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Conservationists gear up for fight against captive cervid legislation

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Brandon Butler, the executive director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri, is especially fond of one quote from President and noted conservationist Teddy Roosevelt. “The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak, so we must and we will.” To Butler, it succinctly and perfectly explains his role as a conservationist. He advocates for the preservation of nature through responsible stewardship of the environment.

He may have to use that advocacy this legislative session as the House and Senate are expected to debate two bills sponsored by Sen. Brian Munzlinger and Rep. Jay Houghton to change some of the language regarding captive cervids. Primarily, the bills would put these captive deer and elk under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture instead of the Department of Conservation, freeing them from multiple regulations deer breeders currently find restrictive.

While proponents of such legislation argue the legislation serves as a way to free the market, Butler says the bill essentially amounts to weighing the private interests of a relatively small group of deer farmers and deer breeders to the welfare of the state’s wild deer population, which Butler calls the state’s most important wildlife resource.

brandon butler confedmo
Brandon Butler

“They just don’t want any regulation,” Butler says. “They want to be under the purview of the department of agriculture so they don’t have to be governed by a wildlife agency.”

Butler adds that classifying these deer as livestock would be incorrect as they are not grown and harvested solely for resources. Instead, he points to hunting ranches and lodges that charge in the thousands of dollars for the opportunity to hunt deer with massive, selectively bred antlers in an enclosed facility.

“As soon as we start shooting cows and pigs for sport, we should consider deer livestock,” Butler says. “These are grown for trophy hunting. They’re not grown for food. They’re looking for a manipulated trophy rack to experience the thrill of the hunt without experiencing the hunt.”

Integrity of the hunt

As a conservationist, Butler has two primary reservations about the methods used by these lodges. His first concern is strictly ethical, but Butler is no animal rights activist. His office at the Conservation Federation is lined with taxidermied deer head mounts and macerated bear skulls, all animals he has shot and killed himself. However, he did so where his quarry roamed free and had a sporting chance at survival. The trophy ranches Butler decries guarantee a kill and offer the deer, which are essentially domesticated and conditioned to approach humans, no chance of escape.

“The ethics we feel are a direct assault on the heritage of traditional hunting,” Butler says.

However, Jacques deMoss, president of the Missouri Deer Association, counters that Missouri’s high standards for high fence hunting offer something more than “canned hunts” where a deer is given only a few acres to roam.

“[Missouri] requires a minimum of well over 300 acres, which, if it isn’t the biggest, is one of the biggest in the country,” deMoss says. “Most of the preserves are well beyond that in the thousands of acres.”

While deMoss argues captive hunts in Missouri are still ethical, Butler says the on-demand nature of such practices delegitimizes it as an act of hunting.

“That’s the sickness of this whole industry. You can go and say, ‘Well, I want to kill a 200-inch, 10-pointer with a dark rack,” and they’ll just find that one, drug it, put it in a trailer, drive it to a hunting facility, you come in, walk through the gate, and there it is: you can kill it,” Butler says. “Sometimes it’s more complicated than that. Can it go hide? Yeah, but it’s not like you’re hunting on a farm where it’s going to go to the other end of the corn field. It’s going to come to the feeder when the alarm goes off and you’re going to shoot it right there.

“Why don’t you just go to the zoo and shoot a bear in its pen? It falsifies the entire thing that I stand for.”

Chris Kossmeyer, the president of Missouri Hunters for Fair Chase, adds the hunt is not simply about killing an animal.

“It’s about the bond that happens between fathers and their children and grandfathers and their grandkids,” he says. “It is about the heritage that comes along with the bonding element of being together in the woods, experiencing the outdoors.”

His organization has filed five varying versions of initiative petitions all of which relate to big game hunting. The one criteria those petitions share would keep confined hunting facilities from being defined as farming or ranching. Kossmeyer emphasizes that the effort promoted by his organization is not one of animal rights activism. Although the Humane Society of the United States does oppose confined hunting, Kossmeyer says his organization is made up of hunters and conservationists.

Just as Kossmeyer does not want anyone in the general public to confuse his as a collection of a card-carrying PETA members, Butler does not want people to believe confined hunting is the proper form of hunting, especially because it can do irreparable image harm to the industry and culture of hunting. A 2012 study from the U.S. Department of the Interior found only about 6 percent of Americans hunt, but a 2008 survey from the National Shooting Sports Foundation found that almost 80 percent of Americans support the practice of deer hunting. Yet that number drops precipitously when it comes to captive cervids. That latter study found 67 percent of Americans oppose high fence hunting.

“We don’t want the general public to make the mistake that the 520,000 deer hunters in Missouri… are the same as the people going into a caged facility and killing a deer that cannot escape,” Butler says.

Hidden dangers of chronic wasting disease

However, Butler argues a much larger specter hangs over confined hunting. While The Missouri Times has reported on the effects and epidemiology of chronic wasting disease before, it has devoted little time to its transmission. The movement of the disease itself has caused some experts to believe human activity has contributed to its spread either through the movement of tissues or from transporting infected and still living deer and elk.

Dr. Michael W. Miller with the Colorado Division of Wildlife is considered one of the foremost researchers of the disease. He notes CWD spreads more like scrapie than Mad Cow Disease and that the prions, the causative agent of the disease, can persist in the environment even in the absence of a host. And while it can spread in the wild, like most other animal diseases it spreads faster in captive settings.

“For a variety of reasons, it will accelerate more rapidly in a captive setting than it would in a natural setting,” Miller says. “That’s not to say it can’t be prevalent in the wild, but certainly the long distances the disease can move are not things that would typically occur just with natural animal movements. It’s pretty stunning how far and wide they can go.”

The most extreme example of this distance is when the disease was discovered in an elk in South Korea during the late 1990s. It had been imported to the Asian country from a captive cervid facility in Canada. The spread of the disease in the United States has featured less drastic leaps. While CWD spread organically from Colorado to Wyoming and then into Nebraska and South Dakota, it suddenly made a leap to non-contiguous states like Wisconsin, West Virginia, and New York. However, it’s not conclusive those cases were because of the import of infected deer or elk. Only the New York case was the result of a captive deer, and a relatively recent case in Norway suggests the disease may have spread organically as the nation has strict laws banning imports of captive cervids.

Wyoming, one of the earliest and most impacted states, has only one captive elk facility in the entire state and none for deer. The creation of new ones is prohibited by statute as a way to fight the disease.

deMoss argues against this point, noting that the Department of Agriculture and breeders and ranch owners themselves keep meticulous records of the movement of deer between ranches.

“I know a lot of people believe high fence deer farmers represent a risk of bringing CWD into the state, but to be honest, the risk is very small,” deMoss says. “We have to test 100 percent of all mortalities. Any kind of argument that we’re the source of infection really doesn’t sound out because we have such stringent record keeping.”

However, Butler points out lawsuits pending against one particular Missouri deer farmer for his violation of the Lacey Act, which protects wildlife like deer. Similar cases have happened regularly across the country, usually tied to the deer trade between states, casting some doubt on deMoss’ claims that record keeping is sufficient to ensure no diseases are spread between breeders.

Regardless of how it has spread, moving deer or elk across the country comes with risks whether it is going to or from an infected state. Missouri has had just under 40 recorded cases of the disease since testing began in the mid-2000s. While the figure is tiny compared to states like Wisconsin, Arkansas, Wyoming and Colorado that does not mean the impact of the disease is small.

Miller says the spread of the disease, which can take months to even show symptoms and well over a year to kill an infected host, is just now starting to affect cervids enough for humans to understand the magnitude of what it can do to a deer or elk population.

“Over the long haul, those affected herds they may limp along, but it limits the ability to sustain harvest at the rates that they would sustain sports hunting in the absence of the disease,” he says.

In Macon County, Missouri where the disease has hardest hit the state, the leasing of recreational property for deer hunting is a major industry for the area. Kossmeyer says the diminished deer herd in Macon and other impacted counties has hurt those regions financially, especially through devalued real estate. An in-depth report on the captive hunting industry by the Indianapolis Star found Missouri’s Department of Conservation spent over $1 million culling deer during one outbreak in 2010.

For Butler, the fear of eating infected meat is enough to keep him away from deer in that part of the state, even though there’s no indication CWD can jump to humans.

“I don’t want to hunt a deer in Southeast Wyoming,” he says, naming one of the hotspots for the disease. “I have two young daughters. Am I going to knowingly feed them chronic wasting disease infected deer? Everybody I know says absolutely not.”

Regulation, regulation, regulation

Now, we turn back to the two captive cervid bills in question. They’re partially created in response to regulations passed down in 2014 by Missouri Department of Conservation setting new regulations on the captive cervid industry. The rules would have closed Missouri’s borders in regards to the deer and elk trade and mandated new fencing and inventory requirements, above other things.

“Quite frankly, they were designed to make it so difficult that these people would stop or they would be so cumbersome or expensive they would go out of business,” deMoss says.

Butler does not buy the rules would have forced the industry out of business.

“Texas and Florida are two of the three largest captive deer industry states in the country,” he said. “They both already have in place regulations that are exactly the same as what MDC passed in closing the borders. 23 states have closed borders, yet somehow they continue to operate.

“They’re just lying. They want to be able to buy a deer, from another state and ship it in without any regard for what that could mean to all of us who cherish our state’s most valuable wildlife species.”

But when a collection of deer farmers sued the MDC, Judge Robert D. Schollmeyer twice sided in the deer farmer’s favor, granting an injunction to prevent the new regulations from going into effect. The case is still in the appeals process, but it emphasizes the scale of the fight between deer farmers and conservationists. With bills in both chambers of the General Assembly, initiative petitions set to receive signatures and a court case pending a final verdict, much of the battle for conservationists still lies ahead.

Butler, however, keeps his feet planted, and he’ll keep fighting for what he believes is right.

“We as hunter-conservationists need to do everything we can to exude ethical pursuit of these animals to the general public, so we can continue hunting in the future,” he says.