The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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March 2, 2014

Deer farms: Economic boon or wildlife bungle

The House passed a bill expanding farming, but Chronic Wasting Disease is a concern for many

— A bill to significantly expand deer farming in West Virginia has passed the House and moved to the Senate, but questions remain as to whether the rewards of this economic initiative outweigh the health hazards it poses for the native deer population.

The West Virginia Bow-hunters Association is well-aware of the bill, and is attentive when it comes to the well-being of the state’s white-tailed deer herd. Bryan Elkins, president of the WVBA, has followed the bill’s journey through the legislative process.

“The bill became a compromise. It is in the Senate now and it looks like what is going to happen is that the Department of Agriculture is going to be able to regulate the deer farms that have captive cervids (hoofed, deer-like animals) that are used only for meat production,” Elkins said.

“The West Virginia Bowhunters Association opposed the transfer of regulation of captive cervids from the Division of Natural Resources to the Department of Agriculture. We, along with many other organizations representing sportsmen, thought that the DNR had better resources to protect our wild, white-tailed deer population.”

The issues surrounding expanding deer farming in West Virginia go beyond which agency has regulatory authority. Critics of the plan, which passed the House 97-0, say no consideration has been given to the risks involved in importing nonnative deer species into the state.

The risk? Chronic wasting disease, already found in two West Virginia counties, could be imported with the fallow deer, axis deer, red deer, moose, reindeer and caribou that will be trucked in to the new farms. And these critics say CWD could easily come in with them, and quickly spread beyond Hampshire and Hardy counties.

Are the risks to the native population of white-tailed deer worth tens of millions of dollars in new economic investment and jobs?

Some deer hunters answer with an emphatic “no.”

“If cervid-borne diseases would happen to be transmitted into the wild population, then you are endangering a $250 million industry” already in the state with deer hunting, Elkins said.

“The worst case would be that a cervid from a facility that has a disease would be transferred into a West Virginia captive cervid facility and then through escape — we have derechos and snowstorms and windstorms where fences go down and animals escape, whether it be a sheep or horse or a cow — escapes happen. The worst thing that could happen is that a diseased animal would get out into the wild population. And once the disease gets into the wild population, you cannot eradicate it.”

Butch Antolini, director of communications for Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick, says the economic impact of deer farming just can’t be overlooked in a state desperate to diversify its economic base. Antolini said he expects the bill to pass, maybe with some modifications in the Senate.

And that would align West Virginia more closely with neighboring states when it comes to the deer-farming industry.

“It’s going to create jobs. There’s no question about it,” Antolini said.

“West Virginia has approximately 26 deer farms. If you go across the Ohio River into Ohio, there are just under 700 and they have a $60 million economic impact on Ohio annually. You cross the state line into Pennsylvania and they have almost 1,000 deer farms and it has an $80 million economic impact.

“We view it as the same. Are we going to get the 700 or 800 or 1,000 deer farms? No, that’s not going to happen in West Virginia — we don’t think so. But could we have 50 or 60 or 80? Sure we can, and it will be done by private investment and it’s going to create jobs and it’s going to also create a marketplace for West Virginia deer farmers or cervid farmers to sell venison in West Virginia,” Antolini said.

Frank Jezioro, director of the West Virginia DNR, told The Register-Herald that the DNR supports the deer farmers and has agreed on a workable bill with the Department of Agriculture.

He said dangers are inherent in any operation where animals are being relocated.

“The DNR does not oppose deer farming; we have been working with the deer farmers for over 10 years. If you start moving any kind of animal across the country, state-to-state, you have the possibility of introducing different diseases, maybe something an animal may be immune to out in the Northwest and you bring it here and there is no immunity here or something like that. That potential is there. The biggest problem is (that) CWD has no live test, you can’t inoculate for it, there’s no serum,” Jezioro said.

Many opponents of modern deer farming say that’s the problem. An animal that appears healthy but has CWD can bring it into new areas of the state. The only way to positively ensure the animal does not have the disease is to euthanize it and examine its brain. It is only in the end stages of the always-fatal CWD that the wasting, staggering behavior of infected animals is apparent.

Jezioro said CWD is here already, and that the DNR is taking extraordinary steps to contain it.

“We have CWD already in an area over in the Eastern Panhandle and we are doing everything we can to keep it restricted to that area. So with that in mind, our cabinet secretary worked out the agreement that’s in the Senate now that basically said ... that the DNR would retain the regulation of white-tailed deer, and the Department of Agriculture would take over those regulations on red deer that are being raised for commercial use, for the commercial sale of meat ...

“We are waiting to see a final bill, of course, to see if there are any amendments to it, but we can work with that, we can get along with them,” he said.

Antolini said the risks for disease are low when factoring in the preventive measures taken by deer farmers.

“These deer will be inside a fence. They’re going to be monitored just like any other livestock because they are going to be considered to be livestock. It’s going to be a deer farm. Our veterinarians will be involved. The argument has been made out there, certainly, about chronic wasting. Well, you know there isn’t any chronic wasting disease inside any of the deer farms currently in West Virginia that are regulated by the DNR.

“The CWD is in the wild herd in Hampshire County,” Antolini said. “Could disease be transmitted? Anything can happen. We believe the chances of that are very slim. With the fencing, we feel confident that the vets can treat the captive cervids just like they would any other livestock and stay after those. From our perspective, when they are being cared for and treated by vets — the wild herd doesn’t have that at all — deer inside these farms can actually thrive. They get big, they’re healthy, they’re being fed ... they are taken care of just like livestock.”

Elkins said he does approve of the fact that the DNR, in the bill that passed the House, retains some regulatory control.

“The advantage of the bill now is that the DNR still maintains control over native cervids — white-tailed deer, their subspecies and elk. And they also still maintain the right, through a memorandum of understanding, to inspect any of the facilities, not just the ones that have native species, if there is a complaint or allegations made that regulations are not being followed. The DNR still has the right to go to those other facilities and make inspections and issue orders for corrections for anything they find out of line. At least, that is my present understanding,” Elkins said.

Speaking for the Ag Department, Antolini said the state should seize this economic development opportunity.

“It’s really time that West Virginia moves forward on the issue because everybody around us is benefiting from this and West Virginia has been left behind — and that’s a fact.

“Ohio and Pennsylvania proved that to us,” Antolini continued. “We’re losing a multimillion-dollar opportunity there and Commissioner Helmick felt strongly about it. He understands the sportsmen’s issues, he’s very sensitive to that. The commissioner is a sportsman himself.”

— E-mail: cboyd@register-herald.com

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