PRATTVILLE, Ala. (AP) — Nationally, commercial game breeding has grown into a multibillion-dollar business as producers have discovered there are big bucks in big bucks.
The game breeders are out to produce deer and elk with larger body weights and massive antlers. The animals are shipped across the country for breeding, much like prized livestock. Some of the animals are sold to preserves and hunting lodges and turned loose for hunters to pursue, after they have dug deep in their wallets, sometimes to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.
The practice does come with concerns — the spread of disease and ethical questions among them. Most preserves are bordered by high fences, which keep the valuable animals inside the enclosure. Even if several thousand acres are in the enclosed area, it raises fair chase concerns for some hunters.
"It doesn't sound much like hunting to me," said Richard Smith, a Prattville deer hunter. "You go to a lodge, look at pictures of deer and pick out which one you want and then plunk down your money. Then you go to where that deer is and shoot it.
"That's shooting; that's not hunting."
There are 204 licensed game farms in Alabama, and they operate under strict state guidelines. It is illegal to import game animals into the state, said Mark Rouleau, assistant chief for the law enforcement arm of the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The farms can export the animals, with the practice being controlled by game laws in the receiving states, he said.
Each game breeding location is inspected twice a year by the state, Rouleau said. If they want to move an animal within the state or to another state, a permit is required. If an animal dies at a breeding facility, the breeder must pay for a necropsy to be performed by a state approved lab.
The spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is every wildlife manager's worst nightmare. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CWD is an easily transmitted disease that affects the nervous systems of deer and elk. It is fatal in almost 100 percent of the cases. There is no strong evidence that suggests that the disease can be transmitted to humans or livestock, the CDC's website shows.
As of November 2013, the most recent reports available, the CDC shows 15 states where CWD is present. Most of the cases are centered in Colorado and Wyoming, where the disease was first documented in the 1960s. There is also a large area in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin where the disease has been confirmed. None of those states with confirmed CWD are in the Deep South.
"And that's the way we want to keep it," Rouleau said. "Once CWD gets in your state, it has a devastating effect on the deer herd. That's why it is illegal to import deer and elk into Alabama. We want to protect our native deer herd."
Worry about the spread of CWD is blown out of proportion, said Joe Headley, who owns Alabama's Finest Whitetails, a game breeding farm in Chilton County. Headley has been raising whitetail deer, fallow deer and elk since 1989.
"When the state checks us twice a year, they check for CWD," he said. "I don't ship animals out of state. But breeders that do have to test the animals for the disease. Sure you have to be concerned about it, but it's not as big a problem as some people make it out to be."
Headley currently has about 50 whitetails, 20 fallow deer and five elk on his place. He sells his animals in the state for breeding purposes, and he sells semen from his prized bucks and bulls to be used by other breeders or lodges for artificial insemination.
A quick check on the Internet of breeder websites shows what's on the market — breeder bucks and does, shooter bucks, bred does and semen.
Like a prized bull or successful thoroughbred race horse, the right bucks and bull elk can fetch a pretty penny, Headley said.
"It's not unusual for a buck that produces a big rack to go for $10,000, sometimes $50,000," he said. "I've seen where some bucks have gone for $150,000. I wouldn't pay $150,000 for anything living."
The animals at his farm are well taken care of, he said.
"We have a management and breeding program," Headley said. "They are well fed, and I don't crowd my animals. They have plenty of room. My deer and elk are better taken care of than some of the cows I see when I'm riding down the road."
Alabama law also addresses so-called "canned hunts," where animals are hunted inside enclosures. The animal must be released into the area where the hunt is to occur at least 10 days before the hunt, Rouleau said, and the animal must display the natural fleeing characteristics of the species. The animal also has to have the opportunity to escape.
"If you have 200 acres of woods behind a fence, is that legal?" Rouleau asked rhetorically. "That's a good question. Two hundred acres is a large area. If there are natural places for the animal to hide and escape from the hunter, then it's legal."