Deer farming bill would allow "genetically altered" whitetails

A whitetail deer grazes at the University of Georgia's Warnell School of Forestry, where native deer are used for research. A controversial bill would legalize the importation of deer from other states that would be genetically altered to produce larger antlered bucks.

A new House bill dropped into the Agriculture & Consumer Affairs committee hopper in Atlanta is already raising eyebrows among Georgia’s outdoorsmen.

The legislation, whose sponsors include State Rep. Jay Powell of Camilla, Ga., would legalize the importation, breeding and sale of genetically-enhanced trophy whitetails that could be stocked at high-fence preserves where “hunters” pay huge sums to kill trophy deer.

“House Bill 1043 is a threat to ethical deer hunting and could become the greatest threat to our native white-tailed deer population ever,” said the Georgia Wildlife Federation, in a mass e-mail urging opposition to the bill.

Among the concerns are the potential spread of disease, the ethical dilemmas associated with an increase in high-fence operations and the potential transition of deer from wildlife to an agricultural product – like livestock.

Deputy Commissioner Todd Holbrook, of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, said state officials are watching the bill.

“At this point it’s safe to say that we have serious concerns,” he said. “We don’t want to put the wild deer of Georgia at risk, and while there is economic activity associated with this practice, it is small compared with the economics of the deer hunting that goes on every day of the season in Georgia.”

Under current state laws, it is already legal to fence in a hunting area — but only with native deer. Such fenced areas must enclose a minimum of 640 acres to approximate the range of a whitetail buck.

There are also a few authorized, legitimate situations where native deer can be kept in enclosures, with research being the main one.

The University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources, for example, is well known for its whitetail deer studies that have shed new light on genetics, behavior and wildlife diseases.

“Besides deer held in possession for research purposes, a zoo could have a whitetail deer if it has the right facility and does so under a permit,” he said. There are also licensed rehabilitators who occasionally handle stray fawns.

“The one thing people cannot do is import deer,” he said. Such movements across statesd and regions can spread chronic wasting disease and other ailments.

Although genetically altered bucks can be made to produce huge antlers – in some cases racks that score 200 Boone & Crockett points in their second or third year – such trophy bucks can also lose other important characteristics.

“Anytime you select for one trait – in this case antlers – you may not be getting all the traits that make wildlife wild,” he said.

“Domestic and wild turkeys, for example, are the same species,” he said. “the domestic ones are fat, docile and far different from a wild bird. It lacks the great eyesight, the nervous instinct and the fast running skills.”

Georgia hunters have already shown that better bucks can be produced simply by modifying hunter behavior – and leaving deer genetics alone.

In recent years, changes supported by the state’s outdoorsmen and women have tightened buck harvest rules to require that at least one of each hunter’s two-buck limit have four or more points on one side. Consequently, more small bucks survive to become mature ones, and passing juvenile bucks helps encourage hunters to take more does, Holbrook said.

The Wildlife Federation also supports existing hunting rules that promote quality buck opportunities.

“We believe that ethical Georgia deer hunters who already have a better chance than two thirds of the states in the nation to kill a Boone and Crockett buck will say this industry and this threat is not worth the very high risk,” the group’s email said.

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