X-Factor, a deer owned by an Indiana farmer, was once believed to be worth $1 million as a breeder buck in the trophy deer industry. / The Indianapolis Star
INDIANAPOLIS -- Six members of Congress are urging federal agricultural officials to ban the interstate movement of captive deer, saying a national industry that breeds bucks to be shot as trophies in "canned" hunts isn't worth the disease risks.
In a letter sent Friday to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and top U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, the six Democrats cited an Indianapolis Star investigation this spring that uncovered case after case linking the captive deer industry to the spread of various diseases.
"Considering USDA's limited resources, it would be prudent for the agency to adopt a precautionary approach, consistent with its regulatory authority, and prohibit interstate transport of captive-bred cervids in order to quell the burgeoning threats the inhumane canned-hunting industry poses to the health of livestock, native wildlife and even humans," the letter says. "Cervid" is the scientific name for deer.
At least 21 states already prohibit the importation of certain species of captive deer, fearing imported animals could infect wild herds with chronic wasting disease, an always-fatal deer disease similar to mad cow.
CWD has not been found in Indiana, which has about 400 deer farms, many of which ship deer in and out of the state.
The USDA enforces a CWD monitoring and herd-certification program, but because there is no reliable test for live deer, The Star investigation revealed, infected animals can be shipped into a disease-free state undetected. Escapes are common in captive deer operations.
The letter contends that the USDA's certification program doesn't go far enough to limit the spread of the disease, "and the agency has not taken adequate steps to prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis from captive-bred cervids to cattle."
Shawn Schafer, executive director of the North American Deer Farmers Association, couldn't be reached for comment, but he has said in previous interviews that there's no need for restrictions on deer shipments because state and federal disease-control efforts are doing a good job detecting infections before they have a chance to spread.
The Star's investigation revealed that the 10,000 deer and elk farmers in the U.S. are shipping an unprecedented number of deer and elk across state lines to supply the burgeoning high-fence hunting industry. Deer and elk are bred for abnormally large antlers, some bigger than the established world record for wild animals. Top breeding stock can fetch six-figure prices.
The Star's investigation revealed that bovine tuberculosis has been found in 50 captive deer and elk herds, and researchers say they believe that in at least four instances the disease jumped from captive deer and elk to cattle.
The Star's investigation also uncovered circumstantial evidence that the industry may have helped accelerate the spread of CWD, which has been found in 22 states.
CWD's spread roughly coincides with the captive-deer industry's growth. In half of the states where CWD was found, it first appeared in a commercial deer operation. Wildlife officials in Missouri, Nebraska, New York and Canada think captive deer or elk introduced the disease to the wild.
CWD is not known to have ever infected humans, but scientists say that as more people come in contact with infected deer and eat CWD-tainted venison, the risk increases.
Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., is the letter's primary author. He co-chairs the Congressional Animal Protection Caucus. The letter's five other authors also are on the caucus.
"The desire of a few hunters to have a big deer antler trophy on their wall does not justify the threat posed by these operations," Moran told The Star last month before he sent the letter to the USDA. Moran couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.
USDA spokeswoman Joelle Hayden said the agency is reviewing the letter, but she offered no comment.
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