By Stephanie Carroll Carson, Mary Kuhlman
RALEIGH, N.C. - More than 1 million deer live in North Carolina and, unless you're a hunter or wildlife-watcher, your most common concern probably is avoiding them on the roadways.
But conservationists say there is a new worry for the deer, which starts with a line-item in the Legislature's House budget that would place the state Agriculture Department in charge of the deer population instead of the Wildlife Resources Commission.
Joe Hamilton, founder and development director of the Quality Deer Management Association, questioned the intentions behind the proposal.
"If it shifts over to the Department of Agriculture," he said, "the Department of Agriculture looks at this venture as just another way to have a business on your private property."
The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission also oversees the 37 captive-deer farms in the state, many of which support transferring control to the Ag Department.
One key concern is a disease affecting deer in other parts of the country. The commission has managed to control Chronic Wasting Disease, which is deadly and easily spread. Hamilton and others are concerned the Ag Department may not have the same success.
CWD affects animals with hooves, and particularly those with antlers. If the disease takes hold in North Carolina, said Tim Gestwicki, chief executive of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, it will be at the expense of taxpayers and other wildlife.
"Fish, birds, non-game species - all those moneys could possibly be diverted to dealing with a disease that we do not have now," he said. "Why open the door to potentially bring that in when there's not been a problem?"
In the other 15 states where CWD is present, captive-deer farming is believed to be a major contributor, since many of the deer are transferred across state lines or even from other parts of the world. Hamilton said he sees giving jurisdiction of North Carolina's deer population to the Department of Agriculture as too risky.
"The states in the southeast that are CWD-free now are very subject to becoming CWD-positive with the promotion of the captive-deer industry," he said.
If the disease spreads to this state, experts believe it will severely impact hunting and other wildlife-related recreation - which generates more than $3 billion a year in North Carolina. Audiofile.