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Alabama game breeder fined $750,000 for illegally importing deer

The practice of raising native white-tail deer in Tennessee is illegal. However there are 231 licensed game breeders in the state of Alabama which raise and sell "genetically-engineered" deer. There is one less after one breeder was caught illegally importing white-tail deer into the state. (Photo: Contributed)

A Northport, Ala., man has been fined for "knowingly transporting and receiving white-tailed deer into Alabama" – a violation of state law and the federal Lacey Act, which prohibits trade in wildlife, fish and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold.

In November 2016, Conservation Enforcement Officers with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division (WFF) arrested deer breeder Lewis H. “Sonny” Skinner and his associate Franklin Banks Loden for importing six live white-tailed deer into Alabama from a farm in Indiana. As part of a plea agreement announced Monday, Skinner’s privilege to possess an Alabama Game Breeder License has been revoked. Skinner has also agreed to pay a $100,000 fine to the federal Lacey Act Reward Fund, and $650,000 in fines and restitution to the State of Alabama, which will be used to further WFF Law Enforcement activities and continue disease testing on wild deer within the state.

While the practice is of raising native white-tails domestically is totally illegal in Tennessee, in some states it is legal to raise "genetically-engineered whitetail deer." They're generally sold for huge sums of money to for-profit hunting preserves with high fence enclosures. However most states forbid the sale or exchange of those deer from state-to-state. Currently, Alabama has 231 licensed game breeders, which primarily raise white-tailed deer for sale to hunting-enclosure operators throughout the state.

While the practice is currently illegal in Tennessee, some legislators have made efforts to change laws allowing deer farming in Tennessee. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the private Tennessee Wildlife Federation have lobbied hard against changing the law.

According to the plea agreement, Skinner controlled all activities occurring on Skinner Farms, a private deer breeding business located in Sumter County, Ala. Skinner had obtained a game breeder license from the state of Alabama and knew it is a “closed border” state that prohibits the importation of deer.

In November 2016, Skinner arranged for Loden to covertly move the deer from Indiana to Skinner Farms in Alabama. Loden was stopped by WFF Enforcement Officers in Tuscaloosa, at which time the deer were seized. Authorities have not revealed how they were apparently tipped off to the illegal activity. The seized deer and all captive deer held in Skinner’s facility will be tested for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).

Comparable to mad cow disease, CWD is a fatal disease affecting the central nervous system of deer. The disease attacks the brain of an infected animal causing it to become emaciated, display abnormal behavior, lose bodily functions and die. Once CWD is introduced into the environment, it is impossible to eradicate.

“Over the last 15 years, we have watched this disease insidiously spread across the country,” said Capt. Carter Hendrix with the WFF Law Enforcement Section. “In fact, it has spread much faster than it naturally should have. This is due largely to human transportation across state lines of infected, harvested animal parts or live animals.”

In 2016, Alabama enacted a ban on the import of deer carcasses from states where CWD has been confirmed. CWD has been found in captive and/or wild deer in 24 states, two Canadian provinces, Norway, and South Korea. It is not known to be transmissible to humans or domestic livestock. For a map of CWD states, go here.

Additionally, CWD has devastating economic effects on deer hunting. The deer hunting industry results in $1.8 billion in annual revenues for the State of Alabama. States where CWD occurs have experienced a 10-40 percent decrease in license sales. Those states also experience a decrease in hunting opportunities through the loss of access to public and/or leased land if they fall within a CWD management zone.

"Not only is deer hunting in Alabama a $1 billion industry, more importantly it is an integral part of the lifestyle and heritage of many residents and non-residents who enjoy our abundant natural resources," said Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

There have been no known cases of CWD in Alabama.

“The arrests and prosecutions of Skinner and Loden are examples of an approach to the enforcement of statutes already in place to protect the resource,” said Michael Weathers, WFF Chief of Law Enforcement. “The most effective way to keep Alabama CWD-free was to prohibit the importation of members of the deer family that are known to be susceptible to the disease.”

The importation of deer from other states to Alabama has been prohibited by regulation since 1973. Violations of this regulation are actively investigated by WFF Law Enforcement.

“We’ve focused on preventing the spread of CWD by introducing regulations that place restrictions on certain activities within the commercial industry, of which Skinner was a member,” Weathers said. “The illegal transport of deer from outside the state by a licensed deer breeder, who is motivated solely by profit, places our entire white-tailed deer herd at risk of this fatal disease.”

The traceability of animals in the breeder industry is vastly important to protection of a state’s wildlife populations. The spread of CWD in Texas in 2015, which was discovered in a captive herd, was mitigated by utilizing a deer breeder electronic database that had been in place since 2009.

“Implementing an electronic database to track animals transported by breeders within Alabama would allow an animal’s location history to be immediately determined,” Weathers said. “It would reduce the number of animals and locations put at risk by an infected animal. It would also allow game breeders not linked to a breeding facility affected by CWD to continue business as usual.”

To report the importation of live or harvested deer from out-of-state, or deer exhibiting signs of CWD in Alabama, call the Operation Game Watch line at 1-800-272 4263 (GAME).

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