A buck looks at other deer inside one of Michigan’s captive-deer facilities. Deer inside of these facilities are required to have ear tags that identify the facility and deer.

By Darren Warner

When 79-year-old bowhunter Frank Schmaltz (Leroy, Michigan) first saw the white-tailed buck with enormous antlers eating off his bait pile, he briefly questioned whether the creature was just a figment of his imagination. The Osceola County hunter had seen few deer during the 2017 archery season – certainly nothing that came close to matching the colossal buck with skyscraper-reaching antlers standing next to his bait – and he blinked a few times to make sure the deer was real.

“It was about 3 in the afternoon, and I was walking to my deer blind when I saw him,” Schmaltz recounted. “I tried to sneak up on him, but I only got to within 35 yards from him before he took off. He was mad that I interrupted him feeding.”

After emitting a couple snorts and foot stomps, the deer bounded away, leaving Schmaltz to think about just how close he’d just come to bagging the buck of a lifetime. Amazingly, the retired mapping photographer saw another monster buck when he passed by a different stand on his way home at dark.

Two days later, Schmaltz bagged his lifetime buck – a 25-pointer, including a 9-inch drop-tine, with a 22 ¾-inch inside spread – and an identification tag dangling from one of its ears.

An ear tag? Schmaltz took the buck to a Michigan Department of Natural Resources check station. An investigation later revealed the buck had escaped from a deer breeding facility two miles away.

If you think this is an anomaly, think again.

Ryan Soulard, a wildlife biologist and privately-owned Cervidae coordinator for the DNR, noted that captive deer escaping into the wild is an all-too-common occurrence.

“Last November [2017], over a dozen facilities reported losing deer,” Soulard said.

Keep in mind that’s just the number of facilities that reported losing deer in one month – not the number of deer they lost. Many times, facility owners/managers don’t know how many deer escape. Other times, facilities don’t know deer have gotten away or they choose to not report deer escapees over concerns of being penalized for losing animals.

Let’s take a closer look at the problem of deer permanently escaping from captive facilities. More specifically, we’ll consider recent trends in the number of captive deer escaping, the penalties for not reporting cervid escapees, what state officials are doing about the problem and what more can be done to keep farm-raised deer out of the wild.

Given the recent increases in the bovine tuberculosis rate and the number of deer testing positive for chronic wasting disease (CWD), deer escapees are a great concern in the Great Lakes State.

Cervid Escapees – Measuring the Problem

For starters, no one knows for sure how many deer escape from high-fence facilities each year. Neither the DNR nor the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development keep accurate, complete records of the number of escapees reported by citizens and/or investigated by DNR conservation officers. Only in 2017 did the DNR first begin using an electronic database to monitor escaped cervids.

Currently, there are 333 licensed captive cervid facilities in the state, most of which are breeding farms (161) or hunting ranches (132), holding over 21,000 whitetail deer, fallow deer, red deer, Sitka deer and elk. While the number of deer escapees voluntarily reported has declined over recent years, the numbers do not include escapees that are never reported.

Complicating matters is the fact that only deer from breeding facilities are required to have ID ear tags. Those from hunting ranches don’t need to be tagged, as it would be just about impossible for all deer born and raised at each hunting facility to be rounded up and tagged. So, if a deer is killed and there’s no sign of an ear tag, it’s unlikely officials will ever find out which facility the animal escaped from.

What’s more, the DNR often doesn’t investigate deer suspected of escaping from high-fence operations.

“While we may contact [DNR] Wildlife Division staff and/or conservation officers to give them a ‘heads-up,’ we generally don’t send them on a wild goose chase if there is an ear-tagged animal photo or sighting unless it is an animal that appears sick,” Soulard added. “If the animal was killed by a vehicle, hunter or found dead, we’ll try to find out where it came from. But unless it has an official traceable ID or is laying three feet outside of a [high] fence, many of them are dead ends.”

If you see any of this as problematic, you’re not alone.

Two DNR employees in Lansing, MI check a doe head for CWD. MUCC’s Cooperative Coordinator Anna Mitterling was able to participate in several days of lab testing. Through testing, the Michigan DNR has discovered more than 50 CWD-positive white-tailed deer in Michigan.

“Given that the stakes are so high in terms of protecting whitetail deer and the future of deer hunting, it’s disappointing that the state doesn’t maintain a central registry of deer that have escaped from high-fence facilities,” said Amy Trotter, deputy director for Michigan United Conservation Clubs (mucc.org).

Low Penalties?

To deter facilities from failing to report deer escapees, Michigan’s Privately-Owned Cervidae Producers Marketing Act (Act 190 of 2000) mandates owners report escapees to both the DNR and the MDARD within 24 hours of discovering the loss(es). Penalties are assessed by the local court having jurisdiction over the area where the facility is located. Failing to report escaped animals will incur a fine $300-$1,000 per incident (not animal) and may include jail time of 30-90 days. Some believe these penalties may not be enough to deter owners from violating the regulations.

“Typically, our members are in favor of stiff penalties for violating laws that impact our natural resources, and I think it would be a good idea to reexamine these penalties to see if they need to be strengthened to encourage those facilities to report deer that escaped and to do everything they can to prevent escapes,” added Trotter.

If you’ve ever owned livestock, you know that it’s not always easy to know when they’ve gotten out and are roaming the countryside. The same goes for deer farmers.

“We have a facility in the U.P. [Upper Peninsula] that is 5,000 acres, so it could take some time for larger facilities to learn they’ve lost deer,” said Kent Syers, president of the United Deer Farmers of Michigan (udfom.com). “Losing just one breeder buck can cost an owner $5,000 or more, so we do everything we can to keep our deer behind our fences. And if a deer is ever found alive, no owner that I know of would ever bring the deer back into their facility, regardless of how much it’s worth, because the risk of disease transmission is just too high.”

Act 190 also gives facilities 48 hours to locate and capture all escaped deer. If an escaped cervid isn’t recovered within 48 hours, it must be culled and may be tested by MDARD for disease. While the DNR and MDARD encourage hunters who harvest an escaped deer to have it tested for disease, testing is only mandatory if the deer is harvested in Michigan’s CWD Management Zone. Escaped deer are fair game for Michigan deer hunters, meaning they’re allowed to harvest and keep the deer if they tag it with a valid Michigan hunting license.

To date, a total of four captive deer heads, submitted by owners of three separate facilities, have tested positive for CWD in Michigan. This number may be inflated, as the agency is still investigating the possibility that two of the deer may not have come from one of the captive facilities.

None of this means that captive deer are responsible for CWD transmission in the wild.

“To date, we have never been able to determine that a free-ranging deer contracted CWD from a captive deer,” Syers said. “Deer that escape are moving from a low-risk environment inside a facility into a much higher or even unknown risk environment outside the fence.”


DNR employees cut the skull cap off of a harvested white-tailed buck in order to begin the CWD testing process. Scenes like this are common at deer check stations throughout Michigan, especially in the mandatory check zones where CWD has been discovered.

Fixing the Problem

Obviously, the best way to prevent the risk of disease transmission between captive and wild deer is to prevent farm deer from escaping. While double-fencing can help, it won’t prevent deer escapes due to human error, Mother Nature or vandalism.

“When we investigate why deer got out of facilities, usually it’s because someone accidentally left a gate open or a storm knocked down fencing,” Soulard explained. “Rarely do we find that it’s due to vandalism.”

There are several strategies the DNR can employ to better keep track of deer escapes and to design solutions to reduce escape occurrences. First, designing and utilizing an electronic database containing comprehensive information on reported escapes and confirmed sightings of escaped deer will enable the agency to better measure the problem. It will also help the agency gain information on what factor(s) are most responsible for deer escapes. For example, such a database may reveal that some facilities have more escapes than others, and that escapes are more likely to occur during breeding time, enabling the DNR to work more closely with facilities to identify solutions and reduce escapes.

Many cervid facilities still maintain paper records, making it difficult to monitor deer movements.

“A lot of deer movement occurs in the captive cervid industry,” Soulard explained. “Maintaining electronic inventories of all deer breeding facilities own and comprehensive information on deer imports and exports will enable us to better keep track of deer. By keeping better track of deer, we can do a better job of tracing back where CWD-positive deer came from, helping us to better manage the disease in Michigan.”

Instead of having 24 hours to report an escape, Soulard also believes facilities should be required to report deer losses immediately. The sooner escapes are reported, the sooner the DNR can implement an escape response plan, which involves visiting the facility to determine why the escape(s) occurred and then working with the facility to fix the problem.

While none of these strategies will keep all captive deer within fences, they would enable us to better measure its severity, devise cost-effective strategies to curtail escapee incidents and help prevent CWD transmission between captive and wild deer in Michigan.