Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD): Captive Deer Industry Jeopardizing Future of our Natural Resources

Government experimentation with captive deer created Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). Confinement operations — whether public or private — spread CWD. This fact has nothing to do with liking or disliking deer breeders, political persuasion, property rights, public rights, personal preference, hunting ethics or the motivation of any person or group who might confine deer.

CWD and deer confinement go hand-in-hand.


Letter to the Editor – Originally Appeared in Livestock Weekly May 29, 2014


Harris County’s having more state representatives than all of Texas west of I-35 should be a clear sign that making any assumptions regarding the majority’s view of the core value of natural resources, beyond a current cash market value, jeopardizes the future of that resource. Fresh water used for fracking gets popular media coverage, but how society manages all natural resources partly defines our legacy.

Most Texans haven’t noticed over the past decade, but the captive deer industry has repeatedly employed a big legislative line to try a quarterback sneak on our public resource. Their repeat efforts to lobby away many of the safeguards in wildlife regulations, along with their push to reduce or eliminate some of the health and safety precautions protecting humans and wildlife alike, have spilled out of Texas and are real legislative battles in 14 states. The captive deer breeder industry, along with the Texas Deer Association, introduced 17 bills during the previous Texas legislative session, and we should prepare for more this go-round. Showing no signs of surrender, the captive deer breeder industry has even formed a national task force evaluating changes in the breeder industry vocabulary in an effort to improve the captive breeder image with nonhunters.

In Texas, captive deer breeding isn’t a private property rights issue. Even though a captive deer breeder may choose to pay $500,000 for fictitious whitetail buck Marco Polo X, the people of Texas remain the trustees of that public resource. The captive deer breeder exists through an annual breeder license bought from the people’s wildlife department (TPWD) for the privilege to hold
the people’s deer in captivity. Only the sport who eventually kills the deer, declaring possession by putting his hunting license tag on the animal, ever “owns” the animal.

I’m not anti-captive deer. I am pro wildlife. There are captive deer breeder operations nearly everywhere; Texas has the most out of any state. These days many of us are at least neighbors to neighbors of deer breeders. More recognizable are the thousands of miles of deer-proof fencing, some containing purchased, liberated, and translocated pen-raised bucks and does. So what’s the big deal?

A four-part documentary looking into the captive deer industry as reported in March by the Indianapolis Indystar called “Buck Fever” from reporter Ryan Sabalow, quotes experts and federal authorities regarding the disease risk associated with the captive deer and elk industry.

For instance, chronic wasting disease has been found in 22 states and the Star “uncovered several cases (in 12 states) in which it (CWD) was first detected in captive deer operations, then found in nearby wild animals”. Also, “Bovine tuberculosis has been found in at least 50 captive deer and elk herds across the U.S … federal researchers said it was likely the disease spread from deer farms to cattle.”

Sabalow further reports on the other end of these disease outbreaks. “These diseases and pests have real consequences for taxpayers, the food supply, and wildlife. Indiana spent $1.2 million fighting an outbreak of bovine TB that started on a deer farm and spread to a cattle ranch. Wisconsin has spent more than $30 million fighting CWD.” The article further explains, “Once a disease enters the wild, it is hard to eradicate. Wild animals, including deer, can act as a reservoir of bovine TB, limiting progress toward eradication of the disease in cattle.”

The Indystar article suggests the greater economic impact of the captive deer industry will be the money taxpayers are going to have to pay to clean up whatever consequences await.

South Texas game wardens recently arrested another captive deer breeder, and TPWD has confiscated and is testing 200- plus penned deer for diseases including CWD and TB. This doesn’t account for the 150-plus deer which “escaped” during the notification process, all animals previously traded out of the facility, or those already consumed by hunters. It’s noteworthy to point out that the
only legislative success for breeders last session was an extension of the due process and notification protocol, which this breeder used to thwart TPWD’s effort at full containment. TPWD recently got convictions on another major deer smuggler who illegally imported three dozen bucks from potentially CWD-infected locations, which led to the discovery of 300 illegally held deer at his captive breeder facility, and caused quarantines at many secondary breeder operations. The ultimate obstacle in containing these captive deer disease outbreaks is tracing down all of the animals which were in contact with the primary quarantined breeder pen location.

For me, I get queasy when deer hooves hit the trailer floor. Putting deer on trailers and shipping them from one climate and geographic region to a whole new home on the range, where the influence of regional pests, parasites, and decades of natural selection gets chunked aside for profits fails the smell test.

The captive deer industry is understandably tight-lipped about the percentage of pen-raised deer which get shipped to be shot at hunting preserves. Unfortunately, the hunter’s often as clueless as the liberated deer, for their roles in this highly polished ship and shoot game. Still, wildlife protection laws in Texas, under the 10-day rule, hardly offer a sporting advantage to the liberated deer. The captive animal’s value is based entirely upon antler potential.

There’s nothing anti-hunting about opposing practices which potentially jeopardize our rural landscape, endanger our hunting heritage, or damage other, larger sectors of the livestock industry. Most of the potential human and animal health risks, all of the Texas deer smuggling cases, as well as most of the unethical hunting scenarios, are eliminated by stopping the movement of deer via trailers. Captive deer breeding practiced on-location, even via shipped semen, is a safer way for captive deer breeders to be better neighbors. We need to practice enforcing our public interest in our precious wildlife resources if we hope to preserve the integrity of those resources.

An estimated $650 million Texas captive deer industry hasn’t wrecked our legitimate $2 billion Texas deer hunting business, our $10.5 billion cattle industry, or our rural land prices — yet. For this you can thank a Texas game warden.

If you spent any time on a deer stand this year, take a minute to write your state rep and let them know you’re paying attention and we still value our wildlife. Let’s send a clear message of protection, not only for the natural resources held in public trust, but for the ethics woven into our hunting heritage as well. The captive breeder industry is bringing a full blitz to cash in on whitetail deer this legislative season. Speak up, speak out, write.

Your action could be the very one that convinces our legislators to value bucks over dollars.
– Brian Treadwell

Ranching, wildlife management, finance, oil & gas, real estate development and management.

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