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When is Bambi the deer like Bessie the cow?

It’s a question likely to come before the Missouri Legislature this year in a conflict over ways to contain a rare but fatal illness afflicting deer and elk called chronic wasting disease, or CWD. Since 2010, when the first case was confirmed in the state, 20 more dead deer have tested positive for the disease, all within a two-county area in north-central Missouri.

The first case was on a private hunting ranch in Linn County. The next 10 were confirmed on an affiliated hunting ranch in adjoining Macon County. The remainder were wild deer taken by hunters within a few miles of the Macon ranch.

The proximity of the cases has sharpened the disagreement between conservationists and owners of fenced hunting ranches, which cater to high-dollar hunters in search of impressive trophies. The political issue is likely to turn on the definition of “livestock.”

The Missouri Department of Conservation, charged with

approving operating permits for the hunting ranches, is considering stricter rules. Because ranches usually get their deer from breeders, sometimes from other states, the department says it wants to ensure that chronic wasting disease doesn’t travel by truck and spread across fences into the wild.

A controversial option under review is to require ranches to build higher, double fences — something the operators consider expensive and offensive.

For that and other aggravations, the Missouri Whitetail Breeders and Hunting Ranch Association wants to be freed from the Conservation Department altogether. Sam James, association president, said it plans to ask the Legislature to declare their captive deer “livestock” — like cattle and sheep — regulated only by the state Department of Agriculture.

The Agriculture Department oversees the health of captive animals. The Conservation Department is charged with protecting Missouri’s 1.4 million deer, all of which are considered wild animals.

Aaron Jeffries, assistant director of the Conservation Department, said it is working on the rule changes and isn’t ready to offer them for public review. This year, the department held eight public meetings, including one at Powder Valley Nature Center in Kirkwood, to discuss ideas with residents.

James said his group will seek legislative relief in the session beginning Jan. 8.

“I think Conservation is trying to put us out of business,” said James, who owns the two Whitetail Dreams hunting ranches near Fulton. “There are people (in the department) who don’t approve of what we do, and we’ve had enough of it. Putting us under one state agency makes much more sense, and Agriculture can do the better job.”

Jeffries said the department does not object to hunting ranches but represents all of Missouri’s hunters and wildlife enthusiasts. Missouri is home to more than 40 private hunting ranches, about 250 deer breeders and 520,000 ordinary hunters.

“With captive deer being transported across our landscape, we need to enhance our fencing standards,” Jeffries said. “To define a captive deer as livestock is not a good road to go. Our job is to protect deer on both sides of the fence.”

FATAL DISEASE

Missouri’s last case of chronic wasting disease was confirmed in March. State biologists are testing samples volunteered by hunters from the fall deer seasons, but won’t have results until mid-January.

CWD is caused by a mutated protein, or prion, that attacks the nervous system. It does not harm humans but is fatal to deer or elk. Infected animals don’t show symptoms for 18 months or more. The prion can be spread by live deer or carcasses, even from soil in which they decompose. There is no cure or way to test live deer for infection.

The disease was first isolated in Colorado in 1967 and has been confirmed in 21 other states. Roughly that many, including Tennessee and Arkansas, restrict or ban transportation of deer across state lines because of CWD. Missouri allows it.

Previous legislative efforts to redefine captive deer have fizzled, but the number of CWD cases has raised the issue’s profile. A special interim House committee held traveling hearings in the summer and fall. It issued a one-page report Nov. 8 without a specific recommendation, other than to say the Legislature should take action if opposing parties can’t resolve things.

The committee said the state’s twin goals should be “protecting our state’s wildlife and ensuring that the deer-breeding and hunting-preserve industry is not unduly burdened.”

State Rep. Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo, the House majority whip, said in an interview that she hadn’t made up her mind on the issue. But Crawford said the Agriculture Department probably is better equipped than Conservation to deal with it. She said of the hunting-ranch operators, “They are legitimately worried that Conservation will impose rules that will make for a very big financial burden upon them.”

Richard Ash Jr., president of the private Conservation Federation of Missouri, said similar sentiments uttered by committee members last summer “makes it pretty clear they are biased toward the high-fence hunting industry.” Ash said the federation is preparing to lobby legislators to preserve the Conservation Department’s role as the best way to contain the spread of CWD in Missouri’s wild deer population.

“We believe deer are wildlife, not cows or pigs,” said Ash, of Ozark, Mo. “I can’t hunt a cow. But if I see a deer, how am I supposed to know if it’s livestock or not?”

Joe Humphrey, owner of Beaver Creek Ranch near Poplar Bluff, said hunting-ranch operators already have strong business reasons not to let CWD spread in any herd, captive or wild. Humphrey, who also is Butler County treasurer, said operators can’t survive if the state keeps changing rules or imposing expensive ones that wouldn’t stop the disease anyway.

“How does it fix this by killing our industry?” he said.

Tim O'Neil is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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