SuperTalk Mississippi

Column: Keeping the public’s wildlife public

White-tailed deer
Photo courtesy of Mississippi State University

Efforts have been underway for the past few years that would significantly reverse Mississippi’s quality white-tailed deer management efforts. We are already seeing the widespread movement in the state of the always deadly Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and efforts to allow the sale and/or transportation of deer, semen, or other live tissue would only make matters much worse, as researchers have determined the transportation of live, captive deer is likely the most significant factor contributing to the spread of CWD.

Hunting, wildlife conservation, and gun ownership in the United States are special. In Europe, wealthy landowners and royalty held certain rights to hunting, wildlife, and guns, but because of lessons learned hundreds of years ago, Americans are the beneficiaries of robust public trust ownership principles. Every deer, turkey, quail, alligator, fish, and other wildlife species that is in the great State of Mississippi belong to ALL of us. Unfortunately, some folks, including those charged by law with safeguarding our wildlife for hunting and their associated economic benefits, would like to change that.

Historically, public ownership of wildlife and the right to hunt them have been closely tied to our rights to keep and bear arms. Because most American’s have always enjoyed widespread access to firearms, our ability to hunt and consume wild game has been enjoyed by people of nearly all economic and social classes – regardless of wealth or privilege. When dead wildlife were bought and sold generations ago, we nearly lost some of our most iconic species – deer, wild turkey, wood ducks, and hundreds of species of birds that were sold only for their feathers. Deer, for example, had dwindled to only 1,500 animals throughout the entire State of Mississippi prior to the establishment of the Mississippi Game and Fish Commission in 1932 and laws regulating their harvest. Our state’s deer population is now more than 1.5 million.

Thanks to our state wildlife agency, scientific wildlife management techniques, private landowners, and concerned sportsmen and women, fish and wildlife resources are a major part of the quality of life in our great state, and a major economic force. According to the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, our native fish and wildlife and those pursuing them annually contribute $1.9 billion to Mississippi’s economy. As a group, outdoor enthusiasts in the state spend an average of $6 million per day, support $847 million annually in salaries and wages for 26,150 hard-working Mississippians, support $186 million annually in federal taxes, and support $187 million annually in state and local taxes, with a ripple effect of $3.02 billion annually. Fees derived from hunting leases are an important source of revenue for small and large landowners alike. According to the Mississippi Code §49-7-58.4, our state’s government is legally responsible for safeguarding this outdoor recreational economy dependent on our native wildlife.

In response to political pressure last year to legalize the sale of deer to breed, genetically modify their antlers, and sell canned shoots for them, the Attorney General issued an opinion stating “except as specifically permitted by law or regulation,” language contained in §49-7-51(1)(a), could include a regulation passed by the Mississippi Commission on Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks to allow limited commerce in live deer bred in captivity in high-fenced enclosures. Our previous Attorney General had an opposite opinion, stating that live deer could NOT be bought or sold. Hopefully, the current opinion will be reconsidered. A survey conducted by the National Rifle Association suggest that the vast majority of sportsmen and women in Mississippi object to the sale, transportation, and commercialization of deer to be confined in high-fence enclosures.

The American version of the law of animals, ferae naturae, which is Latin for “wild by nature,” states that wild animals are owned by all the people and the government holds the animals, in trust, for the use and benefit of the people. The Mississippi Code §49-7-1 defines deer as a “game animal.” This means ALL deer are game animals whether they are born in captivity or not.

The state’s code §49-7-51, which prohibits the sale of game animals, including birds and fish, has been in existence since the Mississippi Code of 1932 – this was a time when most states were embracing conservation and creating governmental agencies to conserve and protect fish and wildlife resources. To borrow on the law of animals ferae naturae, state fish and wildlife agencies became the trustees of the wild animal resource for the benefit of the citizens of the state – ALL of us. These laws came about to end the practice of “market-hunting,” and replace it with conservation practices so future generations can enjoy the resource just like we do. Market hunting occurred because people wanted pretty feathers in their hats and venison on their plates. Market hunting for exceptionally large antlers is no different.

The Mississippi Code §49-7-51 has only been amended to allow the cultivation and sale of game fish (by regulation of the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce) for stocking purposes and not for human consumption, and later for the sale of white-tailed deer skins and sinew, and objects crafted from white-tailed deer bone or antler – not a live white-tailed deer. These items can only be used after an individual has reduced a living deer to possession by taking or killing it pursuant to a lawful act of hunting or incidental take due to an accident or similar event.

It is my opinion and that of many Attorneys General that the law of animals “wild by nature” supersedes the rulemaking authority of the Mississippi Commission on Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, and any attempt to transfer ownership of deer in captivity, to the owner of a canned shoot or deer breeding facility where they are being held captive and allowing those individuals to then traffic and profit off the sale of those game animals violates the letter and spirit of §49-7-51 and runs afoul of the prohibition against the donation of State property or assets to private interests to exploit for profit contained in Article 4, §95 of the Mississippi Constitution of 1890. It is like giving away the timber or gravel on or in a School Board or 16th Section and public education not benefitting from such sale. State law also prohibits the possession and transportation of live, wild animals.

The Legislature, as representatives of all the people of the State of Mississippi, should be the only entity with the authority to change the status of deer bred in captivity, from that of a “game animal,” to some sort of livestock which can be bought, sold, and transported on the open market.  I commend our new Speaker of the House Jason White, House Wildlife Committee Chairman Bill Kincaide, and the entire Mississippi House of Representatives for a solid vote of 117-0 to confirm that the wildlife of Mississippi belong to ALL citizens and cannot be bought or sold.  I hope the Mississippi Senate will soon follow suit and the Governor will sign it into law.

Mississippi has come too far in quality deer management during recent years to let the desires of a handful of people ruin our deer herd and its associated economic benefits. Mississippi is now considered to be one of the best states in the nation to harvest a trophy white-tailed deer. We typically rank No. 1 in the nation in harvesting the highest percentage of mature bucks. And with the passing of each year, we are witnessing the harvest of larger bucks taken from unfenced habitat.

Researchers have determined that the transportation of live, captive deer is likely the most significant factor contributing to the spread of CWD. CWD is a contagious, always fatal disease for which there is no treatment or vaccine, and no reliable test for detecting CWD in live animals. The danger of CWD in captive animals spreading from fenced, breeding or shooting operations into wild, unfenced habitat to native wildlife from CWD is overwhelming. Legalizing the sale of live deer and their transportation is not worth the risk.

Mississippi’s 465,000 hunters, 965,200 anglers, and 297,000 recreational shooters are paying attention. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of SuperTalk Mississippi Media.

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