Ag chief testifies before Senate

CHARLESTON — West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt Wednesday testified about a disease affecting parts of the state’s deer population before a committee of the U.S. Senate.

Leonhardt was among three experts before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Other witnesses were Brian Nesvik, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership based in Washington, D.C.

Lawmakers are considering creating a chronic wasting disease task force. The highly contagious disease is a neurological brain disease affecting deer, elk and moose. While symptoms take a long time to manifest, deer that appear malnourished or tired could have the disease.

In West Virginia, seven Eastern Panhandle counties are listed as a chronic wasting disease containment area: Grant, Mineral, Hardy, Hampshire, Morgan, Berkeley and Jefferson counties.

The first case of the disease in the state was found in 2005.

“I believe the establishment of a CWD Task Force is a measure that is long overdue,” Leonhardt told the committee Wednesday.

The state Department of Agriculture has regulated deer farming in West Virginia since 2015. Leonhardt said deer farming is a growing industry in the state, with 36 deer farms in operation. None have reported deer with the disease.

“For West Virginia, deer farming is an opportunity to diversify our economy and potentially use land that is no longer viable under modern agricultural practices, including our beautiful forests and rolling fields, or even restore value to abandoned mine lands,” Leonhardt said.

Captive cervids include whitetail deer, elk reindeer and fallow deer. Wild deer and elk are regulated by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

“While the (Department of Agriculture) and the DNR work closely together on many projects, we sometimes disagree on legislation and rules,’ Leonhardt said. “The uncertainty of CWD data does not help.”

Leonhardt said a chronic wasting disease task force would help provide scientific data to states to use in making policy. Leonhardt believes current policies are based more on “feeling” instead of data.

“It is clear from my current state of research we do not have certainty in the science of CWD and the ability to make sound judgements that may affect the livelihood of many farmers and hunting related businesses,” Leonhardt said. “I am encouraged that research is ongoing, but more is needed, and it does need to be better coordinated to maximize limited research dollars.”

Leonhardt was introduced by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who praised the commissioner’s work on agriculture issues.

“I want to thank Commissioner Leonhardt’s commitment … in how to better prevent the spread of this chronic wasting disease within the wild and agricultural deer population,” Capito said. “I’m proud to say West Virginia is ahead of the curve in this regard thanks to the commissioner’s efforts. While we still have much work to do, with his experience I’m sure we’ll be able to move the ball forward.”


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