Mountain State Deer Farming

By Gwen Hagaman

In last winter's Legislative Session Senate Bill 351 was introduced, which proposed transferring oversight of farm-raised white tail deer and other domestic cervid species (includes red deer, elk and similar breeds) from West Virginia Department of Natural Resources (WVDNR) to West Virginia Department of Agriculture (WVAG). The bill sparked controversy regarding views and definitions of "wild" versus "farm" deer. Although soundly passing the House, Speaker Richard Thompson of Wayne County blocked SB 351 from coming to a vote in the Senate.

This issue doesn't get the same loud attention as coal mine safety or teachers salaries. Yet many people are surprised when they learn the issues related to deer farming and what could happen just by switching oversight to a different state agency. There are more than two dozen licensed deer farms operating in 15 West Virginia counties at this time. Many others are ready to open, depending on the outcome of SB 351 during the next Legislative Session. Read with me while I explain the issues as I understand them, then you decide what makes sense and let your representatives know your position.


"Although 'white tail deer' meat cannot be sold, WVDNR allows the sale of elk and red deer for slaughter as specified in Legislative Rule 58CSR63 that regulates the commercial sale of wildlife," explains Frank Jezioro, Director, Division of Natural Resources. "Further, the sale of non-traditional livestock is governed by the Department of Agriculture in West Virginia Code Chapter 19 Article 29, which exclusively exempts white tail deer as non-traditional livestock. This includes all animals (native and non-native) raised for domestic purposes except 'white tail deer'".

Selling white tail deer meat is specifically excluded by law. However, the hide, head, antlers and feet of legally taken game can be sold. According to Mr. Jezioro there are no other native species that are held in captivity or have as large of an economic impact on West Virginia as the white tail deer.

Harold K. Michael, Delegate for Hardy and Pendleton Counties, co-sponsored SB 351. "Farm-raised deer should be allowed the same as other livestock. WVDA has the ability to regulate deer as livestock and to inspect the meat and other products (breeding stock, urine for hunting scent, semen for breeding, skins for leather, antlers for art pieces, bucks for private hunting, etc.) that would be produced in the same way as they do for other livestock," he said.

"If the law were to change," said Buddy Davidson, WVDA Communications Officer, "WVDA could provide the industry with veterinary and herd health services, as well as marketing and publicity assistance as requested."

The U. S. imports millions of dollars worth of venison and cervid products from other countries, including New Zealand, each year. According to Mark Cobb, President of WV Deer Farmers Association, over 90 percent of the venison consumed in restaurants or purchased in grocery stores and deli's is imported. "This seems crazy to me," he said. "We can produce our own venison in West Virginia which will create jobs, produce revenue in local communities, enable farms to gain a new market and provide venison, a healthy sustainable red meat."

Venison has half the calories and a third of the fat compared with beef. In recipes calling for beef, venison can be substituted straight across. It can be made into jerky, sausage, ground meat, steaks or roasts. Venison is a healthy red meat alternative, which is very popular as food in West Virginia, a state ranking as one of the most obese in the nation.


"The responsibility of the WVDNR is to manage natural resources (e.g., wildlife) for the citizens of West Virginia. Because deer are defined as 'wildlife' in WV Code Chapter 20-1-2, the legislature has placed their regulatory authority under the WVDNR," said Mr. Jezioro, as he explains his position to keep oversight of farm deer with WVDNR. "Although deer farmers classify deer in their possession as domestic animals, they are genetically wild. Because WVDA does not have a vested interest in the welfare of wildlife in the state, regulatory authority should be kept under the DNR to protect this resource and the half a billion dollar industry generated through hunting and other outdoor activities."

"SB 351 was proposed at the request of cervid farmers in the state because most of them, as farmers, believe they would be better served under the WVDA rather than WVDNR, which is in charge of West Virginia's wildlife," explains Mr. Davidson. "It is the location and ownership of an animal, not its species, that determines if it is 'wild' or not. Wild deer do not live behind fences, just as domestic cattle don't roam through the forests. Domestic cervids are bred and raised in captivity. Their care and condition is overseen by humans, just as traditional livestock are managed by other farmers."

WVDA is responsible for all of the food and the food chain in state including: slaughterhouses, restaurants, grocery stores, and more. They actively promote the products of industries under their oversight, with 12 marketing and development officers on staff. WV deer farmers believe WVDA has more appropriate staff, equipment and expertise to effectively guide production of food products made from venison. Here's how WVDA and WVDNR compare:

  Staff Veterinarians Animal Health Personnel Portable Incinerators for Disease Control Meat Inspectors
WVDA 5 22 1 13
WVDNR     0 0 0 0

Mr. Jezioro states, "No other livestock animal in West Virginia can be confused (either genotypic or phenotypic) with a native wild animal." But when I shop for groceries, I regularly see turkey, quail, duck, rabbit, trout, and catfish for sale in the meat department. There are seasons and licenses to hunt or fish legally for all of these animals, so they still exist as wild game. Aren't all of these species of animals farmed for meat production? I'm sure there are genetic differences between wild turkey, for example, and farm turkey, which have been bred for specific traits over a period of many years. WVDA currently provides health inspections for fish farmers in the state, who produce trout and other species of fish. Doesn't WVDNR use farm trout to stock wild waterways?

"A common public misconception is that our farm-raised deer come from the wild. This is not the case," explains Mr. Cobb. "Many of the first deer entering the deer farming industry were born in overcrowded zoos and research facilities. University of Pennsylvania has sold some the greatest white tails and genetics in the nation. Many West Virginia deer farmers bought their first deer and elk from WVDNR's French Creek Game Farm. It is illegal for us to capture wild deer or to release our farm-raised deer into the wild," said Mr. Cobb. "Deer breeders do not want wild deer due to genetics and disposition."

"I started raising elk because I missed seeing them from when I lived in Colorado," continued Mr. Cobb. "I wanted to see them, hear them bugle, watch them grow antlers, and gather their harems. I know many folks that started into this business for similar reasons."


Mr. Jezioro believes the deer farming industry violates several basic tenants of the North American model of wildlife conservation. This viewpoint is expressed in an article recently published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin entitled 'The Antler Religion'. I encourage you to read the linked article to fully understand WVDNR's position regarding morality in hunting. "Although the article addresses intensive deer management where deer are intensively managed for trophy or massive antlers, the same applies to the products of deer farmers in West Virginia," said Mr. Jezioro. The Antler Religion focuses on trophy buck breeding, primarily in Texas, and private hunting reserves where guests pay to shoot penned deer.


"WVDNR continues random testing of dead deer across the entire state and does concentrated testing in the area already known to be infected with Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)," said Mr. Jezioro. "We do restrict the baiting or feeding of deer in the infected area to avoid concentrating the deer at these feeding stations as it is widely accepted by CWD experts that close, nose to nose contact like that encountered at feeding troughs or feed piles, does in fact encourage the spread of CWD." At present there is no live test for CWD in deer. The brain stem has to be inspected to determine the presence of CWD.

"Since we are not sure what causes the disease, it is hard to say if the current measures of WVDNR are adequate to control CWD," said Delegate Michael. "Farm deer are in better health generally because of the nutrition and care they receive."

"There have been no CWD positives in captive herds in West Virginia - only in wild deer," states Mr. Davidson. "WVDA has a proven, time-tested record of eradicating animal diseases and then keeping them out of our livestock herds. Doing the same for cervid producers would simply be a continued use of the department's considerable expertise."

Under WVDA oversight, farm deer would be subject to health inspection before they enter the state. Their segregation from wild populations and veterinary care would both be protective measures. According to WVDA, farm deer with symptoms of disease would likely be individually identified because of ongoing human observation.

"I truly believe that CWD is a naturally occurring disease that has been around for centuries and will eventually be found in all states that currently have wild deer populations. If enough wild deer were tested for CWD, we would certainly find a lot more positive CWD cases," said Mr. Cobb. "Remember deer farms in WV test 100 percent and the wild deer are tested at less than .01 percent. Even at these rates, the WV deer farmers have zero positive cases. We all know that the CWD containment area in the wild deer population is spreading."


For the past 20 years WVDNR Wildlife Resources Section has sponsored the Hunters Helping the Hungry (HHH) Program. Since the start of the program, 19,296 deer yielding 734,238 pounds of meat have been available to needy families and individuals throughout the state. Hunters participating in the program take their deer to certified meat processors where it is turned into two-pound packages of ground venison. Mountaineer Food Bank (Gassaway) and Huntington Area Food Bank, both members of Feeding America, collect the venison and distribute it to the needy through their network of qualified charitable food pantries, soup kitchens, senior centers, shelters, community centers, orphanages, missions, and churches statewide.

We can all agree that this is a wonderful program. But few people realize that the meat is not inspected. Mr. Jezioro admits the meat is not inspected, but says he believes the meat is safe for WV families to eat.

"CWD is a disease that gets a lot of public attention and is very similar to Mad Cow Disease in cattle and scrapies in sheep and goats. The public has not stop eating beef, lamb or goat," said Mr. Cobb. "I believe the reason is that we trust the officials responsible for our food and agriculture. The animal disease experts are the USDA folks. Many folks don't realize this, but the USDA is actually the agency that baits for rabies in the wild animals and many other wild animal diseases. Folks mistakenly believe that the DNR is the agency involved with wildlife diseases and often surprised to find out that it is indeed the USDA. The USDA and WVDA are responsible for the public food chain in WV and they are doing a fine job to make sure the food that we consume is safe."

If the laws were changed and a meat market developed, the venison and processing facilities would be subject to mandatory WVDA or USDA inspection. "WVDA's primary role would be ensuring the health of cervid herds. Conceivably, WV venison could be sold wholesale or retail," said Mr. Davidson.

The WV Deer Farmers Association believes that by blocking the sale of venison food products, which the group calls their most desirable market, WVDNR will force deer farmers to focus on producing trophy bucks. "We would like to be able to produce and sell venison products, but it is illegal in WV," said Mr. Cobb. "WV breeders can sell breeding stock to new producers while working to gain the ability to sell their venison. Some deer are exported out of state, but because WV is a CWD positive state (in the wild deer herd only), many states will not allow importation of our live deer. We do have a deer farm that bottles urine for scents and most sell semen and antlers."


"Deer farming has real economic benefit to the state," explains Delegate Michael. "We already have a limited number of deer breeders in our state. Venison products are legal to be imported into West Virginia from foreign countries. It makes no sense why we cannot grow and market deer as livestock."
Deer farms can be started with as little as 10 acres of land. West Virginia is a perfect place for farming deer because:

  • There are many small family farms
  • Rugged terrain is natural habitat for deer, but not well suited for other types of agriculture
  • It's located in between Ohio and Pennsylvania, which are among the top 5 deer farming states

According to Mr. Cobb, a Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA) agent stated that captive cervid farming greatly assisted in maintaining rural family farms. "We already know that deer thrive in our geographic area and that much of the land in our state is not suitable for traditional farming (i.e., vast fields for grazing cattle or making hay, or tillable, fertile land for raising crops)."

"A large portion of our people support deer farming without realizing it," begins Mr. Cobb. "When you stop at the local grocery or convenience store and buy venison snack sticks or jerky, it is imported venison. Deer antler art such as knife handles, candleholders, lamps, chandeliers, belt buckles, pens, etc., are imported or come from U.S. deer farms. Also, while not as popular in the U. S., many countries use the deer velvet (soft antler) as a natural remedy for medicinal purposes. Soft deerskin gloves or slippers come from deer hides. One of the largest venison markets is the deer urine market. Those bottles of 'doe-N-heat,' 'buck-N-rut,' or active scrape scents that are sold at the local Wal-Mart and sporting goods stores come from deer farms all across the U. S. As you can see, the deer farming industry already has ready markets. These markets would grow if we could sell our locally raised venison under the supervision of the WVDA."

The deer farming industry is growing all around West Virginia with Pennsylvania (1,100 deer farms) and Ohio (1,000 deer farms) leading the way. The WV Deer Farmers Association estimates the following breakdown of industry activity, with most deer farms participating with multiple products.

Product category Percentage of industry   Anticipated change
Breeding stock and/or Semen   90% Will diminish to match industry's sustainable balance
Antlers 80% Growing segment of industry
Trophy bucks 60% Breeders will continue to sell some of their bucks
Meat and Food 10% Growing segment of industry, currently illegal in WV
Hides 10% Growth tied to meat production
Scents 5% Stable segment of industry

The changes proposed by SB 351 would likely double the number of deer farms in West Virginia immediately and allow an expanded product line for each one - including healthy, inspected food products made from farm-raised venison. After the first year, ongoing industry growth is projected at 25 percent per year. Whether you are in favor or against transferring oversight of deer farms from WVDNR to WVAG, please let your representatives know your opinion.