Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Birmingham have charged two Northport, Ala., men with knowingly transporting and receiving white-tailed deer into the state – 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 knowingly importing six live white-tailed deer into Alabama from a farm in Indiana. Federal and state charges against the men were announced in Birmingham October 2, 2017.
As part of a plea agreement, Skinner’s privilege to possess an Alabama Game Breeder License or be associated with a game breeder operation has been revoked.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.
According to the plea agreement, Skinner owned and 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. 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, visit www.outdooralabama.com/map-cwd-north-america.
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 to 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 Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
There have been no known cases of CWD in Alabama.
Currently, Alabama has 231 licensed game breeders, which primarily raise white-tailed deer for sale to hunting-enclosure operators throughout the state.
“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.”
WFF needs citizen assistance to maintain Alabama’s CWD-free status. To report the importation of live or harvested deer from out-of-state, or resident deer exhibiting signs of CWD, call the Operation Game Watch line at 1-800-272 4263 (GAME).