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Deadly deer disease adds layer to canned-hunt debate

INDIANAPOLIS – Lawmakers received an education Tuesday on chronic wasting disease, a deadly infection that is the new epicenter of a debate about deer farms and captive hunts in Indiana.

The Agriculture and Natural Resources Study Committee heard nearly five hours of testimony from both sides. The panel could give recommendations for action to the legislature this year.

It’s the latest chapter in the complicated history of high-fenced hunting in Indiana.

Opponents are focusing on preventing or delaying the potential spread of chronic wasting disease by banning importing deer into the state and continuing a prohibition on captive hunts.

“The disease is moving across the landscape,” said Dr. Bryan Richards, of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center. “Will it get here over time? It’s certainly a possibility. Do you want it sooner or later? You can have an impact on the time of arrival.”

But supporters have pushed the General Assembly for years to legalize high-fenced hunting and say Indiana regulators are on top of the chronic wasting disease threat.

High-fenced hunting preserves place deer with big racks in large confined spaces, and hunters can shoot them for high prices.

“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” former lawmaker Bob Jackman said. “Don’t let all this CWD hype get you scared about what kind of legislation you are going to pass for this industry. We can control any disease outbreak that happens.”

The controversy began to fester in the late 1990s when a few facilities sprang up under a game breeder’s license. Many outdoors groups opposed the operations from the beginning, saying no Indiana law specifically authorized the activity.

But preserve owners argued nothing explicitly prohibited it either. At least one owner received documentation from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources that the operations were legal.

In August 2005, then-DNR Director Kyle Hupfer announced after extensive study and hearings that the existing shooting preserves were not allowed under current law. To remove confusion, he sought and passed administrative rules outlawing high-fenced hunting, and Gov. Mitch Daniels signed them.

Existing preserve owners sought an injunction to keep operating. A Harrison County judge ruled late last year against the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Specifically, the ruling said deer used by these facilities are privately owned and the DNR exceeded its authority trying to regulate them.

But that ruling is being appealed by the state attorney general. Another judge ruled previously in favor of DNR.

Chronic wasting disease is a progressive, neurological disorder that always kills the deer it is found in. It is transmitted freely from animal to animal. Soil can also be contaminated by the deer.

Richards pointed out that Indiana bans importing from states – about 20 – with chronic wasting disease, but said just because deer farms import from a currently CWD-free state doesn’t mean the animals don’t have the disease.

That’s because there’s no live test, and the deer can have it for two years before showing symptoms.

Other experts testified that the movement of deer in and out of the state – and between deer farms and hunting facilities within Indiana – increases the risk for the disease.

It can also be spread from a captive herd to the wild through nose-to-nose transmission on a fence line or escapes.

States have spent millions trying to eradicate the disease and hunting has dropped sharply.

Supporters of deer farming say an infected deer can easily walk into the state now.

Dr. Darryl Ragland, a veterinarian at Purdue University, said every deer that dies in a captive herd that is at least a year old is tested for chronic wasting disease. Far fewer are tested in the wild.

Several deer farmers also testified in support of helping the industry grow. They need the hunting facilities to sell their farm-raised deer too, as well as exporting out of state.

nkelly@jg.net

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