The bad news is that chronic wasting disease, or CWD, has reached epidemic proportions among deer in some parts of the United States.
The good news is that the Missouri Department of Conservation has so far been successful in containing the spread of CWD after finding cases of the disease at a captive deer breeding operation in 2010.
The bad news is that the Missouri General Assembly recently voted to strip the Department of Conservation of much of its ability to control CWD and to transfer this authority to the Department of Agriculture. The legislators took this action despite the testimony of Tony Benz, the legislative liaison of the Department of Agriculture, who said his department did not want this authority; and despite the fact that the Department of Agriculture, unlike the Department of Conservation, does not employ wildlife biologists or wildlife veterinarians.
The driving force behind this transfer of authority is farmers who breed captive deer and charge thousands of dollars for the right to shoot them within fenced-in enclosures. Their argument is that confining deer within these enclosures makes them more like livestock than wildlife and they should be regulated accordingly.
Frankly, characterizing captive deer as livestock strikes me as odd. Breeders of other livestock send their animals to slaughterhouses. They don’t bring in hunters to shoot their cattle and hogs. Then again, shooting captive deer inside a corral doesn’t seem a lot like hunting either.
The Department of Conservation is interested in breeders of captive deer not because of their so-called hunting practices, but because captive deer are susceptible to the same diseases as their counterparts in the wild. The threat of transmission of disease from captive deer to the rest of the deer population in the state is real. The Department of Conservation is the agency charged by the Missouri Constitution with protecting the health of Missouri’s deer herd.
The veterinarians and biologists who work for the Department of Conservation have the training and expertise required to oversee the health of wild animals such as deer. The employees of the Department of Agriculture are dedicated professionals, competent in their respective fields. They are not, however, trained in managing wildlife and understandably don’t want the responsibility of doing so.
Many of the deer breeders have resisted regulation by the Department of Conservation as an imposition on their property rights. While rights of private property have enjoyed significant protection throughout American history, they are not absolute. No single property owner has the right to poison the air that the rest of us breathe or the water the rest of us drink. Likewise, the owners of captive deer do not have the right to expose the wild deer in Missouri to CWD and other infectious diseases.
Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bills that would transfer the authority to oversee the health of captive deer from the Department of Conservation to the Department of Agriculture. The General Assembly will vote next week whether to override this veto. The General Assembly should not do so. It would be a bad idea to undermine an agency that has been a national model in successful wildlife management since the 1930s.
Tom Schlafly is a lawyer in St. Louis.
For the other side of the issue see Commentary: Farmed Deer and Wild Deer Need Different Oversight