SOUTH RANGE, Wis. — Quinn and Cade Musch are plunging head-first into a business many people want shut down.
The brothers are building a fenced deer farm about 20 miles south of Superior where they will raise trophy bucks with massive sets of antlers and then sell all-inclusive fenced hunts to customers for upward of $4,000 each.
The trophy bucks here are the result of genetic line-breeding, incredible nutrition and time to grow — they don’t get shot as spikes or basket bucks before they get old. They have freakishly huge racks by their third year because of the quality and quantity of their food.
“There’s a huge, unmet demand out there from all over. There are a lot of people who are just tired of poor hunting, who want to see and shoot really big bucks,’’ Cade Musch said while leading a tour of the deer farm in November. “The problem is, in the wild, no one is willing to let deer grow to really big sizes. In here, they (the bucks) will get that time.”
Except that the animals are deer and not cows, horses or sheep, the place looks much like other farms, with bales of hay and bags of Purina AntlerMax feed on pallets. Musch showed off their high-fenced enclosures where dozens of does and fawns were meandering, resting and eating, and the special pen where he had mature does and an eager-to-mate massive trophy buck with antlers the size most hunters could only dream about.
The farm is called Long Lake Outfitters, LLC, and the Musch brothers have been building their deer herd for the past two years. With the help of two trophy bucks they paid big dollars for in 2018, they hope to have trophy deer ready to sell and shoot by fall 2021.
They have about 190 acres for hunting as well as several acres of deer pens, including the Musch family homestead of 160 acres and 40 more that they purchased, along with a nearby log cabin for their clients to stay in.
The deer farm has two licenses: one from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and the other from the Department of Natural Resources. The perimeter is ringed by two sets of 8-foot-high fencing, in theory keeping all of their deer inside and any wild deer out while not letting wild deer come in contact with their deer. (All the wild deer in the fenced acres were shot, with state permission, before tame deer were moved in.)
What’s going on at deer and elk farms?
There are 339 deer and elk farms licensed in Minnesota. Here’s what types of activities are going on at those farms. Some farms may have more that one activity.
- Breeding: 86 farms
- Exhibitions/competitions: 17 farms
- Hobbyist: 169 farms
- Hunting preserve site: 16 farms
- Meat production: 67 farms
- Other animal products: 9 farms
- Trophy animal sales: 102 farms
- Urine production: 7 farms
- Velvet antler production: 21 farms
Source: Minnesota Board of Animal Health
While many Northland hunters would bristle at the idea of shooting a deer in a fenced preserve as unsporting, unfair and unsavory, the Musch brothers expect customers to come from places like Texas, where hunting deer in fenced “ranches’’ or enclosures is common, as well as Pennsylvania, the East Coast, Chicago, the Twin Cities and beyond. But they also expect some locals to pony up for the chance to hang a trophy on the wall at home.
“There's an operation just a little south of here that gets a lot of repeat, local business. Local people like to shoot big bucks, too,’’ said Cade, 30.
The Musches say they got into the business because they grew up on a farm and they love hunting and watching deer. The deer farm combines the best of both worlds, they say.
“We’re passionate about deer hunting and we wanted to get into the hunting business,’’ said Cade, who has a day job at the Sappi paper mill in Cloquet. Quinn, 33, works for a local railroad.
“This combination (of raising deer and selling hunts) really lets us maximize the value of our land and do what we love to do," he said.
Behind high fences, until they aren’t
While many people have no idea what goes on at a captive deer farm, or why, the operations are probably far more common than most area residents realize. There are 339 licensed deer farm operations in Minnesota and another 360 in Wisconsin. Some raise elk or reindeer as well as whitetails or mule deer; all are members of the cervidae family of mammals, a name commonly associated with the deer and elk farms.
But trophy hunters aren’t their only customers. Some of the deer farmers grind up antlers to sell overseas where some cultures consider it an aphrodisiac. Other deer farms collect urine (yep, deer pee) to sell to hunters to mask their scent while hunting. Still others raise deer to sell the meat. And some do it just for a hobby or to show their animals, like livestock at a county fair.
In Minnesota, 102 deer farms raise trophy animals destined to be shot. But only 16 operations actually offer hunting on their site. The rest sell their animals to other fenced hunting operations, some in far-away states.
And therein lies one of the big issues facing the farmed deer industry: That movement of live animals between faraway places — thousands of animals annually — is being blamed by many wildlife biologists and hunting enthusiasts as a major factor in the spread of chronic wasting disease.
The always deadly deer disease has expanded from a single site in Colorado to 26 states and three Canadian provinces over the past 50 years, including deer farms and wild deer in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas.
Minnesota had no cases of CWD in wild deer just four year ago — now the state is up to 58 confirmed cases.
Wisconsin is up to nearly 6,000 CWD-positive wild deer. In some parts of southern Wisconsin, where the DNR has stopped trying to control the disease, nearly half of all wild deer shot now test positive for CWD.
CWD is always fatal to deer, elk and moose. CWD can be spread from deer-to-deer, but can also spread through soil and even plants. The disease mutates protein prions, destroys the brain and central nervous system, and those prions can survive indefinitely outside the deer, including the ground where contaminated carcasses were dumped by hunters after processing. Predators and other critters that feed on diseased animals are also likely spread it around.
No case of CWD is known to have infected a person, but researchers and health officials strongly warn against eating meat from a CWD-positive deer. Because the disease is similar to mad cow disease, which has been fatal to humans, some public health experts say it's only a matter of time before CWD spreads to people. One Canadian study found it could spread to monkeys that were fed CWD-contaminated meat.
'Last place in Wisconsin that will see any CWD'
Cade Musch says there’s almost no chance of CWD either entering or leaving his farm. All of their animals have come from areas where CWD has not been found, or they have been been born on their farm. All breeding stock come from other deer farms that have not reported any CWD. And any animal on the farm that gets sick and dies is tested by state veterinarians to make sure they don’t carry CWD.
“This is probably the last place in Wisconsin that will see any CWD,’’ Cade said. “Our lives are invested in this. The last thing we want is for CWD to somehow show up in one of our deer. It would kill us.”
Cade said the impact of deer farms on the spread of CWD across the continent has been exaggerated. He said state wildlife agencies often only look for the disease near where it has been confirmed. So that’s where they find more of it. If they looked away from deer farms they would probably find it in other areas, too, Cade said.
The Musches talk about their secure fencing, their herd health protocols and their huge investment of time, money and effort as reasons CWD won’t infiltrate their herd.
“We have so many regulations to follow. We have two state agencies all over us all the time, and we haven't even started’’ offering any hunting yet, Cade said.
He also said that the national deer farm industry — there are thousands across the country; Texas alone has 1,236 deer farms with more than 100,000 captive animals — is investing in research to see if both live testing and some sort of cure might be developed for CWD.
“There’s also some evidence that some deer develop resistance to it. So we can breed to those’’ genetics to reduce CWD, he said. Cade also hypothesized that, if the disease becomes more prevalent in the wild, someday the only CWD-free places to hunt may be deer farms.
Not all deer farms have followed the rules, and deer farms with CWD-positive deer are suspected by Minnesota wildlife experts to have caused three of the four CWD outbreaks among wild deer in the state.
Just this fall, a Minnesota bow hunter shot an ear-tagged trophy buck near Whitewater State Park that had escaped from a deer farm last spring. Luckily, it tested negative for CWD. The farmer was fined $250.
In another part of southeastern Minnesota, a CWD-positive deer farm had so much fencing down that tame animals were moving out and wild animals were going in at will.
Near Brainerd, the owner of a deer farm with CWD-positive animals first confirmed in 2016 refused to depopulate, or kill, the rest of the herd. Earlier this year, seven more dead deer on the farm tested positive for CWD (the only accurate CWD test can be done on dead animals) and another 13 were so badly decomposed that their cause of death couldn’t be confirmed.
The owner finally agreed to have the rest of the deer shot and close his business, although federal officials paid him for the herd.
Data shows that one CWD-positive deer farm near Brainerd had imported nearly 150 deer from multiple other states, including heavily CWD-infested southern Wisconsin. So far, only one wild deer near the Brainerd area deer farm has tested positive for CWD. But the case helped push the Minnesota Legislature earlier this year to require any farmer with CWD found in their herd to kill all remaining animals.
One county battles back
Bayfield County officials watched as CWD crept north and, absent any coordinated state or federal effort to slow the spread, decided to take action on their own.
“The state of Wisconsin has not done its job on chronic wasting disease management, period,’’ said Fred Strand, a retired DNR wildlife biologist and now an elected member of the Bayfield County Board of Commissioners.
Bayfield County last year enacted a one-year moratorium on the importation of any live cervids into the county, meaning the county's two operating deer farms couldn’t bring in any new animals, and no new operations could start up. During the moratorium a county cervid committee met to discuss permanent rules to restrict the movement of potentially CWD-infected deer and elk into the area.
On Oct. 9 Bayfield became the first county in Wisconsin to enact its own permanent CWD regulations restricting the importation of live cervids from any known CWD-infected area; enacting the county's own fencing rules for deer farms (so county officials can enforce it if DNR officials won’t enforce state rules); and enacting new zoning rules that effectively restrict any new deer farms without public hearings and an approved special use permit. Douglas County has looked at similar measures.
“We looked at CWD increasing in prevalence and distribution and said, ‘Oh my God, there’s a tidal wave coming at us and the state is doing almost nothing to stop it,'’’ Strand said. “So we felt we had to act.”
Strand said the county board values the public resource of the state’s wild deer herd — socially, recreationally and economically — saying those far outweigh any restrictions on deer farmers. The economic impact of wild deer hunting dwarfs that of a few deer farmers, he noted.
“We could do nothing, and we know we’re eventually going to get it (CWD.) Or we could try to do something and hope to buy some time,’’ Strand said. “The goal is that we can keep it out long enough so there may be some new research or a cure or whatever. We have to try.”
Strand said many deer farm advocates are “science deniers’’ who tout the virtues of captive animal hunting and family-owned deer businesses while downplaying the clear connection between CWD in the wild and CWD-infested deer farms. Critics say the movement of live deer between farms, hauled on trucks over highways across state lines, was a sort of Typhoid Mary, spreading the disease farther and faster than it could have spread among wild animals across the landscape.
“We had experts from USGS (United States Geological Survey) and other agencies provide a range of evidence showing how the movement of live cervids (from infected deer farms to new deer farms) has spread CWD. There’s no doubt about it,’’ Strand said.
Cade Musch says there is doubt, and he instead blames the rapid spread of CWD on hunters who in past years unknowingly brought infected carcasses home to Wisconsin and Minnesota from CWD-infected states, then dumped the carcasses into the woods near home. That’s where mutated prions still lay waiting for wild deer, he said.
In recent years, many states, including Minnesota, have enacted carcass import bans. Hunters killing deer in other states must have them processed where they were shot and bring home only meat and antlers; no brain or spinal column material is allowed.
More rules needed?
Some say the new rules are too little, too late. CWD continues to pop up in new places. In some cases, it may have been present for years before finally infecting a live animal.
Wisconsin state officials aren’t the only ones being blamed for a lack of action on CWD. In Minnesota, the Office of Legislative Auditor last year issued a critical report, finding the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, the state agency charged with regulating livestock, failed to enforce laws relating to deer and elk farms, kept poor records, was lax in penalizing violators and allowed one-third of deer and elk producers to entirely skip CWD testing.
The report also found that Minnesota deer and elk farms experienced many animal escapes, kept inaccurate inventories, had inadequate official identification of animals and had lapses in proper fencing. The report said Minnesota has one of the largest populations of farmed deer and elk, but half of U.S. states are more strict when it comes to importing animals. And even though state law requires it, the Board of Animal Health didn’t adequately track where deer come from that are imported into Minnesota.
Since the report came out, the state Legislature has tightened rules for deer farms and for the Board of Animal Health to enforce. The agency, also under new leadership, appears to have increased its regulatory efforts. But deer farm critics say tougher laws are still needed, and some say the movement of all farmed cervids should be stopped entirely.
“We have a basic problem with the fact that the board is controlled by people with heavy ties to the same industry that it’s supposed to regulate,’’ said Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, the state’s largest deer hunters group.
Minnesota is a net exporter of farmed deer, in part because there is little history here of hunting big game in fenced preserves. Instead, most farmed deer that are bred and raised in Minnesota are shipped to hunting preserves in places like Texas. From 2016 through 2018, Minnesota exported 3,452 live deer to other states, but imported only 318 from other states, according to data from the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.
Michelle Carstensen, the wildlife health program leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said deer farmers nationally keep moving animals between states and that CWD-positive deer keep showing up at more farms. She noted that most of the CWD-positive deer farms had previously been listed as safe by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
How much for a fenced, trophy deer hunt?
The price often depends on the official score of the buck’s antlers, measured in total inches (Pope and Young records are for deer killed with a bow only, Boone and Crocket records are for firearms-killed deer. Both use the same scoring system.)
Here’s what one Medford, Wis. deer farm advertises for prices for a three-day, all-inclusive (lodging and food included) guided deer hunt in their fenced preserve:
- 150" and under, $2,600 plus tax
- 160" and under, $3,200 plus tax
- 170" and under, $4,200 plus tax
- 180" and under, $4,950 plus tax
- 190" and under, $5,800 plus tax
- 200" and under, $6,700 plus tax
- 215" and under, $7,900 plus tax
- 235" and under, $8,800 plus tax
“Whatever they are doing, it’s still not working to prevent the movement of sick deer and spreading CWD to more and more areas,’’ Carstensen said.
Carstensen said the problem is that deer can carry CWD for more than a year and look healthy when they are sold to a different farm. Eventually, sometimes well after they are moved, they show signs of disease and then die. By then, they likely have already spread the disease to other animals — wild and farmed — or left mutated prions in the soil.
Carstensen said the DNR still wants to see a double-fencing law required in Minnesota to keep wild and tame deer far apart. Currently, only a single fence is required, allowing wild animals to come in contact with farmed animals through fencing. The double-fencing rule was defeated last year in the Legislature.
Engwall said his group also wants to see double-fencing required. But they want the state to go even further with a voluntary buyout program for deer farms. Under the plan, the state would pay deer farmers to get out of the business, much as what occurred decades ago when the state paid commercial netters to stop taking walleyes on Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake. The goal was to save the natural resources for thousands of sport anglers that contribute millions of dollars to the economy as opposed to a handful of commercial netting operations.
“We don’t want to put anyone out of business. It would be voluntary. But we want the option out there to close as many of these places (deer farms) as we can,’’ Engwall said.
Minnesota Deer Hunters Association also wants a moratorium on any new deer farms throughout the state so the problem doesn't expand. Moreover, he said the group has basic ethical problems with fenced or so-called “canned” hunts. (The Minnesota DNR banned fenced big-game hunting until 2004, when the Legislature put deer farms under the purview of the Board of Animal Health, considering farmed deer as livestock, which opened the door to fenced hunting in the state.)
“We have a long-standing opposition to fenced hunting,” he said. “It doesn’t meet the standard of fair chase. We don’t think it’s hunting.”
In the meantime, Minnesota continues to take an aggressive stand to control CWD in its wild herd while neighboring Wisconsin has done little but voluntary testing. The DNR is holding intensive harvest hunts in CWD-positive areas, allowing hunters to take multiple deer, and then calling in sharpshooters to kill even more in hopes of culling as many deer as possible.
Reducing deer density is considered one way to slow the spread of the disease. Minnesota also requires mandatory testing of all deer shot near CWD areas to see how far and wide the disease has spread.
DNR wildlife experts “looked at how this (CWD) just got out of control in southern Wisconsin and we said we don't want that to be us. We can’t stop their deer from walking across from Wisconsin or Iowa ... but we can do everything possible to keep it spreading as fast as it did there,” Carstensen said. “And we should be doing everything we can to make sure no deer is riding on a truck across the (state border) to spread CWD at one more deer farm.”