Recent actions by the N. C. Wildlife Resources Commission to confiscate and euthanize deer prompted numerous responses, some of which are based on incomplete or inaccurate information. Our actions were performed in the interest of wildlife conservation and public safety. Our officers and biologists implemented agency policies in strict accordance with state law and with the utmost professionalism, respect, and consideration. In keeping with the agency’s mission to conserve wildlife resources and to communicate the importance of healthy wildlife, I offer the following clarification of the reasons those actions were undertaken.
White-tailed deer are native wildlife that are important to the ecology of North Carolina and belong to all citizens of the State. To safeguard this public trust, it is unlawful for individuals to hold or confine deer without a permit. Requirements for holding deer in captivity are necessary to safeguard the health and safety of wildlife resources, livestock, and humans. North Carolina law requires that any deer, elk or other member of the family Cervidae held in captivity must be in a facility licensed by the WRC. Strict record keeping of the origin and movement of cervids, as well as health, status, and disposition of animals in a licensed facility is required. These requirements are in place to minimize the potential for transfer of dangerous wildlife diseases, including Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and tuberculosis. They also are designed to provide early detection and containment of diseases should they be discovered. In addition to testing captive cervids, the Wildlife Resources Commission also tests free-ranging white-tailed deer in accordance with surveillance protocols established in North Carolina’s Chronic Wasting Disease Response Plan. For video information about CWD, click here.
Since the 1980s CWD has been detected in 19 states, including West Virginia (2005), Virginia (2010), and Maryland (2011). CWD is a fatal and debilitating disease that has caused serious ecological and economic impact in areas where it has become established. Due to the severity of the potential impacts from CWD, extensive surveillance programs that monitor CWD distribution and prevalence have been instituted nationwide. In order to minimize the threat of its importation and establishment, North Carolina in 2003 implemented stringent requirements and restrictions on importation and confinement of cervids. These requirements are instrumental in preventing the establishment of CWD. Modeling research in the state of Wisconsin where CWD was detected in 2002 suggests that, if left unmanaged, CWD will spread throughout Wisconsin resulting in an infection rate in adult deer of at least 40%. These research results are mirrored by current data in Colorado and Wyoming, where in some areas average infection rates exceed 40% across thousands of square miles, suggesting the disease continues to spread widely across the landscape. Our actions are intended to avoid these consequences in North Carolina.
There are two types of authorized facilities for holding deer in North Carolina. Both are required to be permitted or licensed and inspected for humane care and compliance with requirements for thorough record-keeping and disease testing. Fawn rehabilitators are specially trained to rehabilitate injured or orphaned white-tailed deer fawns. They are authorized to temporarily hold fawn deer for release back into the wild. Free-ranging adult deer held in captivity even for relatively short periods, can lose their natural fear of humans. These deer are not suitable for reintroduction into the wild and pose serious public safety risks including human injury and death.
The other authorized type of facility for holding deer in North Carolina is a captive cervid facility. North Carolina has more than 50 licensed captive cervid facilities including deer farming operations. These facilities operate within established guidelines, and the licensees recognize the need for proper enforcement in order to protect their property, as well as the public’s wildlife, from potentially devastating diseases.
Protecting and conserving the wildlife resources of the State is an important responsibility. In August 2011, our staff became aware of an individual possessing captive deer in Randolph County without license or permits. The facility operator had been notified on several occasions, dating back to 2003, that licensure and strict operational guidelines were required to hold deer in captivity. In February 2004, the operator was sent notification that he was ineligible to possess cervids in captivity. After learning of the presence of captive cervids at this location, we conducted due diligence in investigation, initiating legal process including obtaining a warrant, and continued close monitoring. In September 2011, nine deer were confiscated and euthanized with rifles and a shotgun so they could be tested for CWD. Firearms such as these are accepted forms of humane euthanasia for wildlife, and all personnel involved had been trained in the practice by a licensed veterinarian. Euthanasia was required because the origin of these deer could not be verified, and because continuous containment within the facility could not be assured. Unfortunately, there is no approved testing procedure available for live deer because protocol for CWD testing requires either a lymph node or brain tissue sample. Furthermore, the CWD incubation period can range from 16 months to five years; therefore, a negative test result for an individual deer from a group provides no assurance that the remaining deer in the group would test negative.
Also in August, our staff learned of deer held in an unlicensed facility in Surry County. In this instance, two fawns had been held in captivity for several months with an adult male deer of unknown origin. If the fawns had been turned over to a licensed facility for rehabilitation when they were found they most likely could have been returned to the wild with a high chance for survival. However, due to the intense level of human interaction, all three deer were unlikely to survive in the wild. Additionally, because the fawns were commingled with a deer of unknown origin, their origin and health status could not be verified. As a result, the animals were euthanized with immobilizing drugs and a bolt gun.
The risks to wildlife resources and public safety from disease transmission and human habituation are very serious. It is unfortunate that the actions of otherwise well-meaning persons can result in the destruction of these resources. The WRC urges all NC citizens to learn more about issues associated with holding wildlife in captivity by visiting our website www.ncwildlife.org or calling 919-707-0050 for more information.