Issue of the Week: The Reclassification of White-tailed Deer

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In recent months, a controversial debate on whether or not to list captive white-tailed deer as “livestock” has sparked discussion among the hunting community in the United States.  Traditionally, Departments of Agriculture oversee the health of livestock and Departments of Natural Resources manage wild animals. This distinction may seem small when looking at the same animal on both sides of a fence but the differences are in fact considerable and fuel the discussion on reclassification.

Supporters of the reclassification want state legislatures to look at the definition of livestock. They believe it should depend on how animals are raised. Like traditional livestock, captive white-tailed deer remain behind a fence and are bought and cared for by their owners. Captive deer facilities may use artificial insemination, controlled breeding, antibiotics, supplemental feeding, and other factors that distinguish captive deer from wild deer. In addition, the concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest are driven by completely different forces on each side of the fence.

Many opponents of the reclassification are concerned that the change would eliminate the Departments of Natural Resources’ role in managing and regulating hunting of white-tailed deer populations, as hunting in some states includes animals living in large preserves and ranches. The preserves span across acres of land but are still considered “fenced” areas.  The potential complexities of two separate agencies managing the hunting season, one for “free-range” and the other for “captive bred” animals, could create compounded opportunities for  licensing, and tag confusion. Furthermore, the reclassification could complicate the process of distributing revenues from hunter supported taxes and license fees, which are paramount to conservation funding.

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If Departments of Agriculture are required to oversee captive white-tailed deer populations, a huge undertaking, new regulations would need to be written that regulate hunting of captive animals. There are many uncertainties with what such regulations would look like.

Those for reclassification believe a change in regulations may be beneficial to the species. It is well understood that higher densities of animals are more susceptible to disease, and transmission rates are also much higher.  Standards for managing captive cervids to prevent disease are much more involved than for wild deer.  Regulations, such as double- fencing to prevent any physical contact with free-ranging deer and strict record keeping on individual captive animals, may be more aligned with the Departments of Agriculture’s abilities.

Pro-reclassification groups look towards Missouri for inspiration. Since 1995, captive, privately owned elk in Missouri have been classified as livestock and are regulated by the Missouri Department of Agriculture. Free-ranging elk are regulated by the Missouri Department of Conservation and are considered wildlife.  Although the two agency system is working for Missouri, it may not be the most efficient structure for other states. Some states might not want to adopt Missouri’s system because having two agencies compete over one species may cause complications and decisions may be made based on the best interest of the departments rather than the species.

White-tailed deer are wildlife and also game animals. Does putting them behind a fence change that fact? Do Departments of Natural Resources have the sole authority to control, manage, and regulate all wildlife or just all non-captive wildlife? SCI Foundation wants the best solution for wildlife, while ensuring policies and management reflect the best available science. We will continue to monitor the debate on this interesting topic and keep you informed of new developments and evolving perspectives

Twice a week, SCI Foundation informs readers about conservation initiatives happening worldwide and updates them on SCI Foundation’s news, projects and events. Tuesdays are dedicated to an Issue of the Week and Thursday’s Weekly Updates will provide an inside look into research and our other science-based conservation efforts. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more SCI Foundation news. 

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