Forcing deer farm owners to extend their fences to 10 feet is unnecessary and is another attempt by the state Division of Natural Resources to discourage their business ventures, an industry leader says.

Unless changed by the Legislature, the new rule, effective New Year’s Day, will compel captive cervid farms to add another two feet to existing enclosures.

For many, the expense will be unbearable, says Chuck Kimble, secretary of the West Virginia Deer Farmers Association.

“We’ve never had a deer to jump over an 8-foot fence,” Kimble said in a telephone interview.

One night, his wife awoke him to investigate the sound of dogs barking in his pen at Fort Ashby in Mineral County.

“You could hear them barking and hear the deer running and bouncing off the fence,” he said.

“When I got out there, four Saint Bernards were in my pen. They killed five of my deer. Not a one was able to jump the fence. Dogs are a natural enemy of deer. They will do whatever they can to get away from dogs. They have never cleared my fence.”

Kimble pointed to a study done in another state by a wildlife biologist, research that cost in the neighborhood of $40,000 and which showed an eight-foot fence was adequate.

“They put those deer through extreme circumstances, chasing them with dogs and different things,” he said.

“One deer was able to get up to seven feet but got caught in the fence. No deer cleared the eight feet.”

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For the past few years, deer farm owners have been at loggerheads with the DNR over its supervision of the industry, and the fence height is evolving into the latest source of friction.

In defense of its regulation, Paul Johansen, the assistant chief of wildlife game management for the DNR, says, “We wouldn’t have recommended it unless we thought it was necessary.”

“It’s an effort to ensure that ingress of deer from outside the facility or from inside going out wouldn’t take place,” he said.

When the rule came under review, Johansen said, the updated fence requirement was examined by people well versed in the supervision of captive cervid facilities with regard to preventing escapes into the wild.

“The folks in the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study looked at those rules and thought they were appropriate,” he said.

Johansen disputed Kimble’s belief, shared by other deer farmers, that the DNR is using its rule-making ability to force them out of business, saying agency Director Frank Jezioro is on record as saying this isn’t the agency’s goal.

“We have no intention of driving anyone out of business,” Johansen said.

“But if someone’s going to conduct business in the state of West Virginia, we want to make sure it’s done in an appropriate manner. We’re charged with the responsibility of managing the state’s wildlife resources and we take that responsibility very seriously. We developed what we thought were very reasonable and sound regulations governing that captive cervid industry.”

In the past, he said, the DNR has allowed extensions of meeting rules so owners didn’t face immediate closure for non-compliance.

However, preventing escapes is a critical component in safeguarding West Virginia’s wildlife, he said, and any rules needed to head off a potential threat must be imposed, including the higher fence.

“A 10-foot fence, I think, is quite reasonable in terms of what we can expect in terms of preventing those types of escapes from the facilities.”

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One farmer in West Virginia owns a 300-acre preserve, and it would cost him several thousand dollars to extend his fence another two feet, Kimble said.

“We feel the reason the DNR did this was just to put another obstacle before the deer farmers that would cause them to spend more money and try to discourage people to be deer farmers,” he said.

“They’re just trying to whittle us down to where we’re nobody.”

Kimble isn’t sure if the association will seek legislative relief, pointing to a failed bill in a recent session that would have allowed the Department of Agriculture to assume responsibility for regulating the industry.

On another point, however, Kimble was definite — that deer testing positive for Chronic Wasting Disease in a five-mile pocket of Hampshire County cannot be traced to deer farms.

This week, the DNR disclosed that the number of CWD deaths had risen to 19, all within Hampshire, with discovery of five hunter-taken animals in the recent bucks-only firearms season.

“All the animals that die on my farms and all the other farms where we raise them have to be tested 100 percent,” Kimble said.

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To date, no deer has succumbed to CWD on the private farms, Kimble said.

At his farm, where deer are raised for use by hunting preserves, only a fawn has ever escaped and it was killed soon after it bolted, he said.

By law, all deer on cervid farms must be tagged, so it would be a simple matter to trace one back to the source if an animal in the wild tested positive for CWD, the association official said.

“You can put the number on that tag in their computer and know exactly where that deer came from,” he said. “It’s a unique number assigned to a farm. If they wanted absolute truth that a deer with CWD came from a farm, they would have it with that tag.”

Kimble figures a hunter possibly could have brought deer back from an out-of-state hunt and tossed the carcass into the woods, setting the stage for CWD.

“That very well could be the source,” he said.

“Or free-ranging animals could come across the state line. This particular place where they’re finding these deer is not all that far from the Maryland and Pennsylvania state line. It’s not across the street, but it wouldn’t be impossible, I guess, for deer to roam that far.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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