Indiana. West Virginia. North Carolina. Missouri. The debate over the captive deer industry has been raging across all of these states and more over the past year, with numerous state governments wrestling with the implications and updating state laws. And that debate continued on the opening day of the National Deer Alliance’s 2015 North American Deer Summit: a special panel discussion on captive cervids was the centerpiece of the event Wednesday.
Nothing was more indicative of the tone that these debates have taken over recent years than the introduction given by panel facilitator Dr. Dave Guynn when he opened the conversation by saying, “These people are friends (the panel speakers), and they’ve been very cordial since they’ve been on stage. That’s the way we expect everyone on this stage to be treated. We’re not here to beat anyone up…I’m going to trust that everyone will conduct themselves as ladies and gentlemen, and let’s see what we can learn and see if there is any common ground.”
That said, as many discussions regarding captive deer do, the majority of the conversation was centered around CWD and the risks that captive deer herds might pose from a disease standpoint. The key word here was definitely “might,” as both sides of the issue had different takes on exactly what that risk might be. While Shawn Schafer of the North American Deer Farmer’s Association discussed the work being done to learn about and contain CWD in captive herds, he was also keen to point out that CWD has likely been around for longer than we realize, as we didn’t start testing for it until 1996. And, he claimed, there’s been no widespread devastation yet. On the other hand, Dr. John Fischer of the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study group was slightly more concerned, stating, “the risks to free ranging deer are not just hypothetical.” And later in the discussion, when debating the ability to accurately detect CWD, Fischer went on to explain, “We have two test results, either positive or not detected. No one’s willing to say the animal is free of CWD. I mention that as an indicator of the great unknowns we’re dealing with with this disease.”
This sentiment of concern was echoed for much of the afternoon, maybe most passionately by deer hunting personality and wildlife biologist Dr. Grant Woods. In response to the unknowns that Fischer referred to, Grant suggested that we take all possible precautions. “It seems to me as a land owner and a biologist of over 25 years,” he explained, “that at this stage, until we know more, the most logical step is to stop the movement of infected or potentially infected animals, which is every animal (deer) out there.”
While disease is seemingly a legitimate concern, with the conversation so focused on the semantics of that side of the debate, some were concerned that another major risk surrounding the captive deer industry in America was being overlooked. That being the ethics and public perception issue.
Jenny Sanders of Texans for Saving Our Hunting Heritage raised this concern when she explained: “More than 70 percent of the non-hunting public supports hunting, but they don’t support canned hunting. We’re concerned about this from a public perception standpoint, because they’re the ones who are doing the voting and they’re the ones who have our future in their hands when it comes to regulation and whether or not they’re going to put up with hunting.”
While it was certainly helpful to bring both sides of the table to have this discussion, it’s clear that consensus is going to be hard to find and the conversation is far from over. Today, in fact, the North American Deer Summit attendees voted the captive deer industry as one of their top issues of concern. So at least for now, it appears that the debate will rage on, both within the National Deer Alliance and beyond.