Farming Captive Cervids in Michigan (WO1026)


October 20, 2015 - Thomas G. Coon

Executive Summary

The husbandry and sale of captive deer and elk have grown in Michigan and throughout North America over the past 30 years. Because these species belong to the mammalian family Cervidae, the industry is referred to as farming, ranching or agriculture of captive cervids. In Michigan, this industry is regulated in part by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and in part by the Michigan Department of Agriculture. Proponents of this industry anticipate that the industry is likely to grow dramatically in Michigan if the regulatory process is not prohibitive. This paper reviews of what is known about the captive cervid industry in Michigan and beyond, and identifies issues that may interfere with further development of the industry or may affect the free-ranging herd of whitetailed deer, elk or other wildlife species in Michigan. The paper is divided into five sections which review what is known about and what needs to be determined regarding economic issues, facility management issues, ecosystem management issues, health management issues and social issues associated with captive cervid agriculture.

Economic issues

Captive cervid agriculture in Michigan and in North America has grown dramatically over the past decade. Currently, Michigan citizens hold 640 permits to keep captive white-tailed deer and elk. The number of captive white-tailed deer is more than 21,000 head, and the number of captive elk is about 2,600. These numbers represent a doubling of the captive herd sizes since 1994. The total value of these herds is about $30 million. Little information is available on the number of non-native cervids (i.e., species that do not naturally occur in Michigan) that are kept in captivity because no permits are needed to keep and raise these animals. The captive cervid industry is distributed throughout the state, with the greatest concentrations occurring in central and southeastern lower Michigan. Many of the captive cervid operations are small, with 76 percent less than 20 acres in area. Some larger operations offer fee hunting opportunities within their enclosed areas. Other products from these herds include venison, hides and leather, velvet antlers, hard antlers and trophy males for fee hunting. Currently, much of the economic activity among Michigan captive cervid growers is in sale of breeding animals and semen. This is a common attribute of a developing animal agricultural industry. For this industry to realize continued growth and development, it will be important for domestic and international markets to increase demand for other cervid products.

Facilities management issues

Captive cervids require similar facilities to those needed for other hooved livestock. One of the key differencesbetween captive cervid facilities and those for other livestock is the need for high, strong fencing. Captive cervids are capable of escaping over or under conventional livestock fencing. The most commonly recommended fencing for captive cervids is at least 8 feet tall (for elk) or 10 feet tall (for white-tailed deer) and made of strong woven wire. These specifications overcome the leaping abilities of most cervids and guard against fence failure due to impact of the animals with the fencing. Some recommend use of two lines of fencing to prevent escape in the event of fence failure and to prevent direct contact between captive and freeranging cervids. As with all fenced livestock operations, frequent fence maintenance is necessary to prevent escape or ingress of animals through the barrier.

Ecosystem management issues

It is well documented that captive herds of cervids alter the composition and distribution of vegetation within the area occupied by the captive herd. The existence of captive cervid facilities and the animals within them are likely to alter ecosystem processes inside and outside the captive compound, and they have the potential to alter species relationships, movement patterns and the genetic composition of free-ranging species. Most of the potential negative impacts of captive cervids can be minimized by use of effective fencing systems that minimize escape from or ingress into captive cervid facilities. Effective fencing also has the potential to limit movement of free-ranging cervids, but this is likely to occur only if the area that is fenced for captive cervids becomes extremely large. Other land use practices may have greater, lesser or different impacts on ecosystem attributes than captive cervid facilities, but we did not find information that would assist in comparing the risks associated with captive cervids to those associated with other land use practices on private property. Conclusions here are based on inferences made from a diversity of articles because we were not able to find published studies that evaluate the direct relationships between individual captive cervid facilities and ecosystem attributes.

Health management issues

Efforts to raise wild species of cervids in captivity have encountered health management needs that pose challenges to growers and potentially to wild cervid populations in Michigan. There is a great need for more information and expertise on captive cervid health management to enable growers to keep their herds healthy and to minimize the risk of disease transmission between wild and captive animals. The potential risk of disease transmission between wild and captive herds differs from the risk of transmission of the same diseases between captive domesticated livestock andwild cervid populations. Diseases are more difficult to diagnose or treat in wild animals, whether captive or free-ranging, though new methods are under development and testing. Furthermore, an escaped deer is virtually indistinguishable from a wild one and is much harder to recapture than an escaped steer or cow. As a result, if an escaped deer transmits a disease agent to wild deer, it is much more challenging to eradicate the disease than it would be in a captive herd of domestic livestock. One example of this is the present problem of bovine tuberculosis in wild white-tailed deer in Michigan and the challenge of eliminating this problem. It is not clear how the disease was introduced into the free-ranging deer herd, but its eradication from the free-ranging population is one of the most challenging issues that wildlife managers have ever faced in Michigan. Even though the problem appears to be manageable in cattle and captive cervids in the area, the costs are great, and it remains to be seen if the problems can be eliminated in the free-ranging herd. To date, only one captive herd has been discovered to have deer infected with bovine tuberculosis, and this was likely a result of one or more infected free-ranging deer that were incorporated into the herd when the herd was enclosed by fencing.

Social issues

Game farming and ranching provide a number of benefits (e.g., local economy, recreation, food) and could potentially provide others not yet clearly proven (e.g., health products). Also, this industry may provide another alternative economic activity to rural landowners either in place of traditional agricultural practices or in place of non-agricultural development. They also pose a number of potential costs or risks thatraise social issues. This paradox is not unique to game farming/ranching, but many of these issues are unique because of the wild nature of the species involved — white-tailed deer and elk — which also exist as a common property resource in the state. Although the rearing and marketing of these cervids is an agricultural activity, the process and potential consequences are inextricably linked to their wild counterparts, the wildlife management system and the ecosystem upon which wildlife species depend. The social issues identified here include the following:

1) There is potential for game farming/ranching to impede the effective administration of wildlife conservation methods.

2) Recreational shooting opportunities on game ranches could reduce public acceptance of recreational hunting and its role in wildlife management.

3) The chance of animal escapes poses a number of ecological risks and associated issues, including concerns that there is a greater risk of disease being introduced into wild herds and into domesticated livestock.

4) In addition to potential impacts on wildlife and its management, the wild nature of these captives also raises humane issues of animal welfare beyond those associated with traditional domesticated livestock production.

These risks and their associated issues suggest a need to carefully consider regulations for the captive cervid industry. Indeed, the captive cervid industry in Michigan has supported legislation to require disease testing and to establish guidelines for raising animals humanely.


Michigan’s agricultural economy is one of the most diverse agricultural economies in the United States. One sector of the economy that has attracted recent attention because of its growth is the culture of captive deer and elk. Deer and elk belong to the taxonomic group of animals called the family Cervidae. Farming and ranching of these animals is henceforth referred to in this document as captive cervid agriculture.

Raising wild species of animals in captivity poses similar challenges and opportunities as raising domesticated species but also generates concerns, challenges and opportunities different from those encountered with domesticated livestock. For example, white-tailed deer, elk and moose are native wildlife species in Michigan. Therefore, their wild populations are the common property of the citizens of Michigan, and their use and protection are managed in trust by the state government, particularly by the Natural Resources Commission and the Department of Natural Resources.

The white-tailed deer herd in Michigan varies between 1 million and 2 million head and ranges over the entire state. The elk herd is much smaller in number (1,100 head) and is restricted to the northern region of lower Michigan. It is difficult to establish a value for this public resource. In economic terms, the elk and deer herds generate at least $407 million each year in hunting trip and equipment expenditures (U.S. Dep. Interior, 1998). The herds generate additional but unquantified revenues in wildlife viewing and feeding activities, as well as non-market values associated with wildlife encounters.

Any confinement of these species to an individual’s private property represents a taking of common property from the citizens of Michigan, and Michigan’s game laws protect against such takings. Ownership of animals of these species under confinement is allowed by Michigan’s game laws but only by issuance of a special permit granted by the Department of Natural Resources. The permitting mechanism allows for private ownership of these three species for use in agricultural or other commercial or recreational enterprises, provided the owner keeps the animals confined within a specially fenced area.

Other cervid species also are farmed in Michigan, including sika deer, fallow deer, reindeer and red deer. None of these species are native to Michigan, and because they are non-native, there is less potential confusion of these privately owned livestock with publicly owned wildlife, though red deer are a different subspecies in the same species as elk and look similar to elk. Accordingly, regulation of agriculture involving these non-native species has been the responsibility of the Michigan Department of Agriculture, as it is for all domesticated livestock species.

The captive cervid industry in itself is quite diverse and promises unique opportunities for development. Two native and at least four non-native species are grown by Michigan farmers. Operations range from small pens on farms of several acres to game ranches that cover thousands of acres. Deer and elk are grown to produce products ranging from venison to trophy antlers, velvet antler, urine (as a hunting lure), and mature bulls or bucks for trophy hunting. Much of the industry is currently involved in developing breeding stock for increasing the size and number of captive herds in anticipation of growing demand for deer and elk products in North American and global markets.

In Michigan, smaller operations or game farms keep animals in pens and paddocks for production of venison, antler and velvet antler, and breeding or shooting stock. The larger operations are primarily engaged in game ranching, in which one of the primary economic activities is selling the opportunity to hunt for one of the captive animals, usually a bull or buck. The large operations also produce venison and other products from culled animals. In all cases, what distinguishes game farms and game ranches from other fee hunting or fee shooting enterprises is that, in game farms and ranches, the animals are confined in a fenced area. With a Michigan captive wildlife permit, the property owner determines when animals can be taken, under what conditions and with what methods. In other operations that charge a fee for hunting freeranging (i.e., not enclosed by fences) wild cervids, the animals do not belong to the landowner and can be pursued and harvested only as prescribed by current state hunting regulations and seasons.

Because captive cervid agriculture involves farming and ranching species that are also free-ranging in Michigan, two state agencies are involved in regulating this industry. In addition to issuing permits to keep captive elk, moose and white-tailed deer, the Department of Natural Resources also regulates the type and height of fencing that must be used on captive cervid operations and requires detailed record keeping of any losses, sales or acquisitions of animals in captive herds. These records must be reported monthly to the Department of Natural Resources. The DNR also has the authority to enforce all regulations regarding captive cervids through the Law Enforcement Division. The Michigan Department of Agriculture is involved in regulating other aspects of the captive cervid industry, particularly with regard to animal health management. For example, recent regulations stipulate that entire herds of captive elk or white-tailed deer must be tested every year for three years for bovine tuberculosis to achieve accredited-free herd status, and that records of these tests must be filed with the Department of Agriculture (Appendix 1). Lower herd status is available to herds with lesser testing programs.

Representatives of the captive cervid industry in Michigan have requested some revision in the way their industry is regulated. As legislation and policy relating to captive cervid agriculture develop, it is important to have a full accounting of what is known about the benefits and risks associated with captive cervid agriculture and products so as to develop laws and policies that protect the public interest in natural resource management and public health while also minimizing undue restrictions on and optimizing economic development in private enterprise. For these reasons, the Wildlife Bureau of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan Department of Agriculture requested Michigan State University to prepare an analysis of captive cervid agriculture that would document the full extent of scientific information on captive cervids and the potential opportunities and potential impacts of this form of agriculture on Michigan’s natural resources and agricultural economies.

A committee of faculty and staff members at Michigan State University completed the analysis and prepared the report. The committee included representatives from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the College of Veterinary Medicine. Five departments were represented on the committee: Agricultural Economics, Animal Science, Fisheries and Wildlife, Large Animal Clinical Sciences and Small Animal Clinical Sciences. The committee began by identifying five key areas for investigation: economic issues, facility management issues, ecosystem issues, health management issues and social issues. Committee members then gathered information on captive cervid agriculture in these five areas by searching for and reviewing peer-reviewed scientific publications, collecting non-peer-reviewed literature (printed and electronic) from agencies and industry representatives, interviewing representatives of agencies in and outside of Michigan, interviewing representatives of industry advocacy groups, and interviewing holders of elk and deer permits in Michigan. The committee met biweekly during March, April and May 1999 to share information, discuss the material and identify further information needs.

The paper that follows was prepared for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Bureau and the Michigan Department of Agriculture. It reviews what is known about captive cervid agriculture and summarizes issues that need to be addressed in the management of captive cervid agriculture in Michigan. This review focuses on white-tailed deer and elk but also includes information on non-native cervid species where information was available and seems relevant to farming of native cervid species. Previous drafts were reviewed by staff members of both agencies, and the authors have included or addressed the suggestions provided with these reviews. The purpose for having agency review of the draft was to ensure that the breadth of addressed issues is complete and that the sources of information are thorough. The document was reviewed next by experts in the field of captive cervid agriculture and cervid wildlife management, practitioners of captive cervid agriculture and groups interested in the management of Michigan’s wild deer and elk herds. The review process was managed in cooperation with the staff of the Wildlife Bureau, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Michigan Department of Agriculture, and with input from the captive cervid industry and non-governmental organizations interested in wildlife management in Michigan. The purpose of this additional review was to assure the accuracy and completeness of the review. Ultimately, it is anticipated that policy-makers, agency leaders, regulators and legislators will use this report as they decide on the appropriate regulation and promotion of captive cervid agriculture in Michigan. It is important that all parties interested in and affected by these decisions have a role in making the ultimate decisions about how this industry is managed.

The paper is organized around the five key areas identified previously and is meant to address two key objectives within each of these areas. The first objective is to summarize what is known and documented about captive cervid agriculture in Michigan. The second is to identify what issues in captive cervid agriculture need to be addressed in policy, law and management. A third objective, how the key issues should be addressed in law and policy, will be pursued by the responsible agencies and the Michigan Legislature. It is not the purpose of this process to make recommendations about policy, law and regulation to either the Natural Resources Commission, the Commission of Agriculture or the Michigan Legislature. The paper begins with a summary description of the captive cervid industry in Michigan. The description is based on existing information; it was not intended to generate new data on the industry. It is clear, however, that additional information is needed if this industry is to be managed carefully and fairly. The Michigan description is followed by a more global description of the captive cervid industry and its recent history, particularly in North America.

The third section of the paper includes a description of the unique facility requirements of captive cervid operations, and this is followed by a discussion of the interactions between captive cervid agriculture and Michigan’s natural ecosystems. The fifth section of the paper describes the health management concerns associated with captive cervid agriculture, and this is followed by a discussion of the social issues associated with captive cervid agriculture. In the course of gathering the information presented in this paper, the committee identified areas in which more information is needed to develop effective public policy and law regarding captive cervid agriculture. We have summarized these in the final section of the paper.

This industry is dynamic. The information gathered in this paper is current but is likely to become outdated within a matter of months to years. The purpose of this paper is to gather what is known about this industry now, so that policies and laws can be developed that improve the regulation and health of the industry.


Accessibility Questions:

For questions about accessibility and/or if you need additional accommodations for a specific document, please send an email to ANR Communications & Marketing at