HOPE TOWNSHIP, MI (AP)--White-tailed deer and elk graze behind 10-foot-tall fences on pastureland tilled for a century by Robert Bradfield's family.
Crop farming didn't interest Bradfield, so two years ago he introduced dozens of deer and elk, hoping the alternate farm commodity could help keep their property in his family another 100 years.
"I know a lot of people think having these captive animals isn't natural," Bradfield said, as a bull elk ambled to within a few feet of his idling pickup. "But where are they going to go, the way the land's disappearing?"
Bradfield hopes to find a market for elk meat, which he trumpets as a lowfat, low-cholesterol alternative to beef. But he waded into the deer and elk trade too late for a 1990s boom and too early to foresee consequences of a contagious animal disease some fear could cripple the business and devastate Michigan's wild deer herd.
Chronic wasting disease, a fatal brain disorder that attacks deer and elk, was once thought relegated to the western United States. Nationally, it's been detected in wild deer and elk in eight states, including Wisconsin and Illinois, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is monitoring captive and wild animals in another 14 states, including Michigan, Indiana and Iowa.
Chronic wasting disease hasn't surfaced yet in Michigan, based on tests of about 5,800 deer and elk. But fear of the disease worries hunters, tourism officials and businessmen such as Bradfield, who are already confronted with bovine tuberculosis, another contagious animal disease.
"In my opinion, TB is ungodly scary and CWD is 100 times worse than that," said Bradfield, who keeps 25 elk and about 45 deer on more than 40 acres of pasture and woodlot. "If this gets out of hand and the people decide we're bringing this into the state, we're in trouble. It would kill the business."
Michigan is home to some 900 facilities that stock thousands of deer, elk--also known as cervids--and other exotic species used for breeding, hunting, exhibition and meat sales. Operations range in size from a few acres to sprawling land tracts.
Industry representatives say it's a $300 million business in Michigan and in the 1990s was touted as an up-and-coming trade.
Today, some deer and elk operators are selling their herds--if they can find buyers--in the face of chronic wasting disease, increased government regulation and deflated prices.
"It's the end for me," said John DeRoche, who once kept 150 white-tailed deer and some elk on his property near Atlanta, Mich. He says he earned a profit in past years, but can't recover from disease threats and regulations.
But Ken Keeley, who owns a hunting ranch in Barbeau, with about 400 whitetails, isn't giving up.
"You can panic or you can accept the situations and diseases as they come down the pike," said Keeley, vice president of the Michigan Deer and Elk Farmers Association. "As we move through this and we learn more about how this particular disease started, how it spread, I think we'll be fine."
Michigan banned captive deer and elk imports in April 2002, but herd owners previously shipped animals here from other states and Canada, including areas now known to have chronic wasting disease problems. Those imports concern deer and elk industry critics, as do occasional instances when captive animals escape to the wild.
"The captive cervid industry, in my mind, has to be viewed as one of those high-risk industries where the potential for something to go wrong is so great, it has to be very highly regulated," said Bill Murphy of the Michigan Resource Stewards, a group of about 100 retired state employees who believe that wild deer protection should take precedence.
Deer and elk are registered and tagged, monitored and tested for chronic wasting disease upon death, said the agriculture department's Doug Hoort.
Michigan's Natural Resources Commission also announced statewide deer baiting and feeding bans if chronic wasting disease is located within 50 miles of the border.
"I feel pretty confident that we have a good system in place," said Hoort, adding most cervid operators "get it...they can't afford to have something like this happen in their industry."
Those operators who don't comply with higher standards risk being squeezed out because hunting preserves and breeders balk at buying animals not designated as disease-free.
Bradfield, whose farm is near Midland, about 30 miles northwest of Saginaw, says he won't accept outside deer or elk into his herd, which he hopes will help protect his animals. He says he's as committed as anyone in the chronic wasting battle and said ranchers, hunters and the state must band together.
"There's no time for finger-pointing now," he said. "Let's get together and fix this."