Missouri Supreme Court Rules All Deer are Wildlife

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Pen raised deer likes these, with unnaturally large antlers, are for sale to be shot for tens-of-thousands of dollars. Photo by Brandon Butler

Pen raised deer likes these, with unnaturally large antlers, are for sale to be shot for tens-of-thousands of dollars. Photo by Brandon Butler

It took five years and millions of dollars to settle an argument that should have never happened.  But the buck has stopped at the Missouri Supreme Court, who on July 3 unanimously ruled that all deer are wildlife.

How did we get to a point where such an argument had to be made? The “Captive Cervid Industry” has found ways to pervert our American heritage of hunting by confining wild animals and genetically altering them to grow unnaturally large antlers in fenced-enclosures where a paying customer can pick out the one they want and shoot it. In the background section of the Missouri Supreme Court ruling, they explain the industry, “generally engages in two types of commercial activities: the selective breeding of cervids for large antlers and other desirable genetic traits, and the operation of private hunting preserves at which hunters pay to hunt and take trophy bucks.”

Across the country, and here in Missouri, the captive cervid industry has launched an aggressive campaign against being regulated by state wildlife agencies. They have been successful in other states, using political favor under the guise of private property rights, to ultimately eliminate wildlife regulations.

Missouri is different. Our forefathers had the foresight to understand it would take non-political, bipartisan scientific decision making to not only restore our once nearly extirpated wildlife, but to ensure those species survive and thrive for generations of Missourians yet to come. Article IV Section 40(a) of the Missouri Constitution grants the Conservation Commission, “control, management, restoration, conservation and regulation of the bird, fish, game, forestry and all wildlife resources of the state.” The Supreme Court ruled this includes all deer, no matter if they are in the wild or behind a fence.

During the 2014 state legislative regular session, a bill was passed that would have classified captive cervids as livestock, thus transferring their control from the Department of Conservation to the Department of Agriculture. Former Governor Jay Nixon vetoed the bill. In the veto-session, after losing in the Senate, one vote in the House of Representatives kept the veto from being overturned.

After having lost at the legislative level, in order to continue their fight against regulations put in place by the Department of Conservation for the purpose of slowing Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and protecting our state’s herd of approximately 1.3 million wild whitetails, that a University of Missouri report indicates represent a $1.1 billion-dollar annual contribution to our state’s economy, the industry turned to the judicial system. Their biggest complaint being against an importation ban, similar to what nearly half the states in our country already have in place. They initially won their case in circuit court, only to have the judgement reversed and settled by the supreme court with a unanimous verdict that included the language, “cervids are members of species that are wild by nature and, therefore, are wildlife.”

The industry argued their privatized cervids are, “not game or wildlife resources of the state.” They also claimed the regulations infringed upon their right to farm under article I, section 35 of the Missouri Constitution.

The supreme court did not agree, stating, “The Court rejects these readings. The terms “game” and “wildlife” are plain and unambiguous as used in article IV, section 40(a), which is concerned with the preservation and conservation of the state’s forestry and wildlife resources. In this context, the term “wildlife” plainly includes all species that are wild by nature.”

In regard to the right to farm claim, the supreme court offered, “The claim that article I, section 35, protects Respondents from regulations promulgated under the authority granted to the Commission under article IV, section 40(a), fails at the threshold. Article I, section 35, added to our constitution in 2014 by Missouri voters, guarantees ‘the right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices.’ Respondents failed to show they are “engage[d] in farming and ranching practices” and, therefore, cannot invoke this guarantee.”

So, there are two main problems with captive deer. The first issue is simply one of ethics and ideals. With whitetail deer populations at or above target goals in most of the country, why does someone want to shoot a penned deer?

Steven Rinella, who is a leading voice among sportsmen-conservationists, explained to me the captive cervid view of noted conservationist Jim Pozewitz. According to Rinella, Pozewitz’s theory is when you hunt penned up deer and sell that experience, what you’re selling is the idea of the wild one. Deer have come to represent wildness. They have come to represent a cultural and economic commitment we’ve had to their well-being. They have come to represent challenge. They have come to represent struggle. And so when you hang a penned deer on your wall, you’re hanging up a representation of all these ideals. That’s what they’re selling to individuals that just want the representation and to harness the meaning and show it to other individuals. They want others to think they value those things, when they know secretly that they don’t really value it enough to try and achieve it in a legitimate way. They’re just going to buy it.

Rinella also put it in his own words, “It’s all part of this facade. You never walk into a guy’s house and he’s got what’s obviously a penned-up deer on the wall, and the guy’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I shot that inside a pen,’ ever. Ever. And I’ve seen a pile of them in a pile of houses, and not one guy. The fence is never in the picture. The fence is never in the story. So, if you are so ashamed of it, and so bashful about it, why are you engaged in it? Just pull out. Stop doing something that embarrasses you so bad. When I’m doing something, and I feel embarrassed about it, and guilty about it, and I want to hide it, I generally try and go the other direction. I just don’t get it. I don’t get why it’s called hunting.”

With CWD now becoming a front-and-center issue across the country, we are starting to see political action arise to curb it’s spread. At the Federal level, Wisconsin Congressman Ron Kind filed House Resolution 4454 – Chronic Wasting Disease Management Act. It currently has 8 co-sponsors. Yet, there are still the conspiracy theorist out there claiming CWD is no big deal or even that it’s not real.

Dr. Grant Woods, who is a leading deer biologist in the country based here in Missouri, said, “It is not debatable. CWD is a disease. No deer has been known to survive it.”

Chronic Wasting Disease has unfortunately spread in Missouri. After first being discovered in captive facilities in Linn and Macon counties in 2010 and 2011, CWD has now been discovered in 11 counties across the state. It’s in our wild herd and now our hope is to slow it’s spread. The hope of eradication is all but gone.

When looking for a summary on the issue, as is the case with most topics of conservation, one only needs to look to the words of Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “Defenders of the short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things sometimes seek to champion them by saying ‘the game belongs to the people.’ So it does; and not merely to the people now alive, but to the unborn people. The ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations. The movement for the conservation of wildlife and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.”

See you down the trail…
Brandon Butler


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