The Ottumwa Courier

October 16, 2012

Deer wasting disease has state trying to balance rights

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Every citizen has rights, said one man Monday. So, yes, the owners of deer breeding operations have rights. But what about the rights of hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts?

A meeting hosted by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources at Monday seemed less overtly angry than a similar meeting held two weeks ago.

A DNR scientist, Wildlife’s bureau chief, Dale Garner, gave an overview of chronic wasting disease in deer. He discussed how the illness spreads, how it is always fatal and that there is no cure.

In Table Mesa, Colo., the disease has been present for around 20 years. The wild deer population has decreased by 40 percent. This summer, after watching carefully, the DNR found that CWD had made its way to Iowa.

There are now three Iowa deer “livestock” raising or hunting operations that have been found to have a deer infected with chronic wasting disease, including one in Davis County.

Those deer, healthy or diseased, are private property. And they are on private property. The law does not permit the government to come on someone’s land and take or destroy legally owned property.

The diseased deer are not currently considered a threat to human beings, pets, livestock or any species of animal other than  moose, elk and deer. Under the law, the DNR has no power to violate the rights of the owners, Garner said.

Not only that, but the owners are voluntarily cooperating to help discover the pervasiveness of the problem and agreed to depopulate their herds without government compensation, a prospect that could reach into the millions of dollars.

So rather than try to push lawful business people around, Garner has agreed to work with the owners in a give-and-take manner. For example, the DNR requested that an owner put a second fence around their property — and the DNR paid for part of that fence.

Also, the DNR wants all the deer that were around the infected deer destroyed immediately. Instead, the owners asked for some time to continue doing business with their promise of a full “depopulation” over a period of time.

Garner described this cooperation as a civil but delicate balance between individual rights and the public good.

“All he has to tell me is ‘get out’ and we’re done,” warned Garner.

In Wisconsin, state wildlife officials demanded immediate “depopulation” at a privately owned site. The owner and the state went to court. A judge’s order to depopulate the herd took years to emerge.

The process here could be done in months, Garner said, and nobody’s rights are violated.

But the landowners and hunters present at Monday’s meeting did want to be heard. At 9 p.m., the meeting was still in full swing. During a question-and-answer session, one man asked to make a statement to the other audience members.

“I don’t hear anyone talking about our rights,” said Gary Van Blaricom, an Eldridge outdoorsman who owns 380 acres in Davis County.

The public has the right not to have the wild deer herd decimated, he said. The people at that union hall in Ottumwa love the outdoors and that self-sustaining deer population.

One infected deer going over a fence, or nose to nose with a deer outside the fence, and the disease spreads through the wild. Those pen owners do have rights, Van Blaricom said. But endangering all the wild deer in Iowa is not respecting the public’s rights, he insisted.

Garner said as a scientist, not a politician, there’s only so much he can offer. But some audience members wanted to know if he had a plan to deal with the inevitable invasion of the disease.

Yes, he said, he developed a response plan in 2002.

Was it implemented according to his recommendations, audience members asked.

Not exactly, Garner acknowledged. For example, he wanted all infected deer and those in contact with them to be destroyed within 60 days. That clearly has not happened.

People higher in the chain of command than him were giving the orders, he said. At the last Ottumwa meeting, the state director of the DNR said he, too, was getting orders from higher up.

Who, neither would say.

Attendees asked if it was true that the owner of one of the deer-raising operations really called his friend the governor to help him out of a jam. That’s a rumor, Garner said, and though he’d heard the same rumor, he certainly could not say whether it was true or false.

But he wanted to remind the audience that there are steps that must be taken in order to obey the Constitution, which includes protection from having private property seized by the government. As a scientist, he makes recommendations; it’s up to others to make laws and policies — and to make sure those laws are obeyed.

Van Blaricom said to two state representatives present he’d like to see a law, too.  

“I would ask the legislative people here to make a law that keeps the governor from sticking his nose in the DNR’s business.”