Raleigh, N.C. — House leaders are pushing ahead on a bill that would allow the expansion of deer farming in North Carolina.
Senate Bill 513, the Farm Act of 2015, is a smorgasbord of provisions, ranging from taxes on horse feed to tax policy for immigrant farmworkers to allowing farmers to burn agriculture polyurethane rather than recycling it.
The provision that has received the most attention, however, would transfer the oversight of the state's handful of deer farms from the Wildlife Resources Commission, where it's been since 2002, to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and would allow the transfer of deer between in-state facilities – something that's been illegal for more than a decade after lawmakers banned it in the wake of the rise of chronic wasting disease, or CWD.
CWD, a fatal virus that infects the neurological system of deer and other cervids, is found in 23 states and two provinces in Canada. Outbreaks in some of those locations decimated local populations of wild white-tailed deer.
Bill sponsor Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, told the House Agriculture Committee on Tuesday that the bill would ban the importation of out-of-state deer until such time as a live test for CWD is developed. Currently, it can be diagnosed only post-mortem.
In the meantime, Jackson said, he would trust the Agriculture Department's experience with veterinary quarantines for outbreaks in other food animal populations to keep the public herd – wild deer – safe from any threat.
"Hunting is very important to this state. It brings in millions and millions of dollars. We don't want anything to harm that," he said. "But by the same token, we don't want to stifle a new industry that we could have that's been trying to emerge for the last 20-plus years."
Rep. Bill Brisson, D-Bladen, tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to keep the deer farms under the Wildlife Resources Commission, arguing that the management of wild game animals, even in a captive setting, is different from poultry and swine.
"Why would we be shifting where we’ve already got that program funded? They’ve got the personnel to handle it," Brisson said. "Have they not been doing their job? Are we saving money?"
Asked about the market for farmed deer, Jackson conceded that some are raised for penned hunting operations on Indian lands in western North Carolina, while others are sent off to canned hunt operations in other states.
"This, to me, is no different than you raising a prize steer or a prize pig. You can do what you want with that animal," he said.
Wildlife Federation District Director Bob Brown spoke against the measure. A former dean of the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University, Brown said an outbreak of CWD would threaten the hunting industry in the state, estimated to include nearly a quarter-million deer hunters annually.
Brown was unimpressed by the bill's ban on out-of-state importation.
"Once deer farms increase in your state, we expect mischief in the form of illegal deer and venison smuggling," he said.
But deer farmer Brad Hoxit asked the panel to support the bill, calling it "very important for our farming operations."
Committee chairman Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, said earlier in the afternoon that he intended to "vote the bill out" Tuesday, and he limited committee members' questions on the sprawling omnibus in an effort to move it along.
When there were more questions than the original meeting time could accommodate, Dixon called a second meeting after the House session to finish the hearing. The bill won approval, and now moves to the House Finance Committee.