One section of the bill would move the oversight of "captive cervid herds" – deer and elk farms – from the Wildlife Resources Commission to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and would allow deer to be transferred between farms within the state. It would ban the importation into the state of cervids susceptible to chronic wasting disease, such as whitetailed deer, until a live test for CWD has been established. The state's farm animal vets would be in charge of monitoring for the disease.
"This has been a long process," Jackson added.
Chronic wasting disease is a highly contagious virus that causes brain lesions and death in infected deer. The disease has wiped out huge populations of wild deer in other states, and conservation and hunting groups fear the importation of an infected farm deer could similarly decimate North Carolina's population.
"It's the Ebola of the deer farm," said Bob Brown, vice chairman of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation and former dean of North Carolina State University's College of Natural Resources, warning the Senate Agriculture Committee to disapprove the proposal.
"There’s no test for live animals, no treatment, no cure, and once it’s here. It’s in the soil permanently," Brown said.
Proponents of the change insist that the Agriculture Department, which has expertise in dealing with food animal disease, will require full precautionary measures to ensure the captive herds can't intermingle with wild herds and to quarantine any outbreak in a captive facility.
Brown was skeptical. "There’s no such thing as a deer-proof fence," he cautioned.
While deer farmers say they support the move because the Agriculture Department could help them market their products, Brown argued the industry's main cash crop isn't venison.
"Most of the deer raised in North Carolina are to be used in canned hunts in other states," he said, noting that all of the state's major hunting and conservation groups oppose both deer farming and canned hunting.
Deer farmer Henry Hampton spoke in favor of the bill, arguing that current research on CWD shows it's safe to move deer within a state as long as the farm has been certified clear of CWD for five years.
"It was the CWD that brought this to a head in 2002," Hampton said. "There was a set of regulations implemented in 2002 that completely stopped any deer farming or any movement of deer in the state of North Carolina. The herds that are in existence now have not had one gene of new blood in 12 years. It’s not been limited; it’s been zero."
Wildlife Resources Commission director Gordon Myers also spoke in favor of the bill, noting its "straight-up prohibition" on importing susceptible cervids and its ban on canned hunting in North Carolina.
Myers said it's the commission's job to protect the public herd, which supplies 250,000 hunters in the state, an industry worth an estimated $350 million. Under the proposal, the commission would still have sole authority over those wild herds. but he said the involvement of the Department of Agriculture "will help us address critical risks associated with CWD transmission and other diseases."
Co-sponsor Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, said the disease could easily enter the state through "natural migration" from Virginia or West Virginia.
"Those deers can’t read that they're entering into North Carolina when they cross the state line. Then, CWD will be in North Carolina," he argued.
But committee members on both sides were sharply critical.
Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, said her county commissioners have passed a resolution against the proposal.
"Our hunting heritage that we depend on, especially in eastern North Carolina, is being put at risk for the benefit of really a few deer farmers," Bryant said.
Sen. John Alexander, R-Wake, was also skeptical.
"There’s going to be big money made with these deer farms," Alexander warned. "There's going to be a temptation to import deer from outside the state because of the genes or because they have big racks or the does are bigger. These deer are not going to inspected for CWD, and we could be bringing this disease into the state."
Despite opposition, the measure passed the Senate Agriculture Committee on a voice vote. Its next stop is in the Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday.