They have names like X-Factor, Rambo, Powerpoint, and Stonecold. They bear freakishly large, even grotesquely shaped, antlers, and they walk as if they might tip over from the weight of that bone. They aren't just deer, they are genetically engineered, farm-raised, super-freak whitetails. They are also the center of a growing controversy.
For Quality Deer Management Association Director of Education & Outreach Kip Adams, they are nothing but the biggest threat to wild whitetails and the deer hunting culture. The deer-farming industry smears ethical, fair-chase hunters, he says, and is likely the vector for chronic wasting disease (CWD).
"Our main concern is the unregulated transport of farm-raised deer across state lines. The potential for disease transmission is incredibly high, and it poses a very real threat to wild deer," says Adams. "Chronic wasting disease is already found in one-quarter of all wild whitetail bucks in parts of Wisconsin. That's up substantially from just a few years ago. We [biologists] don't want to see similar rates in other states."
So far, there is no proof that CWD has spread from captive deer and elk farms to wild animals. The circumstantial evidence, however, is compelling. At least 10 wild Missouri whitetails tested positive for CWD. All were within a 29-square-mile area surrounding two captive herds that tested positive for the disease.
"Almost every state that has CWD in wild cervids also has captive deer farms. There are many, many examples of the disease showing up in wild deer near infected pens," says Adams. "It may be impossible to prove a link, but we know that captive deer escape on a regular basis, and we know that CWD has been found at a number of farms that were thought to be disease-free."
North American Deer Farmers Association Executive Director Shawn Schafer disputes the disease link. He also says virtually every deer that escapes is recaptured.
"We established a certification program where we test our animals for various diseases. Our deer have not one but two unique identification numbers. Not one time has a diseased animal been moved by a captive breeder," he says. "We monitor our herds, and we test animals when they die. We also have strict fencing guidelines to prevent deer from escaping, although it does happen occasionally, mostly through human error."
The testing is largely voluntary, though, and a report by the Missouri Department of Conservation found that just 131 of 300 state breeders monitor their animals for disease.
Despite the growing controversy that surrounds it, the captive deer industry is booming. Schafer says it generated an economic impact of $4 billion in 2013, up from $3 billion in 2006. There are an estimated 10,000 deer and elk farms throughout the United States and Canada, although many states prohibit these types of facilities. Minnesota has over 700 deer farms, and Pennsylvania and Texas each have around 1,000.
Schafer says deer farmers are no different than those who raise cattle, chickens, or hogs. The animals are their livelihoods, and they strive to keep them healthy if for nothing else than to protect their bottom line. Whitetails, bucks in particular, are bred through a selection process much the same way cattle breeders create near-perfect specimens through genetic engineering.
The goal is to produce freakishly large antlers, larger than anything ever produced in the wild. Maxbo, a buck raised on a Missouri farm, scored 180 inches under the Boone & Crockett scoring system the first year he bore antlers and 358 inches the following year. The antlers of another buck named Dream On scored 262 inches as a yearling. Individual does sell for as much as $7,500.
The animals are raised for a variety of reasons, although a large part of the market appears to be breeders selling semen and does to other farmers, who then engineer their own enormous bucks so they can sell the semen to other farmers. Semen "straws," which contain enough fluid to impregnate two or three does, can sell for thousands of dollars.
Schafer says there is a growing market for meat, which is typically sold to high-end restaurants as well as jerky manufacturers. Most farm-raised venison destined for butcher shops and restaurants is still imported from New Zealand, but that's gradually changing.
"The demand for urine is huge. Where do you think all those bottles of Tink's and Code Blue come from?" says Schafer. "There is also a growing demand for hard antlers for things like chandeliers and even dog chews. The soft antler market is growing pretty quick, too. Deer farmers are clearly fulfilling a demand."
Many of the bucks, however, are raised just for the high-fence hunting industry where hunters often pay fees based entirely on antler size. Prices can run more than $20,000 for the largest bucks. In some cases, hunters can select individual animals from a website as if they were choosing from an a la carte menu. Schafer, however, says those giant bucks are the exception in the captive deer hunting industry.
"The bread-and-butter of most of these ranches are the 150-, 160-inch deer, which is what many hunters expect when they hunt free-range deer in places like Kansas, Illinois, and Iowa," he says. "Our members provide a service for hunters who may not have the time necessary to have a successful hunt or access to quality land. These ranches offer a quality hunt, which is what everyone wants, isn't it?"
If the animals are raised and bred through a process that parallels the livestock industry but then released in pens to be shot by hunters, who should regulate the industry? Are these deer wild animals or livestock? It's a question that is working its way through the legislative process in many states. The deer-farm lobby has attempted and failed at least twice to pass legislation classifying their industry as agricultural. Adams, however, says they should be treated and regulated as wildlife. Schafer argues they are livestock and thus should not be regulated by state wildlife agencies, even if they are shot under the guise of hunting.
The issue may be nothing more than a matter of semantics, but the notion of shooting a buck nurtured by human hands and then released into a small enclosure raises serious ethical questions. Adams says these "canned" hunts, which can be widely publicized because of the controversy, are how many non-hunters judge all hunting. They don't know the difference. Although 79 percent of all Americans support sport hunting in general, just 20 percent support hunting inside high fences, according to a survey conducted by research firm Responsive Management.
The QDMA is not opposed to high-fence hunts, but Adams says operations that release genetically engineered deer into small enclosures that are in no way natural or offer a chance of escape are a stain on the entire hunting community.
"Hunters make up just 6 percent of the country's population. We can't afford to risk our reputation on what takes place on these deer farms," says Adams.
He admits they are likely here to stay, even with all the issues that surround them. Despite growing calls for tighter regulations or even an outright ban on captive deer operations by the QDMA and other conservation groups, the industry is actually lobbying for and winning relaxed rules or expanded opportunities for deer farming. Idaho recently reduced mandatory CWD testing for all farmed elk that die to just 10 percent of those that die from all other causes. Other states are poised to ease disease testing requirements or restrictions on the size of hunting enclosures.
That's a step in the wrong direction, says Adams. Deer farming is little more than a ticking time bomb that could spell disaster for wild deer everywhere. Despite assurances from the captive deer industry, the disease threat is real and one that can not be dismissed. According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, deer hunters spent more than $18 billion in 2011 and had an economic impact of nearly $40 billion.
"Chronic wasting disease is now found in nearly one-quarter of all wild whitetail bucks 2½ years old and older in parts of Wisconsin. That's up from a 7 or 8 percent infection rate in 2002. We [biologists] don't want to see similar rates in other states," says Adams. "It was recently discovered in wild whitetails in Iowa for the first time, also. Is it worth the risk?"