Raleigh, N.C. — After lengthy debate and despite strong opposition from hunting and wildlife groups, state lawmakers on Tuesday approved a measure that's expected to expand deer farming in North Carolina.
The measure, Senate Bill 513, is an omnibus package of proposals dealing with agricultural law. The original Senate version included a provision moving deer farms from the oversight of the Wildlife Resources Commission, which has long had a troubled relationship with deer farmers, to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
When the House received the original bill, there was heated disagreement in the Republican caucus over the deer farming provision. It was ultimately stripped out by House GOP leaders, but when it emerged from conference committee with the Senate, the deer farming provision was back in the bill.
In 2002, when concerns emerged about the spread of chronic wasting disease, or CWD, in North Carolina deer herds, the state spent nearly a quarter-million dollars to buy out most of the state's deer farms. Those remaining are owned by about a half-dozen businessmen, including former Food Lion Chief Executive Tom Smith, one of the main proponents for the new legislation.
Smith has also been a generous donor to Republican leaders. In 2014, campaign finance records show he contributed $10,000 to the state Republican Party, $2,500 to Senate Agriculture Chairman Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, $1,000 to House Agriculture Budget Chairman Roger West, R-Cherokee, and $1,500 to then-House Rules Chairman Tim Moore, now the House speaker.
So far in 2015, records show Smith has donated $5,100 – the maximum for the primary cycle – to Gov. Pat McCrory, as well as $1,500 to Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, $1,500 to the Republican Party, $500 to House Majority Leader Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, and $250 to House Rules Chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett.
In 2012, Smith contributed $4,000 each – the cycle maximum at the time – to both Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and Sen. President Pro Tem Phil Berger.
West and Jackson were on the conference committee that agreed on the final version of the bill, and Troxler has lobbied for the bill as well.
Rep. Jay Adams, R-Catawba, one of the bill's most outspoken opponents, alluded to those donations in his floor speech Tuesday.
Adams is concerned that expanding deer farms will increase pressure on regulators to allow deer farmers to import breeding stock from other states. That could bring CWD into North Carolina. The disease hasn't yet been found here, but it is in deer herds in surrounding states.
Adams said he's been blocked from offering expert witnesses at committee meetings on the bill.
"I have seen something here," he told the House. "I have seen money politics for the privileged few. It’s very upsetting. It has nothing to do with Democrats or Republicans."
The potential for spread of CWD is what has prompted opposition to the bill from every major wildlife group in the state, as well as from hunting and sportsmen's groups that say the measure could expose the state's wild deer herd, constitutionally a public resource, to the devastating disease.
Adams said he and other hunters also object to what the farms do – raise deer for canned hunting in other states and, he says, on the Cherokee reservation. Many are bred to have huge antlers, which fetch bigger prices from trophy hunters.
"This is about producing – using genetic manipulation, growth hormones and other devices – producing deer that are unnatural," he said, adding that since the deer are hand-fed daily, they have no fear of people, making them easier to shoot.
Rep. Bill Brisson, D-Bladen, said the bill is a reaction to friction between deer farmers and the Wildlife Resources Commission, the agency that currently enforces bans on importation of deer from other states and other regulations governing the captive deer.
"They were trying to carry out the correct laws and regulations that this body has made, and the deer farmers as we call them didn’t like it. Well, they want to take it out from under wildlife and put it under agriculture, where they know it’s not going to be a priority of the commissioner. They just run it like they want to, they make their big bucks," Brisson said. "They just don’t want to follow the rule. Please don’t let them get away with this. Stand up for what’s right in this state."
But Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, defended the restoration of the "captive cervid" language, saying it's a matter of "property rights."
"Deer farming is a legal activity that has existed for quite a bit of time, and we have certain people who want to put the deer farmers out of business," Dixon said. "I have a heart that understands agriculture. I have a heart that understands where the best possible – if CWD is found, you could not find a better place to put it than in the Department of Agriculture. They’re the best."
Dixon cut off debate on the measure after Adams made reference to money politics. The House vote was 70-44, and the Senate vote, with much less debate, was 44-2. The measure now goes to Gov. Pat McCrory.