JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Missouri Department of Conservation has the authority to regulate captive deer and elk in order to control a deadly brain disease affecting the animals, ruled the state’s high court.

In a unanimous decision, the Missouri Supreme Court handed down the opinion that even if animals are confined, if that animal is wild by nature, it is considered wildlife and thus under the purview of the conservation department.

The owners of hunting preserves had the Department of Conservation’s authority to regulate captive cervids — members of the family cervidae, such as deer and elk.

Cervids can be infected with a fatal neurodegenerative disease known as chronic wasting disease. CWD can be spread directly through animal-to-animal contact or indirectly through environmental contamination. There is no known cure for the deadly disease and the only detection method is post mortem.

In an attempt to crack down on CWD — which first appeared in Missouri in 2010, the Department of Conservation established a series of regulations designed to curb the disease. The regulations, originally set to go into effect in January 2015, would ban the importation of cervids from out-of-state, impose more rigorous fencing requirements, and impose more rigorous recordkeeping and veterinary inspection requirements.

The owners of Oak Creek Whitetail Ranch, Winter Quarters Wildlife Ranch, and Whitetail Sales and Service, LLC., sued to block the requirements from going into effect alleging the Department of Conservation didn’t have the authority to regulate captive cervids and that it imposed on their constitutional right to farm.

The Missouri Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling that favored the hunting preserves, saying there is no question that deer are wildlife, even in captivity.

“It makes no difference that said deer were raised in captivity, and had become tame. They are naturally wild,” Judge Paul Wilson wrote quoting a 1907 decision.

The court also held that the hunting reserves “are not engaged in a ‘farming [or] ranching practice’ within the meaning of” the right to farm provision in the Missouri Constitution.

With the court’s ruling, it is likely the regulations will begin being enforced.

Alisha Shurr is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine. She joined the Missouri Times in January 2018 after working as a copy editor for her hometown newspaper in Southern Oregon. Alisha is a graduate of Kansas State University. Contact Alisha at alisha@themissouritimes.com.