bureaucratic red tape and ensure a timely response to a CWD outbreak is possible. Further, state legislators are encouraged to work alongside their fish and wildlife agencies to ensure that those individuals who choose to harvest cervids from captive facilities are required to purchase a hunting license to help support the broader conservation efforts of the state.