Raleigh, N.C. — A bill filed in the state Senate on Wednesday would expand captive deer farming in North Carolina.
The measure would transfer oversight and regulation of captive deer herds from the state's Wildlife Resources Commission to the Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. It's part of an omnibus Farm Bill sponsored by Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, who said it "sets the scene for an entirely new industry."
Wildlife Resources Commission Chairman Gordon Myers said there are around three dozen captive deer operations already in the state, some of which supply venison to restaurants or ship deer to other states for canned hunts on private reserves. He said the Agriculture Department and his agency have long worked in partnership to inspect those herds, and he expects the commission will remain involved.
The major concern many conservationists have expressed about the deer farming is that it could bring a deadly deer disease, chronic wasting disease, or CWD, into the state as breeding animals are transferred between farms. There is currently no live test for the disease; it can be confirmed only after an animal has died.
CWD is a highly contagious, fatal disease that infects cervids – animals with antlers, such as deer, elk, and moose. It has devastated wild populations of white-tailed deer in more than 20 states, but it has not yet been found in North Carolina.
For years, the Wildlife Resources Commission has fought to limit the expansion of captive cervid herds in the state, warning that they could introduce the disease to North Carolina. Would-be deer farmers have fought back, saying the risk is being blown out of proportion and accusing the commission of heavy-handed enforcement tactics. The dispute became fraught with politics last year as Rep. Roger West, R-Cherokee, turned a sympathetic ear to the would-be deer farmers.
Agriculture Secretary Steve Troxler also sounded sympathetic Wednesday, saying CWD could easily enter the state through the wild population.
"Deer do not recognize state boundaries," Troxler said. "There's a risk when hunters go to other states that have CWD and bring back carcasses."
Troxler said his department had not sought the regulatory transfer but said it "makes perfect sense" because the Agriculture Department already monitors for and manages disease in other farm animal populations, such as poultry and swine. He added that his agency has a solid track record, veterinary expertise and diagnostic labs across the state.
The deer farms would be inspected and managed according to U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, he said.
"We have these areas of expertise, and we intend to bring in additional biosecurity," Troxler said. "We take measures to be sure that whatever disease is present at one facility won't be spread to another."
Jackson confirmed the bill does not include any funding for additional personnel at the Agriculture Department to manage the increased workload. Troxler said he'll ask for more if it's needed.
The North Carolina Wildlife Federation opposes the move and the expansion of captive deer farming in the state.
"North Carolina does not need to relax regulations governing the issuance of new captivity licenses for white-tailed deer and elk, nor does the state need to allow the sale of captive deer and elk to fulfill the demand of fenced shooting preserves for paying customers in places like Texas," NCWF said in a statement. "We feel strongly that the commercialization and exploitation of public trust resources is extremely damaging to professional, science-based wildlife management of our native deer herds."
The bill will likely receive its first committee hearing next week.