For years, the state agency with the most at stake in the ongoing legislative debate over what to do about the disease-prone captive-deer industry has been largely silent.
Instead, the loudest voices lawmakers heard were from hunting-preserve owners and deer farmers who have lobbied hard against any effort to strongly regulate the industry because they say it will hurt rural Hoosier economies.
That's going to change on Tuesday.
Officials at Indiana's Department of Natural Resources have asked four out-of-state wildlife disease experts to testify before the 14-member Agriculture and Natural Resources Interim Study Committee.
One of the experts is among the foremost federal authorities on chronic wasting disease, an infectious brain disease that's always fatal to deer and that's been found in 22 states. The disease — and the extent to which the captive deer industry is responsible for its spread — is a significant point of contention in the debate over how strongly the industry should be regulated.
The DNR's move is significant because in recent years its officials have not testified before lawmakers as they have debated legislation favorable to Indiana's hunting preserve and deer-farming industry.
DNR officials have long worried that CWD could be shipped into Indiana in an infected deer riding in a farmer's truck trailer. They also believe high-fence hunting — deer hunting on private fenced reserves — is an affront to hunting ethics and long-standing wildlife management philosophies that say deer are a public resource and should not be held for private profit.
In this industry, deer are sold as part of a boutique agricultural market that breeds bucks with antlers sometimes twice as large as the record for animals killed in the wild. Some breeding stock can command six-figure prices. There are close to 400 deer farms in Indiana.
It's possible that deer-farming industry officials also will have scientists testify on their behalf at Tuesday's committee meeting. Representatives at three state and national trade associations representing deer farmers didn't respond to interview requests.
'Everyone knows where they stand'
The DNR's silence about legislation in recent years has vexed the industry's staunchest opponents, including Michael Crider, a former DNR law-enforcement chief who's now a Republican state senator.
"The people who weren't really present in the room was DNR," said Crider of Greenfield. "But they just have to be. They're the local experts on the topic."
Barbara Simpson, executive director of the Indiana Wildlife Federation, agreed, but she said the agency was reluctant to openly discuss deer farming because it was embroiled in a nasty legal fight over high-fence hunting in Indiana. In 2005, the DNR issued an order attempting to shut down the state's fenced deer hunting preserves, after a case in which deer bred for big antlers were being shot in enclosures so small that officials called them "killing pens." The preserves sued, challenging the order.
Last year, a Harrison County judge ruled that the DNR had no authority over captive-deer hunting because the animals on the preserves were privately owned. The attorney general's office has appealed the ruling. Meanwhile, the four deer-hunting preserves left in Indiana are operating without oversight from the DNR.
"DNR was very reluctant to come out one way or another in public, although certainly everyone knows where they stand," Simpson said.
For its part, the agency isn't saying much in advance of the meeting.
In response to an interview request from The Star, spokesman Phil Bloom replied in an email that the DNR is preparing for the meeting and "will make its presentation at that forum."
The committee's chairman, Rep. Don Lehe, R-Brookston, said he asked the agency as well as the Indiana Board of Animal Health, which regulates livestock operators, to provide scientific input.
Lehe said he wants the issues of disease to be the focus, not a debate on the merits of high-fence hunting. The committee has been tasked with discussing whether the state should continue to keep its borders open to shipments of farm-raised deer or close them like 21 states have done.
Lehe's committee can only make recommendations to the legislature, which will reconvene early next year.
What's at stake
This spring, Senate President Pro Tempore David Long called for a summer study session on deer breeding in the wake of an Indianapolis Star investigation of the industry, its practices and the potential for spreading disease.
Wildlife officials across the country say there is compelling circumstantial evidence that captive deer farms and hunting preserves have spread disease, as deer are shipped across state lines to be killed in the private preserves and as breeding stock.
CWD, a brain disease similar to mad cow, is of particular concern. It has been found in 22 states. The Star's investigation revealed that in half of those states, CWD was found first in a commercial deer operation.
There is no approved live test for the disease, and wildlife officials across the country say escapes are common. In one case in Indiana in 2012, a buck escaped from a Southern Indiana farm after being shipped into the state from a herd in Pennsylvania were animals later tested positive for CWD.
The Pennsylvania buck was never found.
After The Star's investigation published, Long said he would be open to discussing whether to close the state's borders following the lead of Florida and New York, which closed their borders to imports last year. State wildlife officials in Missouri have since proposed doing the same.
Long, who once compared high-fence hunting to dog fighting, told The Star this spring that lawmakers had been "getting one side of this: That these preserves really aren't as bad as they're made out to be."
Scientists to testify
But on Tuesday it's clear the 14 lawmakers on the committee will hear from what Long describes as that other side. According to the Indiana Wildlife Federation, the DNR's list of speakers include:
•Dave Clausen, a veterinarian and the former chairman of Wisconsin's natural resources commission. Clausen is an outspoken advocate for tougher regulations on captive deer operations. He's also familiar with the consequences of what happens when chronic wasting disease takes hold in a state. In one region in Wisconsin, nearly one in three bucks is infected with CWD. The state has spent more than $30 million to combat the disease.
•Missouri Department of Conservation Veterinarian Kelly Straka. Missouri has proposed closing its borders to deer imports following the detection of CWD linked to two hunting preserves. In 2010 and 2011, 11 infected deer were found in the two preserves, then 10 others were found in the wild within two miles of one of the pens — and nowhere else in the state. Wildlife officials say they are 99 percent certain the disease did not exist in the wild in Missouri until it was introduced on the preserves.
• Bryan Richards, chronic wasting disease project leader at the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis. Richards is regarded as one of the top federal experts on the disease.
• Kip Adams, a former deer biologist for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and the director of education and outreach for the Quality Deer Management Association. The QDMA is a national hunter-sponsored organization that's opposed to the interstate trade in captive deer because of the disease risks.
Who will testify for the deer industry?
Lehe, the committee chairman, said he also reached out to the deer industry advocates to encourage them to bring their own scientific experts, but he didn't know who might attend the hearing.
There are a group of industry-supportive professors and veterinarians who have testified in past debates. They downplay the risks posed by the interstate deer trade, saying that they're minimal, that it's impossible to track the path of chronic wasting disease with absolute certainty, that deer herds have not vanished in areas where CWD infection rates are high, and that there are no known cases of CWD jumping the species barrier to infect humans.
Some say that CWD is just a "political disease," dreamed up by opponents such as animal-rights activists who find the industry distasteful.
The panel session be held at 10 a.m. in room 404 of the Indiana Statehouse on West Washington Street.
Lehe said it was unlikely any action would be taken following the testimony. He suspects the committee will need to schedule another meeting before issuing recommendations for any changes in state law.