LANSING- Problems throughout Michigan’s
deer and elk farming industry revealed in a recent Department of Natural Resources
(DNR) audit have refueled concerns over how to protect the state from chronic-wasting
disease. The audit also reopened a disagreement over whether the DNR or the
Department of Agriculture is better suited to regulate the industry.
"I think people have more respect for the DNR, and the Agriculture Department ran our farms like they run pigs and cattle,” said Cherie Grubowski, owner of the 2-acre Almost Paradise Whitetail Deer Sanctuary in Yale. “They were like cows cooking in the field without any shelter.”
Alex Draper of the Michigan Deer and Elk Farmers Association said the audit is just a snapshot of the industry and said DNR’s long-term management deserves more attention.
“This industry’s been under the DNR for 25 or 30 years, and it’s been in shambles compared to where it’s at lately,” he said. “If the state hadn’t switched over authority in 2000, who knows where we’d be?” Five years ago, oversight responsibilities moved from the DNR to Agriculture.
The DNR audit of Michigan’s cervid industry—which covers game such as white-tailed deer, elk and reindeer—included 584 of the 740 farms statewide. Thirty-seven percent failed to comply with regulations on fencing, testing of dead animals and reporting escaped animals.
Compliance is now up around 95 percent, but more than 15 farms are still working with separate DNR field offices to address major renovations, according to Alan Marble of the department’s law enforcement division. He declined to comment on whether the farms are in danger of being shut down.
Michigan’s deer and elk farms house more than 32,000 white-tailed deer, 600 red deer and more than 4,000 elk. Fees for a three-year permit vary: $45 for a hobby farm; $75 for exhibition; $500 for ranches that provide hunting; and $150 for full registration farms that offer breeding stock, hunting stock and other animals. Farms are inspected when the license expires.
Auditors inspected all ranches and full-registration operations and a sample of hobby and exhibition farms for flaws or weaknesses that could lead to the introduction of chronic-wasting disease—a fatal neurological disease similar to bovine tuberculosis that degenerates the brain, damages the nervous system and causes loss of weight and bodily functions.
Inspectors spotted a number of problems that could leave the door open for the disease in Michigan. For example, of the 464 escapes reported to auditors, only eight escapes were reported to Agriculture over the past four years. Moritz said that reporting escapes has been required only the past two years.
The industry also lacks a uniform policy for identifying captive deer and elk, the audit said, and the process for decommissioning farms is inefficient. Inspectors even found abandoned farms, but the state has no policy for dealing with them and no sure way to track animals that might have escaped.
Citing low and bent fencing that could allow escapes, the audit said the state and farmers are not doing enough to minimize the danger of free-range animals infecting captive deer and elk—or vice-versa.
And despite mandatory state-paid testing for chronic-wasting disease on all cervids over 16 months old, about 90 percent of them weren’t tested.
Under the legislatively mandated switch in 2000, a third of the farms came under Agriculture’s control each year as licenses expired. However, in 2003, Gov. Jennifer Granholm returned control to DNR.
Interest groups, including the Michigan Farm Bureau and Michigan United Conservation Clubs, differ on which department should have authority. But officials from both departments say they have worked together in the past and will continue to collaborate because neither has the funding to monitor the industry on its own.
For example, Agriculture tested captive deer for bovine tuberculosis during the DNR’s reign, and DNR has maintained oversight of enclosures while dealing with disease transmission and other biosecurity issues in free-ranging deer.
“We’ve had joint authority over all phases of this industry, but the key to successful enforcement of these requirements is dependant on funding, regardless of where it’s at,” said William Moritz, chief of the DNR’s wildlife division.
Rep. Joe Hune, R-Hamburg Township, plans to introduce legislation bringing oversight back to Agriculture, but funding remains a question. Hune did not return calls for comment.
But Dominic Perrone, public information officer at Agriculture, said it’s not feasible for his department to assume authority. “We have no resources to assume this program, nor do we have the staff expertise to effectively manage it,” he said.
The joint management approach is fine with Rick Bearss, owner of the 40-acre Bearss Den Deer Farm in Cadillac. But he said more should be done to raise awareness among farmers looking to raise their own deer or elk.
“I’ve discussed with other farmers the idea of putting together information in some type of brochure for new farmers because I didn’t have a clue when I put up my fences,” he said. “We don’t need to make it harder, but we just need to let people know what they’re getting into with a farm like this.”
Moritz said the DNR is developing such material.“We need to work with the industry to clarify the standards because I’m not sure that everybody is aware of the operational requirements,” he said.