CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Deer would be treated as livestock and farm-raised venison would be sold to groceries and restaurants under a bill advancing through West Virginia's Legislature.
The Senate voted 26-8 to pass a deer farm bill Tuesday that gives the Department of Agriculture sole authority over the farms, replacing the Department of Natural Resources.
DNR officials argue the change could leave the state's wild deer herds vulnerable to disease and threaten the $200 million hunting and tourism industry here.
For a decade, deer farmers have been trying to convince the Legislature to consider their animals as livestock so they can sell the meat. Resorts in the state want to sell West Virginia white tail deer venison to their guests and farmers believe even grocery chains would sell the meat, said Marcel Fortin, a lobbyist for the Deer Farmers Association.
"The public has told us they would love to buy it. It's a good, healthy meat, low in calories and low in cholesterol," Fortin said.
The farms raise deer for shooting preserves, which prefer large bucks. Any remaining deer that does not meet the needs of the preserves are typically euthanized because the DNR limits the number of animals the farms can maintain, Fortin said.
Instead, those left over animals could be slaughtered like cows or pigs and be considered a U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified, disease-free cut of meat, he said.
The DNR argues that confined deer can cause disease that may spread to native herds especially if deer were imported from other states to West Virginia farms, which is not allowed today under DNR oversight, said Chris Ryan, supervisor of game management services at the DNR.
If wild herds are infected with chronic wasting disease, it would scare off hunters who are reluctant to eat the meat of sick animals, Ryan said.
"Don't jeopardize the $200 million economic impact that white tail deer has on the state," Ryan said.
About 37 deer farms operate in the state. They are allowed to sell venison from animals that are not native to West Virginia like red deer or elk, which are not common here. Allowing the sale of venison from white tail deer, which is native to the state, could result in poaching, he said.
White tail deer should be protected for the public, not marketed as a commodity to a few wealthy individuals, Ryan said.
Sen. John Fanning, D-McDowell, voted against the bill. He said deer are wild animals, not livestock and should continue to be regulated by the DNR. He also questioned whether consumers would want to buy farm-raised venison.
Lawmakers who support the measure say it would support the state's agricultural economy and preserve family farms. They argue the Department of Agriculture also has the expertise to protect animal health and is more knowledgeable about animal breeding, farm fencing other practical aspects of farming businesses than the DNR.