The state legislature made a 180-degree turnaround early this week and handed over management of deer farms in North Carolina to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, taking authority from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

On Thursday, Sept. 24, the N.C. House had dropped a section of the Agriculture Bill of 2015-16 that turned over management of penned-in whitetail deer from the Commission to the Ag agency and passed the bill by an 86-13 margin. Another vote on Monday, Sept. 28, was 90-11 for the bill that kept the Commission in control. That same day, however, a seven-person conference committee of Republican members of the Senate and House rewrote the bill and put back in the section that had been dropped. The bill was quickly approved 70-44 on Tuesday, Sept. 29, in the House and 42-4 in the Senate and needed only Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature to become law.

Fifty-five members of the N.C. House – 42 Republicans and 13 Democrats – who have voted to keep management of deer farms with the Commission changed their minds and voted for the last version of the bill that stripped the Commission of management authority.

“Now whitetail deer and elk are classified as farm animals instead of wildlife,” said Richard B. Hamilton, executive director of the N.C. Wildlife Federation’s Camo Coalition and a former executive director of the Commission.

House Republicans apparently responded to pressure from legislative leadership and other legislators who received campaign donations from a small group of  deer farmers led by Tom Smith, the former CEO of the Food Lion grocery chain. According to sources, the need to end an over-long legislative session also was a factor in the fast reversal. 

Legislators who supported the Commission pointed out that the agency’s strict rules on importing and transporting farm-raised deer had kept the deadly Chronic Wasting Disease out of the state’s deer farms and wild deer population for almost 12 years. Deer in 23 states and two Canadian provinces have been certified to have had CWD in either wild or pen-raised populations – or both.

Conservation organizations and hunting organizations including the NC Wildlife Federation, the Camo Coalition and the Quality Deer Management Association were disappointed in the turn over events – and the state legislators.

“The conference committee was stacked,” said Hamilton, who served 37 years with the Commission, including nine as executive director. “The outcome was pre-ordained because conference committee members were selected by the leadership of the House and Senate. All of them favored deer farming because (leadership) put no opponents on the conference committee. It took them a half- hour to meet and put the (section) back in the bill.”

Rep. Tim Moore (R-Cleveland), the speaker of the House, appointed to the conference committee Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R-Duplin/Wayne), Rep. Roger West (R-Cherokee/Clay/Graham/Macon), Rep. Chris Whitmore (R-Henderson/Polk/Transylvania) and Rept. Mark Brody (R-Anson/Union). Sen. Phil Berger (R-Guilford/Rockingham), the president pro tempore of the Senate, appointed Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Duplin/Johnston/Sampson), Sen. Trudy Wade (R-Guilford) and Sen. Andrew Brock (R-Davie/Iredell/Rowan).

Rep. Jay Adams (R-Catawba), who led the effort to keep deer farms managed by the Commission, gave an impassioned speech before the final votes in both chambers.

“I tried to illuminate (that) we have a public-trust doctrine in North Carolina, that wildlife belongs to all of us,” he said. “My problem with the Agriculture Department overseeing deer is it violates a system we’ve had in place since 1947 when the Wildlife Commission was tasked with protecting the public trust that includes deer. You can put a deer in a pen, but it doesn’t turn into a cow.

“If (CWD) hits North Carolina, cleaning up and condemning land will become very expensive,” he said.

Normally a major rewrite of a bill’s section, especially one so different from original legislation, takes days or weeks. Adams said a major lobbying effort and backroom political tactics turned this change into one that came about almost overnight.

“John Cooper (lobbyist for the N.C. Deer and Elk Farmers Association) took Smith around to meet legislators in their offices,” Adams said. “It was obvious there was heavy lobbying. Arms were twisted and people intimidated.

“We had a good bill, but (the process) had a poison pill. (Deer-farm supporters) knew Sen. Jackson would take care of it there — and he did. He restored all the provisions. I knew then (it) would swing in favor of passage. There was very aggressive lobbying by Jackson, John Cooper, Tom Smith and Dixon. A big tipping point was Farm Bureau lobbying.”

Hamilton said taking deer-farm oversight away from the Commission “was politics and money. 

“Steve Troxler (the commissioner or agriculture) wanted to get along with Sen. Jackson, who is chairman of important committees. He also wanted to get along with the (Moore) and to help Tom Smith, who had given him $17,000 to $18,000 over the years. But initially, he didn’t want the responsibility thrust upon him.”

Hamilton pointed out the farm bill that was adopted doesn’t allow for deer-shooting pens, but U.S. Department of Agriculture rules apply only to public-shooting areas, not private hunting pens.

“The Ag Department may now allow private shooting pens, so a guy with trophy deer can invite his friends over to shoot big deer,” he said. “Will that happen? No one knows.”