A legislative move that prevented scrutiny of a substitute amendment to the 2014 state budget bill has kept alive the potential for more cervid farming and relaxed rules for penned deer. 

Many groups, including the N.C. Wildlife Federation and Quality Deer Management Association, oppose such an action because of the potential to bring Chronic Wasting Disease into the state, but the Senate has allowed a secret compromise to be adopted.

The story is convoluted, but Richard B. Hamilton, executive director of the NCWF’s Camouflage Coalition, explained the political maneuver by Rep. Roger West (R-Cherokee/Clay/Graham/Macon).

“That amendment was changed in the Senate/House Conference Committee to the law we now have,” Hamilton said. “Consideration of budget acts isn’t subject to or open to public scrutiny. That’s why West did it that way.”

West put the original amendment in the House version of the 2014 Budget Act. It would have taken cervid-farm management away from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and given it to the N.C. Department of Agriculture. But after the Senate rejected his amendment, West substituted a stealth rewrite that included specific cervid-farm management changes.

West’s low-flying amendment would allow cervid importation into North Carolina after July 1, 2017, plus permit the sale of antlers, antler velvet and hides and prevent the Commission from using stronger standards to screen for CWD than those used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Cervids include whitetail deer, elk, moose, axis, fallow and red deer. Of the group, only whitetails and elk are susceptible to CWD, which has killed thousands of animals in the midwest and slowly spread eastward. CWD has been reported in wild deer in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Up until now, the Commission has kept CWD out of North Carolina by not allowing importation of cervids and using restrictions stronger than USDA minimums.

Deer farms in North Carolina originally began after the Commission granted a few individuals the right to rehabilitate injured or abandoned game animals, often whitetail fawns. But as the deer grew and needed fenced-in living areas, the Commission issued permits for enclosures. Then, as people discovered the economic benefits of cervid farming, deer-pen numbers exploded.

But because of the emerging CWD threat in 2002, the Commission, under the direction of then-executive director Hamilton, began trying to curtail cervid-farm numbers. It spent $245,000 nine years ago to buy out 15 deer pen, and it has sent cervid rules to the legislature, including an import ban that it approved, and CWD has been kept at bay.

In recent years, however, deer farmers have ramped up political efforts to remove the Commission’s authority to manage cervids. They found an ally in West, whose district includes one of North Carolina’s largest deer-enclosures.

Many economic incentives exist for more and bigger deer farms – and less state scrutiny. Deer and elk antlers ground into powder, considered aphrodisiacs in Asia, cost from $20 to $120 per spray bottle. Prices for tanned hides range from $85 for one whitetail to $225 for a fallow deer. Tanned elk hides cost $10 per square foot. Deer with huge antlers than can be sold and transported legally outside North Carolina to be shot in high-fenced preserves can bring as much as $20,000 for a single animal.