This survey was made before it was known that Chronic Wasting Disease has been introduced into South Texas by deer breeders.
By Colleen Schreiber
GLEN ROSE — Those attending the recent Deer Study Group meeting heard the results of two surveys focusing on various aspects of the deer breeding industry.
To get a national perspective of the deer breeding industry, one survey focused on state agencies. The other was a public attitudes survey specific to Texas. Both were funded by the Quality Deer Management Association.
Wildlife biologist Brian Murphy, CEO of QDMA, presented the results from the recently completed surveys, but first he offered some history and background. QDMA, a 25 year-old nonprofit organization headquartered in Athens, Georgia, is about 50,000 members strong. Their mission is to ensure the future of white-tailed deer, the habitat in which they live, and the hunting heritage.
QDMA supports fair chase, which they define as the “legal and ethical pursuit of wild deer living in an adequate native or naturalized habitat in a manner that does not give a hunter an unfair advantage while providing the hunted animals with a reasonable opportunity for escaping the hunter.” Murphy said that, contrary to what some believe, the organization has nothing against high fence operations.
Since their inception in 1988, QDMA has closely watched how the industry has evolved. In 2003 the organization adopted a position statement opposing certain aspects of deer breeding.
In 2012 QDMA learned that 11 states had legislation in play relating to deer breeding operations and/or shooting preserves and the related animals from those facilities. At that point the group issued a national press release urging members and concerned hunters to contact their elected officials and ask them to oppose any legislation that would enable the introduction of captive deer breeding operations or expansion of already existing operations and their practices.
In so doing they clearly and succinctly documented their concerns for all to see. At the top of their list of concerns is what they see as a potential erosion of the North American model of wildlife conservation and the public trust doctrine.
“We believe the captive deer breeding industry undermines important tenets of this model, notably that wildlife are owned collectively by the people, not individuals,” Murphy told listeners.
QDMA is also concerned about potential loss of public support for hunting.
“We’re very blessed right now in that we’re at an all-time high with respect to public support for hunting; it’s in the 78-percent range. However, with so many aspects relating to fair chase, there’s potential for erosion.”
Along those same lines, they’re concerned about a devaluation of the intrinsic value of a wild animal.
“We believe wild animals to be core to our hunting heritage,” stated Murphy.
They’re also concerned, in many cases, with the unnatural and extreme manipulation of the species itself.
“The record white-tailed deer produced in captivity is in the 650-inch range,” he told listeners. “That’s larger than the largest bull elk ever harvested in the wild. Some of these breeders are really pushing the envelope.”
QDMA is concerned as well about the potential for disease spread, and the potential human health implications from consuming deer that have been medicated and perhaps haven’t had proper time for those medications to clear their systems before consumption. They also have concerns about the public cost.
“In many, states the oversight regulation and enforcement where deer breeding operations exist consume considerable time and resources. Those hunter dollars, we believe, could often be better spent helping landowners with habitat or outreach, and/or hunting access,” Murphy opined.
Turning to the survey data, the CEO explained that QDMA was interested in getting a better picture of just what the deer breeding industry looks like throughout the U.S. Thus last fall they sent a survey to 37 state wildlife agencies in the Midwest, Northeast and the Southeast. These regions combined, Murphy noted, represent about 95 percent of all whitetails in America.
There was a tremendous variation in the quality of the data received from the states. In many states, Murphy said, records on these kinds of facilities is poor at best. However, he commended Texas Parks and Wildlife for their efforts on this front.
Based on the survey there were at least 5555 captive whitetail breeding facilities and 795 shooting preserves.
“That overall number is low,” Murphy insisted. “In 2007 Texas A&M University estimated there were at least 10,000 deer breeders.”
Seventy percent of the deer breeding operations are located in five states. With the exception of Texas, those operations are clustered in the central upper Midwest, encompassing Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. Texas, however, leads the nation thus far in terms of the number of deer breeding operations, with 1332 facilities holding 100,000 confined deer. Pennsylvania reported having 23,000 deer in captivity, Missouri 9000, Wisconsin 8900, and Michigan 7500.
The survey indicated that there is a good deal of variation in how whitetails are classified. Of the states responding, two states classified whitetails as “game,” 12 as “wildlife,” and eight as “livestock.”
The latter, Murphy said, is a common strategy because it gives operators much more flexibility.
“I personally don’t like to see our public resources transferred into livestock,” he told listeners. “I worry about the connotation that we hunt livestock. I think it’s a bad message to send.”
Thirteen of 20 states said they have minimum acreage requirements. For the shooting preserves that minimum acreage ranged from 10 acres to 640 acres in Georgia. However, 12 of 16 states had no minimum release time before the animals could be harvested at those facilities.
“In Ohio, you have to wait till they get off the trailer,” Murphy said. “That is in the regulation.”
Four states reported having release time requirements. In Florida it was one day; Texas and Alabama have a 10-day rule, and Mississippi has greater than 10 days.
“This raises some troubling concerns from a fair chase perspective and also from a drug residue potential,” commented Murphy. “There’s a lot of debate as to how long some of these medications stay in the deer’s system, but it’s commonly accepted that up to 30 days is a good number. With a 10-day rule or no rule, that certainly opens the door to human health concerns with respect to withdrawal times.”
Fifteen 15 of 21 states also had no stocking density requirement, and 19 of 25 had no habitat requirements whatsoever. Seven of 24 states did not require external tagging of the deer.
“Deer do get out. I don’t care how hard one tries to keep them behind a deer-proof fence. These deer need to be tagged so that if they do get out, they can be identified for disease purposes and also because of the concerns over drug residue,” Murphy opined.
QDMA’s Whitetail Report noted that 22 states in the U.S. have Chronic Wasting Disease and four of the top five states for captive whitetails are CWD-positive, though in Texas CWD has only been detected in mule deer.
While Texas does not allow the importation of captive whitetails, 15 other states do. Twenty-one of 30 states also allow whitetails from breeding facilities to be exported.
Murphy summed up the survey results, telling listeners that QDMA is highly concerned about the regulatory inconsistencies from state to state.
After they gathered the data from the state agencies, QDMA was interested in finding out what the general public thought about some of these issues. They decided to use Texas as a case study because Texas has the largest number of deer breeding facilities.
“Whatever attitudes were strongly held, we felt they would be most strongly held in Texas,” remarked Murphy.
Two groups were surveyed hunters and a group they defined as “the general population.” The only requirement for the latter was that they be 18 years of age or older.
The survey was conducted by Responsive Management, a Virginia-based public opinion survey research firm specializing in natural resource, wildlife, environmental, and outdoor recreation issues. Sample size for each group was 500, which provided for a margin of error of just over four percent. The survey was done via telephone in February and March of this year. The questions were designed to be as unbiased as possible.
To ensure that everyone was on the same page, participants were informed that in this case deer breeding is defined as “the controlled breeding of deer in captivity.” They were also told that “captive deer breeding often involves artificial insemination of does and bottle-raising fawns in a pen, typically to provide large antlered deer for hunting. While most deer that are raised in the pen are released on high-fenced ranches or hunting enclosures, some may be released in the wild.”
The first survey question was a general one: How much captive deer breeding exists in Texas? Forty-six percent of the general population and 63 percent of hunters believed a moderate to high amount of deer breeding was occurring in Texas.
When asked if they supported or opposed hunting pen-raised deer, the group was divided. About half of the hunters supported it; half didn’t. The non-hunting public, however, was less supportive, which Murphy said was not unexpected.
Those who did support hunting pen-raised deer were asked what motivated their support. The leading motivators, Murphy said, had to do with economics. They responded that it provides income to the individuals, i.e. landowners or ranchers, and it provided an economic boost to the state of Texas. Another of the motivators that ranked lower was that it provides hunters with bucks larger than they can get in the wild.
For those who were opposed, the strong driving forces were that wildlife should be kept wild, not managed as livestock, and that deer bred in captivity can become habituated to humans. Less important, Murphy said, were the potential drug concerns and that breeding for hunting negatively affects public perception of hunting.
Hunters were asked if they’ve ever hunted deer behind a high fence. Twenty-five percent indicated they had. All participants were asked if they supported or opposed hunting deer on high-fenced operations. Murphy clarified that this was not necessarily pertaining to breeder deer only.
“More people supported this than not,” said Murphy, “not surprising in Texas. Only 22 percent of hunters were strongly opposed to hunting behind a high fence.”
Participants were also asked if they agreed or disagreed that hunting pen-raised deer released into a high-fence operation is fair chase hunting.
“Only 27 percent of the general population agreed with that statement. Of the hunters surveyed, 38 percent agreed and 49 percent of hunters said it is not fair chase hunting.”
They were also asked if the pen-raised deer should be easily identifiable, for example, with a visible ear tag so that hunters know they are hunting pen-raised versus wild deer.
“There was strong support for this,” Murphy said. “Sixty-four percent of the general population and 53 percent of hunters agreed with that statement. So about twice as many hunters believed deer should be marked so that they know what kind of deer they would be harvesting.”
Hunters were asked how important it is for them to know that the deer they are hunting are pen-raised or wild.
“It was a much divided group, but overall more responded that it was important.”
Hunters were also asked if they would value a trophy buck that is pen-raised more, about the same, or less than a wild trophy buck.
“Not surprisingly, very few hunters said they would value a pen-raised buck more,” Murphy said. “A few responded they would value them about the same, but the majority said they would value a captive-raised buck less than a wild one.”
Both groups were asked if they agreed or disagreed that the laws and regulations that apply to hunting wild deer should also apply to hunting pen-raised deer, including those released in high-fenced ranches.
“This was a very strongly held opinion,” said Murphy. “Seventy percent of hunters and 62 percent of the general population said that the laws for wild deer should also govern pen-raised released deer.”
Both groups were asked how important it is that deer be given time after release before hunting is allowed.
“Again, there was a very strongly held belief that release time before harvest is very, very important to give those deer the opportunity for fair chase,” Murphy told listeners.
They were then asked how long that should be. The single most chosen answer was one year, with many responses going up to three years.
“Hunters, on average, even have a stronger belief on this than the general public,” said Murphy. “Only 17 percent of hunters believe that time period should be less than one year. We’re not suggesting that deer breeders should wait a year before releasing these deer; it’s just not practical, but it is interesting to see where the public is on this issue.”
Participants were also asked how important adequate habitat is when releasing pen-reared whitetails. Again, respondents held strong beliefs, with 45 percent of the general population and 47 percent of hunters responding with a 10 on the importance scale of zero to 10 with 10 being the most important.
To get at the acreage question, both groups were asked how important it is that pen-raised deer be released in areas large enough to have fair chase.
“This was the strongest held opinion of all of the questions, with both hunters and the general population giving it an eight on the scale of importance.”
They were next asked how large that area should be.
“Almost 50 percent of hunters suggested that the hunting unit should be somewhere between 500 and 1000 acres,” Murphy said. “Only about 15 percent responded that the minimum size should be less than 100 acres.”
Finally, participants were asked who should have the authority to regulate and manage the wildlife populations in Texas. Their choices were TPWD, Texas Department of Agriculture, or private citizens. TPWD was clearly the chosen winner by hunters as well as the non-hunting public.”
Murphy wrapped up with a few take-home comments.
“Fifty percent of those surveyed support deer breeding, so it’s not really a support issue,” Murphy told listeners. “The most strongly held beliefs among hunters in Texas really relate to fair chase. It’s acreage, it’s habitat, and it’s time. Those three things resonate strongly.
“Certainly, we would like to see some movement in those three areas in particular,” Murphy continued. “I think this is an opportune time; it doesn’t have to be us or them. I would like to see a dialog on these issues so that we can all move forward together. We don’t need to be fighting each other on issues where we share a lot of common values. I’d bet that 95 percent of the things we cherish are the same,” he concluded.