EXCLUSIVE: NADeFA Executive Director on Captive Deer Breeding

Source: John McAdams, Wide Open Spaces

I recently had the opportunity to talk to Shawn Schafer, the executive director of the North American Deer Farmers Association. The North American Deer Farmers Association is the largest deer farming organization in the United States and is dedicated to promoting deer farming and hunting as an agricultural pursuit. They also promote the marketing and sales aspects of deer farming: venison, urine scent collection, antlers, hides, and the animals themselves, for both hunting and breeding stock.

Captive deer breeding and high fence hunting are both extremely polarizing topics in the outdoor community and Mr. Schafer was kind enough to take the time to talk to me and provide an opposing viewpoint to my recent article on captive deer-breeding operations. While you may not necessarily agree with everything that Mr. Schafer says in this interview, I encourage you to read what he said with an open mind. I know that I learned a few things about deer farming from my conversation with him, perhaps you will as well.

Why is deer farming such a big industry?

“Part of the reason is that it provides farmers with a diversified income. We are able to take land that is not productive for other uses, such as land that is not very fertile, or is pretty rocky, fence it in, and start farming deer and make a real good income off of it. At the same time, this allows us to keep the land in a somewhat natural (undeveloped) state, which benefits other animals in the area as well.”

Where do you get most of your deer? Are most farm-raised deer descended from other captive bred deer?

“Yes. A lot of people have a mindset we capture deer out of the wild. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every state has very strict rules regarding taking animals from the wild. That absolutely cannot happen: we cannot capture wild deer and put them on our farms. Of course, many generations ago, the breeding stock for these deer populations started off from wild deer. All of the exotic deer, such as fallow deer, axis deer, etc. were imported into the country. All of our deer now come from breeding stock within the deer farming industry. This is similar to most of the American Bison farms in this country: their stock has been there for many generations, but they originally descended from wild populations.”

What eventually happens to most farmed deer?

“First off, they have really good lives: they are raised in a good environment, they’re well fed, and taken care of. We vaccinate them, just like any other livestock. Animal husbandry is huge in the deer farming industry. For some of them, their urine is collected and sold for the hunting industry. If they are good enough, just like any other livestock, they make it into the breeding herd. If not, they are culled out and maybe go into the venison market.

100% of the venison that you buy in a store or eat in a restaurant came from a farm-raised deer. It is totally against the law to sell wild game in the United States. Not only is it illegal under U.S. law, but wild game does not meet the USDA standards to be sold.

Most of the remaining deer end up on hunting ranches. Probably 50 percent of the farm-raised deer in the industry are sold for venison, about 40 percent go into the hunting industry, and that other 10 percent ends up being breeding stock. Even the deer that go into the scent-collection industry (just like a dairy cow) usually end up being slaughtered eventually and sold for their meat and somebody ends up eating them.”

One of the biggest criticisms that people have of the deer farming industry is that farming and transporting deer across the United States helps to spread diseases, such as Chronic Wasting Disease, among both wild and captive populations of deer. What steps has the North American Deer Farmer’s Association taken to reduce the chances of spreading disease?

“We’ve got a science-based, certification program through the USDA that every deer farm in the country must abide by if they want to transport deer across state lines. This became a federally administered program three years ago. Also, every state has a state level certification program as well. When CWD was first really recognized as a threat in 1998, the individual states started implementing their certification programs. Since these certification programs have been implemented, we have never transported disease across state lines from a certified herd.

Yes, in the very early days before we really knew much about CWD, there were a few infected animals that were transported around the country. However, those animals were quickly found and put down. When CWD was discovered in captive herds in 1998, the entire deer farming industry went on a five-year lock down and did not transport a single animal deer until 2003. In order to be certified, farmers had to test every single animal that died on their farm for five years to prove that their herd was clean. Only after being certified, could they then begin to transport animals across state lines again.

What really scares me though, is guys who shoot wild deer (which may be infected with CWD), then transport them across the country to take it home, potentially spreading the infection. Yes, there are now some laws in place stating that hunters should only transport ‘boned-out’ meat across state lines. But those laws aren’t strictly enforced: there are no check stations at the state borders to ensure that this is truly happening. It’s more of an ‘honor system’ program. That is a much bigger threat than transporting a farm raised deer from a certified herd.”

Another concern that many in the hunting community have about the deer farming industry is that it is giving hunting a bad name by attracting negative publicity from the general public, many of whom equate deer farming with “canned hunting.” With this in mind, what are some of the benefits of the deer farming industry to the hunting community as a whole?

“We all oppose canned hunting. I don’t know anyone in the deer farming or deer hunting industries that support canned hunting. I challenge you to find a real ‘canned hunt’ in the U.S.A. these days. You can’t sell that. Everybody wants a fun, quality hunt that you can take your kids, wife, business partners, etc. It’s tough to get access to good hunting land these days though. Land access is a major problem affecting hunting and finding public land available for hunting is getting harder and harder.

Even in states where land access is easier, it’s not always easy to get a tag to hunt with. I live in North Dakota where there is lots of access to hunting land. However, even though land access is not an issue there, we don’t have a lot of deer and deer tags are distributed through a draw system. You cannot buy an over-the-counter deer tag here. In North Dakota, it normally takes about four years to draw a buck tag. How are you supposed to hunt if you can’t get a tag?

The reason for these hunting ranches is to provide people with a quality hunting experience where they can go and not worry about getting access to hunt or overcrowding in the woods. It’s not about canned hunting, it’s not about guaranteed hunts. Most of these places, there is no such thing as a guaranteed hunt. I’m actually about to head down to Texas to hunt on a property there that is 10,000 acres: that’s huge. We don’t have game drives and we don’t use dogs, so that can make for a challenging hunt.

What really gives hunters a bad name is people who get caught poaching deer, hunting at night, taking really long shots on deer, wounding and losing deer shot on the run and things like that.”

How does the captive deer farming industry benefit your average hunter, who may never have the money or the desire to farm or shoot a farm-raised deer?

“We just talked about the competition for access and deer tags, so number one, we’re relieving that. By giving them another option for hunting, the thousands of hunters who hunt on game farms each year are no longer competing with the average hunter for access on public land.

Number two is hunting leases. In states like Florida, really the only way to hunt is to own or lease land. To be a member of a hunting club or a deer lease, that can cost several thousand dollars a year. Depending on the club, that may only give you the ability to hunt on a limited number of stands and only a handful of days each hunting season. What kind of hunting experience is that if you can get a quality hunt on a deer ranch for a similar amount of money?

A lot of people have gotten it into their minds that this is just a rich man’s game. That is so wrong. The average whitetail deer taken on a game farm is a 150-inch class deer, which is a great deer no matter where the hunt occurs. If you look at the prices, if you book a hunt with a reputable outfitter for a free range whitetail deer, it will cost in the range of $3,000-4,000, which is almost exactly the same price as it costs to hunt a similarly sized deer on a game farm. So no, it’s not a rich man’s game and is absolutely affordable for a working class hunter.”

How do you respond to allegations that contend that farming captive deer is in conflict with the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, specifically the principle that wildlife, deer in this case, should be collectively owned by the public, through the federal and state governments, instead of individuals?

“We wholeheartedly and fully support the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. All wildlife are owned by the people, there is no disputing that. The deer in the wild belong to the people as part of the public trust and we cannot take those deer and put them on a deer farm.

The deer in the farm industry are not wildlife. The deer that I’ve been raising on my farm for generations are not wildlife and did not originate in the wild. Did their ancestors originate in the wild? Yes, but that does not make my deer wildlife because they were not born and raised in the wild outside of the influence of people.

The public trust doctrine of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation was put in place to eliminate the over hunting of wildlife for commercial markets. It was successful in that regard and those days are over. You can’t go shoot a deer in the wild and try to sell the venison.

Around the same time that the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation was popularized, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published Farmers Bulletin 330, which discussed the advantages of farming deer and other cervids, both for profit and as a way to help preserve the deer population in the United States, similar to how things have been done with the American bison over the last century.”

I must admit that I learned a few new things from Mr. Schafer during this interview and I sincerely appreciate him taking the time to talk to me about this controversial subject.