The Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City is considering whether the state Conservation Department can impose regulations on deer hunting and breeding businesses.

white tailed deer

The decision ultimately issued by the high bench could have a major bearing on the private land hunting of highly coveted big antlered deer, for which some customers pay $40,000 to pursue.

The Department of Conservation, through the Conservation Commission, conducts tests for a deadly ailment known as chronic wasting disease (CWD).

The illness effects white-tailed deer and other members of the deer family, such as elk.  It kills all deer it infects and has no vaccination, treatment or cure.

The Conservation Commission first detected chronic wasting disease at a private hunting preserve in 2010.  The state agency says the numbers have progressively grown over the years with 57 cases confirmed in 2017, mostly near captive facilities that breed or contain deer for hunting.

Several of those facilities brought a lawsuit against the Conservation Department after the agency announced new regulations in 2014.  They contend that chronic wasting disease has never been detected at their operations.

The plaintiffs, including two operators of private deer hunting preserves and a breeder, also note they’re already regulated by the Department of Agriculture.

According to documents filed by the plaintiff’s attorneys for the Supreme Court, the Missouri Agriculture Department rules require any captive deer or elk brought into the state to have an entry permit.

The animals must also undergo a veterinary inspection, be individually identified by an ear tag that conforms to Federal Regulations, and have documentation regarding illnesses, including chronic wasting disease.

The Department of Conservation has projected that its chronic wasting disease-management expenditures for fiscal year 2017 will reach $1.7 million.

Its regulations would prohibit breeders from importing certain deer from out of state, as well as bar hunting preserves from importing any deer or elk from outside Missouri.

In addition, regulations called for industry businesses to upgrade the fencing around their property and increased documenting and testing requirements for the animals. The Conservation Commission also changed its authorization to include the phrase “wildlife raised or held in captivity”.

The plaintiffs claim that their stocks are not “game or wildlife resources of the state”, and that the regulations interfere with their fundamental right to engage in farming and ranching practices.

Representing the Conservation Department before the Supreme Court, Attorney William Ray Price took issue with the plaintiff’s characterization of their businesses.

“They’re holding out these animals for live hunts,” Price.  “You don’t hold out traditional, domestic farm animals – cattle, pigs, sheep – for $40,000 hunts.”

Among other things, the plaintiff’s claim the regulations would be excessively burdensome.

One of the business owners, Don Hill of Oak Creek Whitetail Ranch near east-central Missouri’s Bland, claims a ban on importation of white tail deer from out of state would drive him out of business.

In their court documents, the plaintiff’s attorneys note that almost all of the roughly 100 dear Hill imports a year die during hunting season on his hunting preserve.

They wrote that if he’s unable to import the dear as usual, he won’t have sufficient cash flow to repay and maintain his business, and will likely go bankrupt.

Among the other arguments the plaintiffs make is that the Conservation Commission doesn’t have authority to regulate the privately-owned deer on their captive property.

In the court documents, their attorneys note the animals are born and bred on private property, remain on private property throughout their lives, and are bought, sold and auctioned by the plaintiff’s businesses on private property.

Arguing for the plaintiffs before the high court, attorney Jean Paul Bradshaw said the Conservation Commission was overreaching when it issued its regulations.

“We don’t give the Conservation Commission the power to do whatever they want to do with private resources,” said Bradshaw.  “And I would suggest that up until this case, that has always been the way they really approached things.”

Representing the Conservation Department before the Supreme Court, Attorney Price said the deer are state resources, whether they’re publicly or privately owned.

“When we use the term ‘resources of the state’, that’s a common term referring to anything within the state,” Price said.  “It didn’t say owned by the state, titled in the state.  It said resources of the state.”

A circuit court in mid-Missouri’s Gasconade County sided with six plaintiffs in 2016, saying that the agency lacked the authority to enforce its requirements on the businesses.

When the Department of Conservation filed with the state Court of Appeals, that bench transferred the case to the Supreme Court because of the general interest and importance of the questions involved.

While doing so, the appeals court stated that it would’ve found that captive deer would be ‘game resources of the state,’ and as such, subject to regulation by the (Conservation) Commission”.  The Supreme Court is expected to issue its decision in the case in several weeks.