Missouri fenced deer farms under fire

Friday, December 13, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — Garrett Westfall has some impressive bucks living just out his back door in rural Liberty.

But when Missouri's firearms deer season took place in November, he traveled more than 100 miles to hunt.

Why? Those deer in his backyard are off-limits. They are part of the deer farm he runs with his wife, Kelly.

"Those are our pets," Garrett said. "It's a hobby of ours, but it's a business, too.

"The goal is to produce the perfect buck. It's like when someone tries to produce blue-ribbon livestock. You want to raise the best."

The Westfalls' fenced operation isn't for hunting. The deer are there for their enjoyment. Kelly takes care of the animals the same as cattle farmers might tend to their livestock.

She feeds the 40 whitetails and one elk that they own, makes sure they are tested for disease, repairs fences and works on their habitat.

"We both were brought up on a farm," Kelly said. "We love having the wildlife around so that we can observe them. It's just a peaceful setting."

Now, though, the Westfalls are concerned that they are in danger of being forced out of business by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Ever since the agency discovered Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in 11 deer in captive operations in northeast Missouri in 2010 and 2011 and 10 deer in the nearby free-ranging herd, deer farms have been under fire.

Although the Department of Conservation has been careful to say that the exact origin of the fatal, contagious disease is not known, many are pointing fingers at the threats posed by captive-deer operations. And that isn't fair, the Westfalls said.

"We have done everything asked of us," Kelly said. "We have done our testing and kept our records up to date, made sure our fencing is in good shape, made sure our deer are well taken care...

"But now they're trying to come up with all these new restrictions that would make it hard for us to stay in business. I absolutely feel that they are trying to put deer farmers out of business."

Jason Sumners, a deer biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, said that is not the case.

"We have no intention to put these deer farms out of business," he said. "We realize they have a place, a value, and they are important to some Missouri residents.

"Our goal is to protect Missouri's deer herd, whether it be the free-ranging deer or the captives ones. When we have a disease like CWD show up, we take that threat seriously."

Sumners said the disease, which leads to degeneration of the whitetail's brain and is always fatal, is infectious and is often spread by deer-to-deer contact. It grows slowly, but has the potential to affect large numbers of deer before the problem is noticed. By that time, Sumners said, it is too late.

That's why the department is working so hard to contain the spread of the disease. It has advised deer farms to improve fencing, make testing and certification mandatory, prohibit importation of live deer, and prohibit cervids (deer and elk) at animal auction facilities and exhibitions.

But the Westfalls and others who represent the state's 47 big-game hunting preserves and 253 wildlife breeders think they are being unfairly targeted. In fact, many of them aren't convinced that CWD is the problem it is made out to be.

Sumners disagrees.

"Because it grows so slowly, it doesn't affect a deer population overnight," Sumners said. "But it has the potential, over time, to have a big effect on deer numbers. It's something we're very concerned about."

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Michael Williams December 13, 2013 | 9:55 a.m.

"Ever since the agency discovered Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)...deer farms have been under fire."

As well they should be. There are bad actors in your chosen field, Mr Westfall, and they've brought a disease to Missouri's free-ranging whitetail herd. Your industry has transported big-buck genetics across state lines, an act that obviously was mis-regulated given the results.

Hunting farms like yours have also resulted in our problem with feral hogs and other exotic escapes. As a deer hunter myself, I appreciate a great buck as well as anyone else, but the probability of animal escape or contact with native populations HAS to be EXACTLY zero.

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