A Minnesota deer farmer defied a statewide quarantine in January by trucking three captive bucks to a hunting show in St. Paul. He will try on March 23 to convince a judge that the Department of Natural Resources lacked authority to impose the travel ban on privately-owned whitetails.
The case highlights Minnesota’s ongoing struggles with chronic wasting disease, which has been linked to captive deer or elk (cervid) farms in three of the state’s five CWD outbreaks in wild deer.
Steve Porter, 53, of Lake Bronson, Minnesota, has owned and operated his family’s 140-acre deer farm since 1992. Five years later he started hauling his biggest bucks to display at schools, hunting shows, and other events in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Arkansas, and the Dakotas to promote his business. His home and operation, Steve Porter’s Trophy Whitetail, is based in Minnesota’s Kittson County, which borders Manitoba and North Dakota.
Besides providing clients their “hunt of a lifetime”—which ranges from $2,950 for whitetail bucks with antlers scoring 160 inches, to $6,950 for antlers scoring 275 inches or more—Porter sells bottled doe urine to stores and online. He also sells a video about his bucks titled “Evidence of God’s Creation: An In-Depth Look at Whitetail Deer from a Biblical Perspective.”
Porter said his busiest, most profitable time for hauling and showing his top bucks is January through March. That schedule put him on a collision course with the Minnesota DNR after it imposed a statewide 30-day emergency ban on moving live deer starting Dec. 23, 2019.
The shutdown came weeks after an adult doe on a two-deer hobby farm in Douglas County (140 miles northwest of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and 250 miles south of Porter’s farm) tested positive for CWD. The doe died after getting kicked by the pen’s other deer, a buck. The buck was euthanized and tested negative for CWD.
Meanwhile, the DNR worked with Minnesota’s Board of Animal Health to document deer movements involving the Douglas County farm. The “tracebacks” found both deer on the hobby farm arrived in 2019 from the same facility in Pine County, which borders Wisconsin 160 miles to the east. (CWD isn’t present in that part of Wisconsin.)
A doe at the Pine County facility also tested positive days later. Soon after, the farm’s other eight deer were euthanized for testing. Two fawns and two more does tested positive, bringing the farm’s total CWD count to five for the nine-deer facility.
Porter, meanwhile, sought an exception to the DNR’s travel moratorium so he could haul three bucks to the St. Paul RiverCentre for the Minnesota Sportsmen’s Show, Jan. 9-12. The DNR declined, saying it would make no exceptions. Porter then notified the DNR he was loading the bucks into his 32-foot trailer for the 350-mile trip to fulfill his show contract. He asked to be ticketed before crossing the Kittson County line about 20 miles away so he could get a “jury of his peers” in court.
The DNR again declined. “We don’t make appointments to issue tickets to people who intend to violate a law, and our officer up there wasn’t available at the time, ” said Col. Rodmen Smith, director of the Minnesota DNR’s enforcement division.
Smith said DNR staff talked to Porter a couple times to let him know he would be cited if he trucked any deer off his farm. “We knew the moratorium would impact some people, and that’s unfortunate, but CWD is a huge issue and it had just shown up in an area that’s hundreds of miles from the nearest other case,” Smith said. “Anyone who violates a law with willful intent presents a public risk we can’t ignore.”
Two DNR conservation wardens were waiting in St. Paul (Ramsey County) Jan. 7 when Porter arrived for the show with three trophy bucks—named Waldo, Typhoon, and Heart Attack. He received a misdemeanor citation for $300 soon after, and the court date. Smith said the maximum fine is $1,000 and 90 days in jail.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Deer Farmers Association pledged to help Porter. Under the headline “Help Steve Porter Protect His Family Farm,” the MDFA launched a GoFundMe effort on Jan. 8 to “combat the gross overreach of the DNR.” It set a $5,000 goal to help pay Porter’s legal fees. It raised $3,624. The same day, the MDFA sought an injunction through the Minnesota Court of Appeals to suspend the DNR’s deer-movement ban. Chief Judge Edward J. Cleary denied the injunction Jan. 17. The MDFA also filed a lawsuit against the DNR, but withdrew it when the travel ban expired.
Porter, a former sheriff in Kittson County, said he has over 30 years of law-enforcement experience, and contends the DNR lacks authority to regulate deer, elk, and other privately owned “livestock.” Porter said the DNR only has authority over wildlife, or domesticated animals that escape confinement or run at large. He thinks the agency hates deer farmers, and intentionally tried to harm his business by notifying the show and RiverCentre’s managers that he was violating the emergency order.
Porter exhibited his bucks at the Sportsmen’s Show without incident, and said many attendees expressed support while viewing the deer. Five days later, however, Minnesota’s Department of Military Affairs forbid him from bringing his bucks into the state-owned Armed Forces Reserve Community Center in Cambridge, 55 miles north of St. Paul, where Porter’s son Dillan, 25, held the third annual Minnesota Monster Buck Classic.
Porter said the Jan. 17-19 show flopped because of the bucks’ absence, drawing only 200 people instead of the expected 5,000. He said all those unsold $12 door-entry fees cost his son at least $60,000 and a year’s work, and killed the show’s future.
The following week Porter decided not to haul his bucks to Little Rock for the Arkansas Big Buck Classic, Jan. 24-26. He said staying home cost him an $18,000 appearance fee. Porter said Minnesota statutes define his bucks as livestock, but he thinks other states might consider them wildlife once he left Minnesota. He stayed home rather than risk violating the Lacey Act, a federal law banning interstate wildlife trafficking.
A ‘Closed’ Herd
Porter said his bucks present no danger to Minnesota’s wild deer because his herd has been classified “closed” by the BAH for at least the past eight years, meaning he has not added deer from other facilities. He has also been in the state’s herd-monitoring program the past 12 years, which requires disease tests on every deer that dies.
“I’ve had 102 deer die, and I’ve had 102 brain stems tested for CWD,” Porter said. “Not one tested positive. At what point do all those tests and all that work mean anything to the DNR?”
Col. Smith said the DNR followed all necessary procedures while working with the state’s attorney general and governor’s office to craft the emergency order. “We weren’t going after Mr. Porter or pointing fingers at the captive-cervid farmers,” Smith said. “It’s not something we wanted to do. He wasn’t the only one to request an exception, and he wasn’t the only one denied. But he was the only one who violated the rule.
“Everyone says their farm is CWD-free,” Smith continued. “Everyone says they’ve never had CWD on their farm, but no one knows they have it until they have it. We took necessary steps to protect the state’s wild deer herd. When that CWD case popped up in Douglas County, we quit playing Whac-A-Mole. We used our authority to stop further cervid (deer, elk, and reindeer) movements until we better understood the problem. The fact we found another infected farm, and we’re still checking two other farms to make sure they aren’t infected, suggests we acted responsibly.”
The BAH quarantined seven private cervid herds during the investigation. Two herds with CWD-exposed deer (in Wadena and Chisago counties) remain under quarantine, and a third awaits test results. The BAH cleared the other two herds, ending their quarantines.
Smith said the investigation highlights the challenges states face in fighting CWD. “The problem is that you can potentially load up a CWD-positive deer, drive 300 to 400 miles in a day, and dump it on a landscape with no history of CWD,” he said. “It would take years, possibly decades, for CWD to move that far through natural means.”
Michelle Carstensen, the Minnesota DNR’s wildlife health program supervisor, said the agency has found CWD in 82 wild deer since 2010. Minnesota’s BAH has found the always-fatal disease in 44 captive elk and deer since 2002.
Carstensen said Minnesota has verified five CWD outbreaks in wild deer, and thinks infected deer farms played a role in at least three of them.
Failure to Act?
Smith, however, stops short of criticizing Minnesota’s five-person Board of Animal Health for not imposing a temporary lock-down on deer movements when it met Dec. 11 for its quarterly meeting. Dr. Beth Thompson, Minnesota’s state veterinarian and BAH executive director, asked the board to designate the entire state a disease-control zone, and restrict captive whitetail movements until the agency finished the Douglas County investigation.
Thompson’s plan would have required deer farmers to obtain permits before moving deer. Her plan also requested that the DNR simultaneously evaluate CWD risks to wild deer near six farms then connected to the case. The subsequent review connected the seventh farm.
Ensuing discussions at the board meeting Dec. 11 included frequent input from eight captive-cervid farmers who attended as guests. The farmers opposed Thompson’s recommendation, fearing a statewide disease zone would prompt other states to forbid all Minnesota captive cervids from entering their states, no matter their origins.
The board rejected Thompson’s proposal, and instead approved a “voluntary suspension” of whitetail movements until Jan. 15. In effect, the board left deer movement decisions up to individual farmers. The meeting’s minutes noted: “[Deer farmers] in the room were certain most deer farmers would comply with that request for up to 60 days. They also offered to help communicate [the voluntary movement restrictions] to other producers.”
Michael Crusan, BAH communications director, said the board did not make the entire state a disease zone because CWD isn’t endemic statewide, and the BAH had already quarantined the six deer farms then being reviewed. Board members noted that when Minnesota dealt with Asian Avian Influenza in 2015, the BAH didn’t create statewide disease zones.
Among the deer farmers attending the meeting were Steve and Dillan Porter. Steve Porter said he would have honored a BAH-mandated movement restriction because it would have granted travel permits on a case-by-case basis.
“They’re the administrative agency for deer farms, and I follow their rules,” Porter said. “They’re in control, they’re in charge, and they’re doing their jobs. The DNR is hostile to deer farmers. It had no business getting involved and banning me from moving my deer.”
When the DNR imposed its statewide moratorium 12 days later, it stirred long-festering antagonisms between the agencies. Both sides know the numbers: Wild whitetails and public deer hunting generate at least $500 million annually in Minnesota, while the state’s captive-cervid industry—currently 304 herds and 8,427 deer, elk, red deer, reindeer, and other cervids—generate about $17 million.
DNR staff often criticize the perceived “chummy” relationship between the BAH and captive-cervid operators. Lou Cornicelli, the DNR’s lead big game researcher, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 2017, “I struggle with the closeness of the regulators and the industry. They’re closer to their stakeholders than we are to ours.”
Those tensions prompted Minnesota’s legislative auditor in 2017 to investigate the BAH and its board. The audit found several regulatory BAH failures, including poor fence inspections of captive facilities and poor analysis of CWD testing compliance.
From 2014 to 2017, about one-third of captive cervid farms reporting dead deer or elk didn’t submit samples for CWD testing. “In any given year, 268 to 294 producers reported deer or elk fatalities to BAH,” the April 2018 report said. “However, this analysis was [further] limited by the fact that, prior to mid-2017, BAH’s CWD-testing data did not include animal identification numbers. Therefore, we could not confidently match specific CWD test results with reported animal deaths.”
The audit also found DNR and BAH relations so strained that it caused problems with data sharing: “DNR staff have complained that BAH refuses to share information about infected farms in a timely fashion. BAH staff allege that DNR has not adequately protected producer contact information, which is classified by law as not public data.”
The 2018 audit report said the BAH sometimes failed to enforce deer and elk regulations, but had “improved its deer and elk program over the past several months.”
Porter, meanwhile, remains confident he can convince a judge to dismiss the DNR’s charges later this month, and considers his violation an act of civil disobedience against a “bogus law.”
“Some hobby farm a half- state away from me (250 miles) had one doe test positive, and so the DNR says I can’t move my deer anywhere,” Porter said. “Our legislature did not give the DNR that authority. I’m not a rebel, but the DNR can’t regulate my deer any more than it can write me a speeding ticket.”
Feature image via Steve Porter’s Trophy Whitetails.