Sam James built a tall fence around his 700-acre family farm near Fulton 22 years ago to create a captive deer hunting ranch, called Whitetail Dreams, where a hunter can spend thousands of dollars to bring home a trophy buck. Ranch hands patrol the perimeter twice a day, and they regularly test the animals for diseases.
Now, the Missouri Department of Conservation says that 8-foot fence may not be high enough to keep his deer from escaping into the wild, and the agency wants to force all captive deer ranches in the state to construct a secondary fence that’s 10 feet high.
The MDC, which is concerned about the spread of chronic wasting disease in the wild deer population, also wants to regulate how the ranchers move their deer around, test them for diseases, record births and deaths and put an end to deer imports.
The agency estimates that 150 captive deer have escaped in the past three years, and four years ago deer from a captive hunting ranch tested positive for chronic wasting disease.
James and other members of the Missouri Whitetail Breeders and Hunting Ranch Association oppose the new regulations and want to be regulated by the state Department of Agriculture rather than the largely independent MDC. James said banning deer imports will put the ranches, nearly 40 in all, out of business.
“They want to close the borders [for deer] because they don’t like our industries and they want to shut us down,” James said. “There’s absolutely no science in closing the borders.”
In the waning days of the General Assembly’s legislative session this year, lawmakers sympathetic to the deer ranchers put an amendment into the Dairy Farming Revitalization Act that would change the definition of captive deer from “wildlife” to “livestock” and place the operations under the control of the state Department of Agriculture.
The act passed unanimously in the Senate and 101-38 in the House. Dairy farming supporters have said the amendment was slipped into a politically popular bill that is now drawing significant public opposition because of the captive deer proposal. James said the captive deer proposal had been in the works since 2013, and was not a last-minute decision.
Gov. Jay Nixon has until July 14 to decide whether to sign the bill into law.
“We’re not looking to be unregulated,” James said. “We just want the regulations to be based on science. Just because you’re against high-fence hunting doesn’t mean you should support us staying in the (Department of) Conservation.”
Marginal land to profitable business
James is the owner of two captive deer hunting ranches and a breeding facility in the state, and he has converted a square mile of woodlands into a hunter’s haven.
The deer roam around streams and hills and graze in open fields, where deer feeding boxes are overlooked by hunting stands that look like tiny cabins on stilts. The bucks are bred to be much larger than those roaming free, with enormous antlers that are rare in the wild.
“It’s a great, small family business,” James said. “You can take a marginal piece of land and turn it into something great.”
James said that many of his clients come to the ranch on corporate business trips, with nearly 80 percent of his clients coming from outside Missouri. The recently renovated hunting lodge can accommodate up to 14 people, and some hunters bring their families.
James prices his hunts according to what a hunter hopes to kill. The hunter chooses the size range of the deer, both in weight and antler points. The lowest bracket starts at $3,400 and the most expensive bracket begins at $10,900. If they don’t kill a deer they don’t pay the amount, but they do pay if they wound the animal and it gets away. All hunters pay a deposit starting at $1,500, which is non-refundable even if the hunter comes away empty-handed. The fees all include a three-day hunting package that covers licenses, lodging, food and six guided hunts. The hunters will also be charged Missouri sales tax.
James explained that the prices are based on the high cost of maintaining the ranch, and he calculates a 50 percent markup from the estimated cost of breeding and raising the deer. He spends $500 per year to feed each deer. He pays six full-time employees, along with four or five guides during hunting season.
There are 39 big-game hunting preserves in the state, and only 10 sell more than 30 permits per year, according to the MDC. The conservation department estimates that there are about 9,000 deer in captivity for hunting purposes, with fewer than 2,150 hunters pursuing those deer annually.
Wild hunting vs. captive hunting
There are around 1.4 million free-ranging deer in the state, with 513,000 licensed deer hunters in the state as of 2013, according to the MDC. Mike Hubbard, the agency’s spokesman on deer regulation, estimates that the free-range hunting industry in the state generates $600 million in revenue and supports 12,000 jobs.
The revenue estimate includes: gas, ammunition, food, lodging, hunting licenses, land purchases, guns, deer stands, clothing and processing fees. In indirect costs, Hubbard estimates that the industry generates over $1 billion in revenue.
State licenses to hunt wild deer start at $17 per animal, plus a few extra dollars for bagging a buck with antlers.
Hubbard said that the MDC’s primary concern is for the protection of deer, which he refers to as a public trust resource. Giving the Department of Agriculture control of captive deer as livestock would “severely limit” the department’s jurisdiction over the deer population, he said.
“We are strongly of the opinion that deer are wildlife,” Hubbard said. “I think there are just some regulation differences between our agency and theirs.”
One of the MDC’s concerns about the captive hunting industry is the risk of spreading diseases to the free-range herds. One of those diseases is chronic wasting disease, a fatal neurological disease in deer that causes the deterioration of the brain, which results in a loss of bodily functions and death. The disease can only be identified and tested for once a deer dies.
The Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance believes that CWD may be spread through feces, urine and saliva, according to their website, but the exact cause remains unknown. Deer held in captivity are more likely to transmit the disease, and moving live deer is one of the main risk factors that contributes to the diseases’ spread, according to the alliance.
In 2010, a captive hunting ranch tested positive for CWD in Missouri. There were 11 deer inside the ranch and 10 deer in the nearby free-range population that tested positive for CWD. It is not clear whether the disease originated in the captive or free-ranging population.
James expressed his concern for the spread of chronic wasting disease, and he emphasized that the ranches do not want it to spread any more than the MDC does. However, he believes that the regulations the MDC has proposed are not meant to curb the disease, but rather, to shut down the captive deer industry.
There are 22 states that currently have some sort of ban on importing live deer.
“We don’t think it’s prudent to allow animals to come into Missouri,” Hubbard said.
In a letter addressed to James, the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association expressed its support for the bill and said the Department of Agriculture is better suited to regulate deer. “Regulating farmers and ranchers of any kind out of business is absolutely unacceptable,” the letter said.
During an MDC public forum June 24 in Jackson, participants spoke in favor of and against the agency’s proposed captive deer regulations, according to an article by the Southeast Missourian.
Cathy Brumitt said captive deer would be more appropriately managed as livestock under the Department of Agriculture. “They already consider elk livestock,” she said. “Why not deer?