Jim Turner of the News Service of Florida reports that after acknowledging they have received a “stack of letters” from lawmakers, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission members Thursday gave themselves a few months to decide if Florida should ban importing all out-of-state deer.
Commissioners agreed to delay the proposal until September so more information could be gathered on the potential impacts of a ban, both economically and in the effectiveness of keeping out Chronic Wasting Disease, a potentially fatal disease to the state’s deer population.
“We’re all learning about this, and basically whether we can learn more and come up with something that doesn’t impact the economy and doesn’t impact our native wildlife, deer in particular, I think this is a major issue that we’re going to have to make for the best interest of our wildlife,” Commissioner Ron Bergeron said “But I would like to learn everything I can before that decision is made, out of respect to the legislators and all the interests here today.”
Closing the border as a means to keep the disease from reaching deer in Florida is the stated intent of the proposal. The disease is not known to affect people.
Commission Chairman Kenneth Wright said the delay could allow for additional meetings on the proposal, time he hopes proponents and opponents of the ban could use to find some areas of agreement.
“It is a bad disease, we need to deal with it,” Wright said. “But also I’m getting a sense that there is not even consensus among the stakeholders to the degree to which the problem exists.”
The disease has spread since being first detected in free-ranging populations in the mid-1980s around northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming. The disease has been described as similar to Mad Cow disease, with animals becoming emaciated and often being found isolated and trembling.
If an animal is found with the disease, the entire population, free-ranging or farmed, would need to be eradicated in order to prevent further spreading.
Commissioner Liesa Priddy tried to sway the rest of the commission in support of the ban, arguing the state has a chance to be proactive in fighting the disease to preserve the state’s deer population.
“I just see that the impact (of the disease) to our wild deer herd could just be catastrophic, and then you’re not going to have any people coming in to hunt deer in Florida,” Priddy said. “I think it comes down to a matter of risk perceptions and risk tolerance. Are we willing to take the risk of having the disease come into Florida, or can we take the steps to eliminate the possibility further.”
The decision to delay came after nearly three-hours of comments from numerous deer farmers, preserve owners, hunters and animal rights activists during a commission meeting in Lakeland.
A number of state lawmakers have also written commissioners on the issue, mostly on the potential economic impact to deer farms and the hunting industry, with Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, on June 6 calling the proposal “a bit premature and extreme.”
Proponents of the ban, including the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Florida Deer Association, the Florida Zoo Association and the Humane Society, argued that the ban is the best way to prevent the disease.
Phil Leary, representing the Florida Deer Association, said closing the borders is the “only one sure way” to protect wild and captive herds in Florida.
“People say you can’t absolutely prevent the spread here, that’s true, but you can reduce the probability of it,” said Florida Wildlife Federation President Manley Fuller.
Meanwhile, a number of deer farmers and game ranchers say closing the border will actually increase the chance for the disease to turn up on Florida. They envision an increase in smuggling, increasing the risk that deer from impacted areas are brought into Florida, to make up for a drop in the amount of deer available for hunts.
Also, Larry Collins, who owns three game ranches in Florida, said a temporary closure on the importation of deer last year led to a limited number of deer being available for hunts, forcing him to return deposits and reduce staff.
“Closing the borders would drastically affect my employees,” Collins said.
Laurie Cook, a South Florida veterinarian said another disease, epizootic hemorrhagic disease, should be a bigger concern regarding deer.
Several opponents of the ban recommended the state consider doubling the requirement that deer now imported come from herds that has been certified disease-free for at least five years.
Currently, to reduce the chances of the disease entering Florida, the state also prohibits deer from being imported from states and Canadian provinces where infected populations have been found.
In addition, the ban prohibits deer killed in those states and provinces from being brought into Florida unless they first has been deboned or treated and mounted by taxidermists located outside Florida.