Farming Captive Cervids in Michigan (WO1026)

Deer and elk belong to the taxonomic group of animals called the family Cervidae.

Executive Summary

The husbandry and sale of captive deer and elk have grown in Michigan and throughout North America over the past 30 years. Because these species belong to the mammalian family Cervidae, the industry is referred to as farming, ranching or agriculture of captive cervids. In Michigan, this industry is regulated in part by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and in part by the Michigan Department of Agriculture. Proponents of this industry anticipate that the industry is likely to grow dramatically in Michigan if the regulatory process is not prohibitive. This paper reviews of what is known about the captive cervid industry in Michigan and beyond, and identifies issues that may interfere with further development of the industry or may affect the free-ranging herd of whitetailed deer, elk or other wildlife species in Michigan. The paper is divided into five sections which review what is known about and what needs to be determined regarding economic issues, facility management issues, ecosystem management issues, health management issues and social issues associated with captive cervid agriculture.

Economic issues

Captive cervid agriculture in Michigan and in North America has grown dramatically over the past decade. Currently, Michigan citizens hold 640 permits to keep captive white-tailed deer and elk. The number of captive white-tailed deer is more than 21,000 head, and the number of captive elk is about 2,600. These numbers represent a doubling of the captive herd sizes since 1994. The total value of these herds is about $30 million. Little information is available on the number of non-native cervids (i.e., species that do not naturally occur in Michigan) that are kept in captivity because no permits are needed to keep and raise these animals. The captive cervid industry is distributed throughout the state, with the greatest concentrations occurring in central and southeastern lower Michigan. Many of the captive cervid operations are small, with 76 percent less than 20 acres in area. Some larger operations offer fee hunting opportunities within their enclosed areas. Other products from these herds include venison, hides and leather, velvet antlers, hard antlers and trophy males for fee hunting. Currently, much of the economic activity among Michigan captive cervid growers is in sale of breeding animals and semen. This is a common attribute of a developing animal agricultural industry. For this industry to realize continued growth and development, it will be important for domestic and international markets to increase demand for other cervid products.

Facilities management issues

Captive cervids require similar facilities to those needed for other hooved livestock. One of the key differencesbetween captive cervid facilities and those for other livestock is the need for high, strong fencing. Captive cervids are capable of escaping over or under conventional livestock fencing. The most commonly recommended fencing for captive cervids is at least 8 feet tall (for elk) or 10 feet tall (for white-tailed deer) and made of strong woven wire. These specifications overcome the leaping abilities of most cervids and guard against fence failure due to impact of the animals with the fencing. Some recommend use of two lines of fencing to prevent escape in the event of fence failure and to prevent direct contact between captive and freeranging cervids. As with all fenced livestock operations, frequent fence maintenance is necessary to prevent escape or ingress of animals through the barrier.

Ecosystem management issues

It is well documented that captive herds of cervids alter the composition and distribution of vegetation within the area occupied by the captive herd. The existence of captive cervid facilities and the animals within them are likely to alter ecosystem processes inside and outside the captive compound, and they have the potential to alter species relationships, movement patterns and the genetic composition of free-ranging species. Most of the potential negative impacts of captive cervids can be minimized by use of effective fencing systems that minimize escape from or ingress into captive cervid facilities. Effective fencing also has the potential to limit movement of free-ranging cervids, but this is likely to occur only if the area that is fenced for captive cervids becomes extremely large. Other land use practices may have greater, lesser or different impacts on ecosystem attributes than captive cervid facilities, but we did not find information that would assist in comparing the risks associated with captive cervids to those associated with other land use practices on private property. Conclusions here are based on inferences made from a diversity of articles because we were not able to find published studies that evaluate the direct relationships between individual captive cervid facilities and ecosystem attributes.

Health management issues

Efforts to raise wild species of cervids in captivity have encountered health management needs that pose challenges to growers and potentially to wild cervid populations in Michigan. There is a great need for more information and expertise on captive cervid health management to enable growers to keep their herds healthy and to minimize the risk of disease transmission between wild and captive animals. The potential risk of disease transmission between wild and captive herds differs from the risk of transmission of the same diseases between captive domesticated livestock andwild cervid populations. Diseases are more difficult to diagnose or treat in wild animals, whether captive or free-ranging, though new methods are under development and testing. Furthermore, an escaped deer is virtually indistinguishable from a wild one and is much harder to recapture than an escaped steer or cow. As a result, if an escaped deer transmits a disease agent to wild deer, it is much more challenging to eradicate the disease than it would be in a captive herd of domestic livestock. One example of this is the present problem of bovine tuberculosis in wild white-tailed deer in Michigan and the challenge of eliminating this problem. It is not clear how the disease was introduced into the free-ranging deer herd, but its eradication from the free-ranging population is one of the most challenging issues that wildlife managers have ever faced in Michigan. Even though the problem appears to be manageable in cattle and captive cervids in the area, the costs are great, and it remains to be seen if the problems can be eliminated in the free-ranging herd. To date, only one captive herd has been discovered to have deer infected with bovine tuberculosis, and this was likely a result of one or more infected free-ranging deer that were incorporated into the herd when the herd was enclosed by fencing.

Social issues

Game farming and ranching provide a number of benefits (e.g., local economy, recreation, food) and could potentially provide others not yet clearly proven (e.g., health products). Also, this industry may provide another alternative economic activity to rural landowners either in place of traditional agricultural practices or in place of non-agricultural development. They also pose a number of potential costs or risks thatraise social issues. This paradox is not unique to game farming/ranching, but many of these issues are unique because of the wild nature of the species involved — white-tailed deer and elk — which also exist as a common property resource in the state. Although the rearing and marketing of these cervids is an agricultural activity, the process and potential consequences are inextricably linked to their wild counterparts, the wildlife management system and the ecosystem upon which wildlife species depend. The social issues identified here include the following:

1) There is potential for game farming/ranching to impede the effective administration of wildlife conservation methods.

2) Recreational shooting opportunities on game ranches could reduce public acceptance of recreational hunting and its role in wildlife management.

3) The chance of animal escapes poses a number of ecological risks and associated issues, including concerns that there is a greater risk of disease being introduced into wild herds and into domesticated livestock.

4) In addition to potential impacts on wildlife and its management, the wild nature of these captives also raises humane issues of animal welfare beyond those associated with traditional domesticated livestock production.

These risks and their associated issues suggest a need to carefully consider regulations for the captive cervid industry. Indeed, the captive cervid industry in Michigan has supported legislation to require disease testing and to establish guidelines for raising animals humanely.


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