Letter to the House Committee on Culture, Recreation, and Tourism
Chairman Ryan Guillen and Distinguished Committee Members
House Committee on Culture, Recreation, and Tourism
PO Box 2910
Austin, TX 78768
Dear Chairman Guillen and Committee Members,
Today, a nearly billion-dollar industry stands at risk.
Nearly 8,000 jobs across the state – mostly in rural areas – are on the line.
This is a headline that would normally send Texas lawmakers and investors into a panic. In any other industry, at any other agency, damage to a nearly billion-dollar industry would send shockwaves across the regulatory landscape. However, this headline has been quietly swept under the rug. Without a doubt, this is the unspoken crisis that the Texas deer industry is facing today.
The discovery of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in Texas in June of 2015 precipitated severe regulatory actions that were undoubtedly averse to the free conduct of trade in the whitetail deer industry. The multiple and varied iterations of Rules currently governing the deer industry were created in response to a perceived emergency that we now know does not exist. The unpreparedness and corresponding overregulation by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) in response to the finding of Chronic Wasting Disease in deer has created uncertainty and instability, leading to the extreme damage of a once thriving rural, small business economy in Texas.
As a result of the discovery of a CWD-positive deer in a Medina County facility on June 30, 2015, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department effectively shut down the nearly billion-dollar deer industry in Texas for an unprecedented 54 days. The vast majority of deer breeders – ranchers whose herds were completely unconnected to the index herd – were left without answers as to why they were not allowed to freely conduct business, even though they had fully complied with every facet of the law and agency regulations prior to June 30th . With the tremendous doubts looming large over the industry, many Texas deer ranchers faced an impossible reality: having to shutter their business and livelihood for the rest of the year.
Fifty-four days went by, and for every one of them, Texas communities and small business owners lost valuable commerce. The Texas deer industry is the largest in the country, contributing nearly a billion dollars and thousands of jobs annually to the Texas economy. It is quite possibly the most prominent, significant economic engine to rural Texas, generating employment opportunities and revenue in even the most sparsely populated corners of the state.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department shutdown of the industry came as a complete shock to small business owners and land stewards across Texas. However, this disease and its management were nothing new to TPWD. Just four months earlier in a report executed by Parks and Wildlife, Medina County was identified by TPWD experts as a high-risk county for a potential CWD outbreak, as part of a state-wide risk assessment plan. Furthermore, nearly four years prior to that in October of 2011, TPWD issued a press release that “reinforced the need for vigilance in Texas” regarding the threat of chronic wasting disease to our state. So why was the finding of CWD in Medina County seen as an emergency? Why the shutdown?
It is important to remember that CWD was first found in mule deer in West Texas in 2012. Although a matter of obvious concern to animal health and wildlife officials, it by no means generated a similar “crisis” situation. No emergency was ever declared! In fact, the response was quite the opposite. The department issued an administrative plan, entitled: “Chronic Wasting Disease Management Plan” authored in June of 2012. One of the stated goals of the plan was to “minimize direct and indirect impacts of CWD to hunting, hunting related economies, and conservation in Texas.”
Furthermore, in 2015, the Department had the tools in the Texas Wildlife Information Management Services (TWIMS) needed to contain, control, and mitigate the finding of CWD in breeder deer. TWIMS was created as a safeguard for disease management and direct traceability of individual animals. That system is one of the most robust and impressive in the nation. However, rather than utilizing the tools necessary to reinstate the deer industry, the TWIMS system was used as the axe to cripple it.
The reality is that the very agency tasked with developing a surveillance and management model for Chronic Wasting Disease was also the same agency least suitable to deal with finding it in an agriculture setting. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department overreacted to a disease it had recognized as a threat since late 2011.
Consider the timeline of events since the first positive was discovered in July in a breeding facility. After completely shutting down the industry for 54 days, the Texas deer industry was partially reopened for business upon issuance of an Executive Order by TPWD Director Carter Smith and under Emergency Rules. However, irreparable damage to the deer industry has continued for months.
The Emergency Rules implemented by TPWD to guide the industry forward through the perceived crisis were drastically different than those in the past. Small business owners across the state were forced to shutter their doors, change the dynamics of their decade-old business model, and even slaughter perfectly healthy deer to retain their previous customers and production partners. Many had to walk into their pens, sedate an animal, cut its head off, and pull out its brainstem to satisfy a retroactive, regressive testing model forced upon the industry.
The Emergency Rules set up a confusing and voluminous Class System and Transfer Category System that was not easily understood. Law abiding business owners that were once testing 20% of their eligible mortalities were now immediately forced to test 50% of their eligible mortalities. To make matters worse, the regulations based the minimum level of testing for the future on the testing of 4.5% of your entire herd in the past. So, a business-owner who had previously been fully compliant with the law was now forced to walk into his or her pens and slaughter perfectly healthy animals to be able to satisfy the retroactive minimum testing standards. Our industry in Texas killed hundreds of perfectly healthy deer to satisfy these regulations.
The damage from overregulation did not stop on the production side of the industry – it also extended to the industry’s customers. Added detrimental components of the Emergency Rules targeted hundreds of unconnected customers only months before the hunting season started. Texas Parks and Wildlife mandated release-site testing on specific, Class II release sites that bought deer from breeding facilities. The regulations required a significant portion of release sites in Texas to test 50% of the number of liberated deer from breeder pens onto a ranch or 50% of the hunter- harvested deer, whichever is less. In addition, there is a minimum requirement of testing of 50% of the breeder deer liberated and harvested that season. This ultimately drove away customers and sent fear sweeping across the hunting and ranch community in Texas.
Then, on November 5th, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission adopted a different set of Interim CWD Rules that made minimal changes to the Emergency Rules. These rules were intended to get the industry through the hunting season. These rules looked similar to the Emergency Rules, but made a few important clarifications. One of the major clarifications was that if a breeder drops from Transfer Category II to Transfer Category III, they would remain there for two years.
Why is that significant, you might ask? Because the Interim Rules were promised to expire on August 31, 2016. How can Interim Rules have two year penalties when they expire in less than one year? That doesn’t even pass the common-sense test.
Little more than a month after the issuance of Interim Rules, Executive Director Carter Smith extended the Emergency Rules from August, due to a lapse in time between the adoption of the Interim Rules and the end date of the Emergency Rules. The Interim Rules will not actually take effect until February 2, 2016 – even though they were passed in early November of 2015. And now, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has promised a new set of rules to be discussed and proposed for full Commission vote between March and May of 2016.
If you find this confusing, you are not alone. So did a nearly billion-dollar agriculture and wildlife industry in rural Texas. This makes THREE sets of rules in less than seven months. That is the very definition of regulatory lag and regulatory uncertainty.
Adding fuel to the fire was the recent initiation of a CWD Stakeholder process set up by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to guide the CWD discussion forward. The list of “stakeholders” includes numerous participants that have publically and actively advocated for the closure of many facets of the deer industry in Texas. The very people that oppose the deer industry in our state have now been appointed by our regulatory agency to share in the design of its regulations and its future economic well-being. That simply defies logic and shatters any illusion of “fairness” in the process. To date, the most extreme measures of the Emergency and Interim CWD rules impact Deer Breeder and Release Site permit holders. Yet, less than one-third of the participants in the stakeholder process hold breeder permits! Again, this wouldn’t happen at any other agency, to any other industry.
This is exactly why our industry needs YOUR help.
The deer industry is in dire need of permanent, sustainable regulations. In order for any industry to rebuild, it must have regulatory certainty and predictability. This type of uncertainty is what cripples large economies. The crisis-mentality of TPWD in 2015 inherently changed the dynamics and stability of our business.
The overregulation of our businesses has created uncertainty and doubt about our future. These regulations have cost Texans billions of dollars in lost revenue, depreciated land values, and damaged capital. These regulations have impacted every facet of our communities across the vast landscape of this state. Deer farms, feed companies, fueling stations, real estate transactions, hunting ranches, 4H and FFA programs, and even equipment manufacturers are just a few of the entities dependent on building a sustainable and prosperous business climate here in Texas.
These regulations are not sustainable, nor would they be acceptable to any other billion-dollar industry in this state.
Our industry is committed to working on a new set of reasonable and responsible regulations. Regulators and industry must work together to make certain we are balancing private property rights, economic impacts, and disease management as we develop new rules governing our business in early 2016. We can build a testing model that incorporates science, epidemiology, common sense and economics. The deer industry and the entire wildlife economy in Texas are dependent upon it!
It cannot be stressed enough – there is a billion-dollar industry at stake. The actions involved with the surveillance and management of this disease reflect a level of negligence in preparation that is unprecedented. How many more jobs must be jeopardized, animals killed, or regulatory hoops jumped through before the Texas deer industry is allowed to grow and prosper once again?
There could be no more important time for your involvement and oversight than right now. A once-thriving sector of the Texas economy needs your help! We know that challenges lie ahead, yet we expect the same playing field afforded to any other industry of our size and impact. The Texas Deer Association is committed to working alongside lawmakers and regulators to achieve fair and balanced rules that take into account the economic livelihood of our essential rural Texas industry.
Texas Deer Association