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Don’t defend sloppy deer farmers

August 27, 2017 GMT

In my 15 years of writing off-and-on about chronic wasting disease, I interviewed members of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health on several occasions. The one thing all of our conversations had in common was the board’s insistence that it had darn-near impeccable records of every captive elk and deer on every cervid farm in the state.

I pressed them on this topic, but the answer was always the same. The board knew where the animals were, how many there were, to whom they were being sold and when and how they died. I also was told that escapes were rare, and that in those rare cases, animals that found themselves outside a fence tended to linger nearby because that’s where they were fed.

Frankly, I always thought the BAH painted a too-rosy picture. It came across as a staunch advocate for and defender of the cervid farming industry, rather than an oversight board.

Eventually, some excellent reporting by the Star Tribune revealed how common escapes actually are. In 2015 and 2016, a total of 121 captive deer and elk escaped Minnesota farms, and 26 were never found. As recently as 2011, escapes topped 100 in a single year, with 29 unrecovered.

Of late there have been some changes in personnel at the BAH, but it appears that the cozy relationship between the board and the cervid farmers it regulates hasn’t changed.

This week the Star Tribune reported that the Minnesota DNR has requested the BAH suspend the deer farming license of a Spring Valley operation and quarantine any animals remain there. Among the DNR’s complaints about the farm are these:

* Unintelligible records.

* A storm-damaged fence that was both unreported and unrepaired for weeks, allowing the entire captive deer herd to escape.

* No attempt to recover escaped captive deer.

* Lack of ear tags on captive deer.

* Interfering with the DNR’s efforts to remove escaped deer from the surrounding area.

I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the DNR’s statements about this deer farmer. And, given this farm’s proximity to the area where 10 CWD-positive wild deer have been killed, any one of these violations alone would be a big deal.

But the Board of Animal Health is treating the DNR as if it’s a bunch of wild-eyed conspiracy theorists. State veterinarian Beth Thompson, who now heads the BAH, essentially told the DNR to stop blaming deer farmers for the spread of CWD and even hinted that captive deer might be contracting CWD from the wild deer herd.

Clearly, the BAH and the farmed cervid industry are in full defense mode, yet so far, there is no smoking gun. If you want to connect the dots in various states -- and people a lot smarter than I are doing that -- you can build a good circumstantial case for the link between the interstate movement of captive deer and elk and the spread of CWD in wild deer. The slam-dunk evidence, however, has yet to be found, and it might not exist.

But what I don’t understand is the way the BAH and other deer and elk farmers react when one of their own plays fast and loose with the rules.

I have no doubt that the vast majority of the state’s deer and elk farmers are ethical. They maintain good records. They keep their fences in good repair and react immediately when escapes happen. They use ear tags. When an animal dies, they report it and have it tested for CWD.

So, when someone gives the farmed deer industry a black eye, the ethical farmers shouldn’t be loyal. They shouldn’t be silent. They should publicly denounce the offender and demand that his operation be shut down, because it’s possible that the future of deer farming could very well be determined by one bad egg. If and when an ear-tagged CWD-positive deer is found staggering through a swamp or pasture a few miles from a downed fence or an open gate, it won’t take long for a lawmaker to introduce legislation that would shut down an industry that is a mere blip on the state’s economic radar compared to the revenue generated by the hunting of wild deer.

The BAH regulates the farmed cervid industry, but it shouldn’t behave like a hired shill that routinely opposes the efforts of the DNR while defending farmers who take a cavalier attitude toward rules meant to prevent the spread of CWD.