By Mannix Porterfield
Steve Toth sees West Virginia hosting a multimillion-dollar industry in raising whitetail deer to complement dinner tables and provide hunters with an alternative to hitting the forests.
There’s a major hitch.
For now, the fledgling deer farms cannot sell whitetail venison because the Division of Natural Resources is holding its thumb on the industry, Toth says.
Toth is president of the West Virginia Deer Farmers Association, representing some 40 such farms, now locked into a fierce battle with the DNR over just which state agency holds the reins on the business.
Moving through the Legislature is SB421, which would change all that by switching the supervisory chores to the Department of Agriculture. The Senate delayed a vote on it Friday, shipping it to the Rules Committee for more consideration.
Toth and a fellow farmer, John Rose, who also operates out of Philippi, cannot understand the DNR’s strident opposition to
letting the agriculture folks oversee the industry.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” says Rose.
“For years, we’ve been battling this and no one seems to know.”
Fundamentally, Natural Resources Director Frank Jezioro sees captive cervids as a threat to the wild deer population for several reasons.
First is the prospect of infecting deer in the wild with diseases, and the one he quickly mentions is chronic wasting disease, or CWD, an always-fatal neurological disorder that has surfaced in Hampshire County in recent years. Not one case, however, has been linked to the private deer farms.
“They don’t pose a threat to the wild deer,” Toth insists.
“We are certified and monitored for the past eight years. We have certification papers. All of our deer are tested for tuberculosis and brucelosis every three years. The wild herd isn’t. We do not create a threat to the wild deer. Ours are healthier than the wild deer.”
Jezioro says the very presence of deer farms poses a problem to wild deer, since the fences to keep them corralled gobble up space and disrupt the normal travel patterns.
“If Jezioro has his way, that would include cattle farms, horse farmers, people who want to put fences around their crops, gardens, airports and highways,” Toth said.
“This is just one of his tactics to put us down so we can’t successfully do business in West Virginia like other states around us.”
The owner of one of the larger farms in West Virginia, boasting 45 head, Rose says Jezioro has been engaged in scare tactics ever since the deer farmers organization pushed for supervision by the Department of Agriculture.
Commissioner Gus Douglass has often said his agency is willing to assume the added chores and that it can be absorbed into the work schedule readily, what with its cadre of veterinarians.
Rose pointed out the federal government has ended funding for CWD testing.
“Apparently, the U.S. government must not think it’s that big of a threat any more,” Rose said.
Forty-five years ago, the first sign of CWD surfaced in Fort Collins, Colo., and thousands of cases were documented. All that has changed over the past four decades, Rose said.
“Now, the wildlife people in Colorado will tell you elk and mule deer are at an all-time high,” he said.
“So where is this huge threat of wiping out the deer herd all of a sudden?”
One point Jezioro makes is that no one can ascertain the presence of CWD because deer cannot be tested until dead.
Rose says a possible new test, not yet certified, of the rectum and tonsils could allow for live exams, rather than post-mortems, and likes to emphasize deer kept in farms are tested 100 percent. Each mortality is put to a test.
“The West Virginia DNR tests for 0.15 percent, less than one-third of 1 percent of the wild herd,” he says.
“Tell me, has there ever been a deer on a farm in West Virginia die of CWD? You can’t say that. Every deer to be found to have CWD in West Virginia has either been shot by a hunter or hit by a car. Wild deer.”
Toth says his 55-head deer farm is actually more profitable by selling urine and semen than his construction outfit. But he says the industry could become a big part of the economy if allowed to sell venison.
Jezioro says allowing this would only spawn more poaching so folks could fatten their incomes.
“This is not true,” Toth says, emphasizing any deer taken to slaughter would need tags in their ears and the required paperwork, certified and checked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
If a diseased animal is found on a deer farm, he said, it is taken to an incinerator and destroyed, unlike wild deer that are hauled to a landfill on the DNR’s orders.
“All those deer from Hampshire County go to a landfill,” he said.
“You got crows, all kinds of predators that come in and carry parts of those carcasses off and transport them. The Department of Agriculture is well equipped to handle diseases. That’s what they do now. Even right now, if we have a disease in our herd, the USDA and state Department of Agriculture step in and take over. Not the DNR.”
Twenty-six states allow the sale of whitetail venison. In Pennsylvania, the industry is worth an estimated $15 million.
“A lot of people have come to my farm asking to buy whitetail deer meat,” Rose said.
“They enjoy it. They love it. It’s good for them. Doctors tell them to eat it.”
Critics scorn the food product as “Bambi Burgers.”
“Let me tell you — in the state of West Virginia, every family that hunts has eaten a lot of ‘Bambi Burgers’ in their time,” Rose said.
Jezioro also finds it distasteful that some deer farms are used for fenced-in hunting, maintaining this is no different than in the Old West, when rich men from back East gunned down buffalo from the comfort of railroad cars.
“A hunting preserve is a choice,” Rose said.
“That’s a choice that people have to make. It’s been going on many, many years now, all over the United States. It’s big money. Big profit. I personally don’t go to a hunting preserve. I hunt the mountains of West Virginia. But I feel everyone has a choice to make and should be able to make their own choice. It’s good for these people that work out of state and don’t have land to hunt on.”
Besides, contends Toth, how is a hunting preserve any different than the DNR’s practice of raising trout?
“They are breeding trout,” he said.
“They haul them in a stocking truck. They’re dumping them in streams and ponds, while people follow the trucks. There’s no place for the trout to go.”
Rose agrees, adding, “You put them in a pond and they’re not going to jump up and run across a dam and go down the creek and run in there.”
On one point Jezioro makes, the deer farmers are willing to concede — a double fence would certainly keep wild deer from rubbing noses or making any other contact with their cousins in captivity.
“We wouldn’t be opposed to that, but I believe the state should pay for it,” Rose said.
“We have our deer contained. Right now, CWD is in the wild herd, not in our herd. We’ve done monitoring for years. It’s not in our herd.”
Toth added, “Wild deer are the ones that are threatening our business. They’re the threat.”
Toth finds the DNR’s position in the controversy puzzling.
“I don’t understand how a West Virginia state official, paid by our tax dollars, could lobby against our business, especially when that department is the one that issued us a business license to do business in this state.
“This is a huge conflict of interest. All we ask for as farmers is the ability to conduct business and in turn create more jobs and bring more revenue to this great state. We have no objections to following guidelines and laws. We just feel it makes more sense for the Department of Agriculture to be the ones enforcing our regulations.”
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