Some farmers in rural America have taken to flipping their land from growing crops to breeding whitetail deer for a lucrative hunting business that some wildlife officials are cracking down on. Authorities say the practice is aiding the spread of a disease fatal to deer throughout the U.S.

Breeders sell the deer they raise to owners of private hunting preserves, where bucks and does are kept confined to fenced-in areas for high-paying customers to hunt. A prize buck can fetch $100,000 for breeders.

“It was a small cottage industry to begin with, but in the past 10 to 20 years, more and more folks have gotten into it,” Mark Smith, a wildlife biologist at Auburn University, said.

Landowners across the country have long allowed hunters to shoot deer on their property, but recently breeders and farmers have built high fences to trap deer in smaller areas for hunters who are willing to pay a high price to get access to those smaller areas. While some animal rights activitsts oppose this practice on ethical grounds, wildlife managers criticize the role these preserves play in spreading chronic wasting disease among the nation’s wild deer population, and they would like to see tighter regulations.

Deer farmers and preserve managers argue that their operations provide a boon to rural economies that are strapped for ways to make a living. Ohio, for instance, is home to between 500 and 550 facilities that breed deer or host private hunts, Erica Hawkins of the Ohio Department of Agriculture said. A typical deer farm in Ohio yields $71,391 in annual revenue, according to a 2010 report prepared for a coalition of deer farmers in Ohio. Each farm is a slice of a $59.2 million statewide industry that generates 1,254 jobs. A 2007 study estimated that the industry generated $103 million a year in Pennsylvania and $652 million in Texas — the only two states with a larger industry than Ohio.

“We feel we are approaching a $1 billion industry,” says Chase Clark, president of the Texas Deer Association and a deer farmer himself.

“I wouldn't argue that there are a small number of individuals making a pretty good living out of this industry,” says Brian Murphy, a hunter opposed to the practice and CEO of the Quality Deer Management Association, an organization dedicated to preserving whitetails. “But at what cost?”

Chronic wasting disease is a still-rare but contagious illness similar to mad cow disease that causes lesions in the brains of whitetail deer. It was first detected in 1967 in Colorado and again years later in Wyoming and Nebraska but has since spread to at least 22 states. So far, there are no cases of chronic wasting disease in humans and it is not thought to pose a threat to people.   

Clark says the threat of chronic wasting disease has been overinflated. The disease is truly rare, infecting less than 0.001 percent of the 30 million whitetail deer nationwide, estimates David Walter, a wildlife ecologist with USGS and Pennsylvania State University. Last year, a committee of lawmakers in Indiana weighed the risk of the disease versus the economic benefits and recommended regulations that further support deer breeders and private hunts.

Still, experts are concerned that the disease may spread more rapidly among wild deer as those that have been bought and sold by breeders are transported from state to state. “We're not just moving an animal; we're moving an entire biological package,” Murphy says. There are an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 facilities in the U.S. that breed or keep deer for hunting.

About half of states already prohibit deer from being sold across borders, while several are considering regulatory changes. A new law banning the import of deer to Missouri will go into effect at the end of this month. Other states are facing pressure from the deer breeding industry to pass legislation that would transfer supervision of their farms from state wildlife agencies to departments of agriculture, a move that favors deer farmers by reclassifying deer as livestock. A bill to that effect has just been filed in Missouri. Last year, lobbyists in North Carolina failed to earn a transfer of jurisdiction but succeeded in loosening regulations to allow the import of deer to the state in 2017.

Ohio still permits deer to be imported and last year, chronic wasting disease was found for the first time there at a well-stocked hunting preserve called World Class Whitetails. Wildlife and agriculture officials traced the infected deer to a handful of farms in Pennsylvania. The owner must soon exterminate all of the deer on his land,  probably a couple hundred animals, says Hawkins, though poor record keeping has made it impossible for officials to know for sure.  

Smith suggests that the rarity of chronic wasting disease is not an excuse for relaxed regulations. “At the end of the day, we're more concerned about the long-term protection of the resource and doing what's most good for the most people for the longest period of time,” he says. “Let's look at this as [a question of] where are we going to be 100 years from now? Are we going to have chronic wasting disease in all of our states?”

Hunters themselves are split on the issue. Those who pay $10,000 to $20,000 to hunt deer on private preserves are able to kill a prize buck with comparatively little time and effort. Murphy, meanwhile, fears that private hunts on deer farms will cause a public outcry that will infringe on his own ability to hunt wild deer. He also laments the money that must be spent to track, test and inspect the businesses of deer farmers.  

"I have a problem with my tax dollars as a sportman going to clean up the mess that we shouldn't have had in the first place," he says.