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Deadly Deer Disease Raising Concerns About Hunting Preserves

Chronic Wasting Disease is highly-contagious and usually fatal.

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State lawmakers are once again considering whether to crack down on captive deer hunting.

The controversial sport allows people to hunt farm-raised deer in a fenced-in area.

Deer farmers have been battling the Department of Natural Resources in court and at the statehouse for eight years over an attempt to ban enclosed deer-hunting areas.

Rodney Bruce, the owner of Whitetail Bluff in Corydon, filed a lawsuit against the DNR in 2005, and a Harrison County judge  ruled last year the DNR overstepped its authority by trying to regulate the hunting preserves.

Now, a legislative study committee is looking into whether laws should be changed – or if the preserves should be shut down.

The Fear of Chronic Wasting Disease

At the center of the controversy is a deadly disease that’s spreading rapidly in neighboring states called Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD.

Chronic Wasting Disease is similar to Mad Cow Disease and attacks deer and elk nervous systems, causing brain lesions.

But, scientists haven’t discovered a treatment.

“The biggest problem is there’s no live test for it, no way to tell until the animal dies,” said Doug Allman, spokesman for the Indiana Deer Hunters Association. “And, by then, it’s too late. It could have infected many, many other deer.”

Allman says the association wants to see hunting preserves shut down. Members think importing farm-raised deer from other states puts Indiana at higher risk for Chronic Wasting Disease.

“It’s being spread from, most likely, on trucks,” Allman said. “You don’t leap frog certain states and then, three states away, we have Chronic Wasting Disease in both pen and outside the fence.”

According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center, Chronic Wasting Disease has been found in both captive and wild deer in more than 20 states.

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When the disease is discovered, states try to kill the herds the infected deer came into contact with, to prevent Chronic Wasting Disease from spreading.

But, even then, it can have a devastating impact.

“There’s no cure for it,” said Barbara Simpson, executive director of the Indiana Wildlife Federation. “Once you get it into a state, you have it. The animals that are on the soil that contaminate the soil, that disease vector stays there forever. You can never use that soil again.”

Opponents of high-fenced hunting say the captive deer industry perpetuates the problem. They also think the preserves are unethical and a bad representation of the sport.

So, they want them shut down.

Captive Deer Industry Fighting Ban

North American Deer Farmer Association Executive Director Shawn Schafer says farmers are spending thousands of dollars to try and keep Chronic Wasting Disease out of the state.

Every deer that comes to a hunting preserve is tested, while only a small portion of wild deer are tested.

And, scientists still don’t know exactly how the disease is transmitted.

“There’s a lot of areas to be concerned with – carcass transportation, taxidermy, movement of hay, vegetables,” Schafer said. “They’re finding many different ways that this could possibly move.”

There’s also nothing to stop wild deer from walking into neighboring states and introducing Chronic Wasting Disease.

Jim Staats owns a deer farm on the west side of Bloomington and says that makes it unfair to blame the captive deer industry.

He’s worried placing more regulations on high-fenced hunting could put some family-owned deer farms out of business.

“The hunting preserves are our farmer’s market,” Staats said. “And, the state of Indiana I think we’re down to three or four hunting preserves. We’re losing a lot of revenue in the state of Indiana – revenue of hunters coming in, the hotels, the food, everything.”

Staats says he hopes legislators will put emotions aside and focus on scientific research as they consider how to move forward. He doesn’t want to see captive hunting banned just because some groups don’t agree with the practice.

The study committee will meet again before making recommendations later this year.

Legislators are expected to take the issue up during the 2015 session.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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