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Inside the Outdoors: Finally, a breakthrough on captive deer farms

Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn

Photo illustration / Shutterstock.com

If at first you don’t succeed … try, try again. That may be the most obvious and often-used expression of persistence and hope you will encounter. Happily, there is some truth in it. Even when the task is as politically-charged as managing our state’s captive deer farms. These farms have frequently been linked to the spread to wild deer of the fatal nervous system-destroying chronic wasting disease (CWD).

After years of lobbying by groups like the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA), and the Minnesota affiliate of the Izaak Walton League of America—and steadfast efforts through multiple legislative sessions by sportsman-friendly state lawmakers—a moratorium on new captive deer farms within the state is part of an environment and natural resources bill that is expected to head to Governor Tim Walz’s desk for signature soon.

The swing to Democratic control of the Minnesota Senate in the 2022 election may have played a key role in the success of this 2023 legislation. With the GOP in control during the last session, an agreement had been reached—supported by a handful of GOP senators—to impose just such a moratorium. However, in an 11th hour, behind-closed-doors maneuver, most of those senators were persuaded to back out of their commitment, and that deer farm moratorium effort failed.

Also included in the new agreement is a restriction on the transfer of deer from areas with known CWD infections to captive deer farms in Minnesota, and strengthening of fencing requirements, though the latter is not as aggressive as some would like.

Captive elk farm.
Photo illustration / Shutterstock.com

For the unfamiliar, deer—and elk, too—are raised on such farms to provide controlled “hunts,” for meat, for urine for scent products, and for breeding purposes. Both deer and elk can transmit CWD through direct or indirect contact, via bodily secretions, between infected and healthy animals. CWD was first detected in wild deer in Southeast Minnesota’s Olmsted County in 2010. Perhaps not coincidentally, this region of Minnesota has historically had the highest concentration of captive deer and elk farms.


As late as 2019, that region was the only area where wild deer were found to be infected. Sadly, that picture has changed. CWD-infected wild deer have since been found in at least eight Minnesota counties, ranging as far north as the Bemidji area in Beltrami County. Transfer of infected deer has been implicated.

Perhaps as important as any part of the agreement reached by Minnesota Senate and House negotiators, oversight of captive deer farms will become the responsibility of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), replacing the State Board of Animal Health (SBAH) in that capacity. It will be up to the DNR to monitor and enforce such rules as fencing requirements, disposal of infected captive animals and rules pertaining to transfer of animals from one captive farm to another.

While it was in charge, the SBAH was frequently accused of being lax in enforcing rules, especially those concerning the fencing of deer captive farms, which were intended to prevent contact between captive and wild deer. SBAH’s main oversight duties have historically been related to domestic livestock on farms and ranches, not wild species, and some doubted their enthusiasm for policing of captive deer and elk farms.

Photo illustration / Shutterstock.com

There is an element of “be careful what you wish for” in the transfer of deer farm oversight from the SBAH to the DNR. Some fear that the genie is already out of the bottle, as it were, with wild deer in at least eight counties now known to have been infected. They fear that CWD could follow the pattern of such aquatic invasive species as zebra mussels and Eurasian watermilfoil, the control of which is not currently a success story. If this proves true, the DNR could be given a black eye for an outcome for which it bears little responsibility.

As is so often the case with law and rulemaking—whether federal, state or local—some items on the wish list don’t make it. For some reason—a bargaining chip can be the only explanation—the State Board of Animal Health will retain oversight of captive elk farms in Minnesota. There are fewer of these than captive deer farms. But captive elk are just as capable of spreading CWD to wild deer.

Another wish list item that fell by the wayside was that of requiring double fencing of captive deer farms, to prevent through-the-fence contact between captive and wild deer. Merely touching noses or exchanging saliva through the wires of a fence can spread CWD from an infected captive deer to a healthy wild deer. Double fencing is more expensive, and deer and elk farmers have resisted it for that reason.

While this moratorium remains in effect—permanently, many hope—the owner of a captive deer farm can sell or transfer ownership of his or her facility to a family member; but only once, as the language now reads.

All in all, this agreement is a positive one. Hopefully it is not too little, too late. Not only is a healthy whitetail deer herd central to one of Minnesota’s most cherished outdoor traditions, but it’s an important economic engine in its own right, through the sporting goods and tourism spending it generates.


Mike Rahn - Inside the Outdoors.jpg
Mike Rahn, columnist

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