Deer farmers say new state regulation will doom their businesses

Jan Shepel
Laurie Seale says regulatory action gives a “negative perspective of deer farmers to the public” and “does nothing to stop the disease.

MADISON - Wisconsin deer and elk farmers packed the board room at the meeting of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s policy board May 24 to voice their extreme disapproval of an emergency rule aimed at carrying out Governor Scott Walker’s new push to contain chronic wasting disease in the state’s overall deer herd.

Many of the deer farmers protested the enacting of new regulations under an “emergency” rule, noting that nothing has changed in the CWD battle in years. All of those who testified to the board in its usual “public appearance” section of the agenda said the rules would put them out of business.

Laurie Seale, with Whitetails of Wisconsin, said this is a wonderful time of year on a deer farm, when fawns arrive and antlers are covered with velvet. “We are very, very highly upset with ATCP 10 (the proposed emergency rule.) It has taken the wind out of our sails,” she told the board.

A deer farmer for 30 years, Seale said Wisconsin has one of the strictest rules in the nation to regulate deer farmers in the battle against CWD. The new rules would require deer farmers to double fence their farms and ban the movement of farm-raised deer in any county where CWD is found.

Rule not a solution

Seale said the wild deer herd continues to spread the disease while this kind of regulatory action gives a “negative perspective of deer farmers to the public” and “does nothing to stop the disease. Even if deer farms are put out of business today it won’t stop the spread of the disease.

“Deer farmers are doing everything they can to prevent the spread of the disease,” she added.

Deer farmer Rick Vojtik said deer farmers are already over-regulated and enforcing more rules on deer farms isn’t going to be part of the solution. “No one has shown any instance of CWD spreading to wild deer from captive deer,” he said. The disease is related to scrapie in sheep and “mad cow” disease in bovines – all are caused by prions in the central nervous system. There is no live-animal test for the fatal CWD; diagnosis is made by taking samples from brain material.

The only person to testify in favor of stricter regulations on deer farms was former DNR Secretary George Meyer who now heads the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, representing 200 fishing, hunting and trapping organizations with 50,000 members. Deer hunting with guns and bows is big business in the state, he told the board. The multi-billion dollar industry is at risk because of CWD, he added, noting there have been some escapes of deer from farmed operations.

Laurie Seale, with Whitetails of Wisconsin, said this is a wonderful time of year on a deer farm, when fawns arrive and antlers are covered with velvet.

Shawn Shaffer, with the North American Deer Farmers Association, farms in North Dakota. He told the board that deer farming is not recreation. “These are livelihoods that will be suspended or taken away if this rule is passed.”

Veterinarian Gretchen Schmidt has been a deer farmer since 1994 and the facility has been double-fenced since 2001, a year before CWD was discovered in the state’s wild deer herd. She told the board that the state should learn from how USDA handled scrapie in the nation’s sheep flocks through a flock clean-up plan.

Current genetic research in deer finds that some like mule deer are very susceptible to CWD while fallow and red deer are not, she said. “There are some markers in white-tail deer that look promising for resistance to CWD. These are being identified and if proven to be true would be an excellent way to reduce the disease in the white tail herd by introducing these genetics.”

Brad Heath, who has been a deer farmer for 20 years and who has had double fencing for 15 years, agreed that even if all deer farms were eliminated in Wisconsin “it will not stop the spread of CWD.”

Gov. Walker on May 7 issued a strategic plan for CWD and directed DATCP to work on some new rules. Because of the way state regulations are drawn up in the Walker administration, legal staff said they could not talk about specifics of the regulation.

Board member Paul Palmby said he and the board had heard reasons from the people at the meeting and read 106 pages, supplied before the meeting, as to “why not” pass this new regulation. “We have not heard a reason why here today,” he said, to applause from the deer farmers.

Secretary Sheila Harsdorf commented that the governor has recognized the importance of CWD and issued his strategic plan. The board moved to approve a preliminary public hearing on June 7 in Madison along with a comment period which will be a precursor to presentation of the proposed emergency scope statement before the DATCP board.

Though several deer farmers objected to the finding of “emergency” in this rulemaking process, department officials explained it was a way to speed up the multi-year process of a regular rule.

"Put everything into our farms"

Brian Wolf, who raises elk in Dodge County, said that since a case of CWD was found in his area he now lives in an “affected” county and would be subject to the ban on movement of live animals in the proposal. Such a ban would eliminate his two sources of income from the farm—selling meat at farmers markets and selling his bulls to hunting ranches.

Deer farmer Laurie Seale says Wisconsin has one of the strictest rules in the nation to regulate deer farmers in the battle against CWD.

“My herd was started in 2001 and I have been in the CWD monitoring program since its inception in 2002. All of the animals that died on the farm or died at slaughter have tested negative for the CWD prion. No signs of the disease have ever been present,” Wolf told the board.

Barb Armstrong told the board that her deer farm was started in 2009. “We put everything we had into our farm, inheritance, retirement funds. It’s our passion and our livelihood,” she said, adding that if the rule were to be enacted “we’re going to lose everything.

“What do we do if they close us down? We’ll have nothing left,” she said.

Jenny Cherek testified tearfully that people’s livelihoods are at stake and brought her son Logan, 11, who told the board “Don’t crush my dreams. Don’t make us kill our deer.”

80% out of business

Bob Welch, who works as a lobbyist with state deer farmers said he hopes the industry can work with the department to arrive at a rule that will not put deer farmers out of business. The proposal, as it stands, will put “80 percent of deer farms out of business in months. We think there are answers.”

He urged that board not to “kill the goose that’s about to lay the golden egg” – referring to genetic work that is finding resistance to CWD among certain strains of deer.

Today, in order to move deer, enrollment in the state’s CWD herd status program is mandatory and farmers must be enrolled in that program for at least five years before movement is allowed. Herd veterinarians do an inventory all the deer on the property and that vet reports to state officials that there were no signs of CWD.

All animals on the farm must be identified before they are 12 months old with two forms of identification. All escapes must be promptly reported and complete herd records must be maintained.

Under current rules, Welch noted, a veterinary certificate is required and must accompany every farm-raised deer that is moved from a herd in the state. Animals going to slaughter must complete a federal form. As a way to protect the regulated deer inside the fence, if two or more wild deer are found or killed within five miles of the farm and have CWD, the herd must be enclosed with a double fence.