LAKE BRONSON, Minn. – Steve Porter says his deer farm is under attack, and he’s fighting to maintain a livelihood his three sons – Dillan, 25; Brody, 18; and Nolan, 15 – would like to continue on this quarter-section of mostly woods and swampland in Kittson County.
He got into the deer business in 1992 as a way to make the land, which he says isn’t suitable for agriculture, financially viable.
“You can’t make money on 160 acres and 30 cows,” Porter, 53, said. “This quarter of land wouldn’t be productive with sheep that all have foot rot because it’s too wet. If I had beef cows, I couldn’t raise enough cows to make a living. But with deer as an alternative livestock, my kids could make a living here.”
Owner of Steve Porter’s Trophy Whitetail, a traveling trophy buck exhibit he brings to outdoor sports shows, schools and other venues, Porter has been at odds with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in recent years over what he says is agency overreach against domestic cervid operations aimed at reducing the risk of spreading chronic wasting disease.
The Minnesota Board of Animal Health is charged with regulating the state’s 330 or so domestic deer and elk farms, which are classified as livestock operations, but Porter claims the DNR at times oversteps its authority, at the expense of his and other domestic deer farms.
A former Kittson County sheriff with more than 30 years of law enforcement experience, Porter can rattle off Minnesota statutes he says support his claim and cites the 14th Amendment, which includes language that no state shall deprive its residents of “life, liberty or property without due process of law.”
“I want the DNR to focus on wild deer and do a good job and manage this disease within the wild deer and allow the Minnesota Board of Animal Health to do their job and be the professionals they are,” Porter said. “Let the Board of Animal Health that was given and charged with governing domestic animals, let them do their job.
“And then (DNR) deal with wild animals.”
Porter, who breeds bucks for trophy-size racks, also offers whitetail hunts for the deer he raises. Prices range from $2,950 to $6,950, depending on the size of a buck’s rack. It’s not an easy hunt, despite perceptions to the contrary, Porter said.
“One lady hunted for 17 days before she got her deer,” he said.
Porter’s latest battle with the DNR occurred in January, when he locked horns with the agency over a 30-day ban on the transport of farmed deer within the state. The DNR implemented the ban Dec. 23, 2019, after a farmed deer, an 8-year-old whitetail doe in Douglas County near Alexandria, Minn., tested positive for CWD, the incurable disease that’s fatal to deer, elk and moose.
The Board of Animal Health opted not to implement a 30-day transportation ban at the recommendation of its five board members because the affected farm already was quarantined.
That “was very alarming to us,” said Bob Meier, DNR assistant commissioner.
“We went back and looked at the tools we had and used some rulemaking authority that we felt we had the ability to use to protect the wild deer from the farmed cervids,” Meier said. “The attorney general’s office approved our rule, and it went into effect as a temporary 30-day rule.”
The DNR twice was challenged by the Minnesota Deer Farmers Association over the rule, Meier said – once for a temporary stay, which the courts denied, and a lawsuit that later was withdrawn.
“Because they withdrew it, I’m assuming they didn’t think they had a very good case,” Meier said. “So we still feel we have the authority to do that, and we don’t take that authority lightly by any means.
“It was kind of a last-ditch effort to do what we had to do to protect the wild deer from any more possible infestations.”
The first case of CWD in Minnesota occurred in 2002 at an elk farm in Aitkin County. As of February, the disease had been confirmed in 81 wild deer, mainly in the southeast and east-central parts of the state.
The BAH in early January confirmed the CWD-positive doe near Alexandria was tied to another deer with the disease in Pine County. As required by law, both deer farms were depopulated and can’t have any deer or elk for five years.
Weighing the options
The DNR’s transportation ban expired Jan. 29, but Porter in early January challenged the ban when he hauled three of his trophy bucks to the Twin Cities for an outdoor sports show at the St. Paul RiverCentre.
It was either defy the ban and face a possible $300 fine, Porter said, or lose thousands of dollars for breaking his contract and not appearing at the show.
He chose the former and was cited in Minnesota’s Ramsey County.
“Unfortunately, Steve Porter got caught up and openly violated the law,” Meier said. “I understand he had commitments, but obviously, the safety of wild deer is our responsibility, and we will do whatever we have to, to ensure that health and safety.”
While the DNR has established CWD management zones, tested tens of thousands of wild deer for the disease and imposed carcass restrictions, among other measures, the DNR doesn’t have any authority over deer farms, Meier said. But when a deer farm isn’t managed properly, it gives the entire industry a bad reputation, he said.
“As with anything, it only takes a few bad apples to ruin the entire industry, and I think that’s what we’re seeing,” Meier said. “People who have small herds who are in it as a hobby are really impacting the future livelihood of other deer farms.”
Porter says he’s had a “closed herd” for 12 years, meaning he doesn’t bring in whitetails from other locations, relying instead on artificial insemination to maintain the genetic diversity of his deer. He’s tested 102 deer for CWD, a process that requires killing the animals and removing the brainstems, and his herd remains free of the disease.
He also follows all BAH requirements, he says, including 8-foot fencing, ear tags and compliance with inspections and record keeping.
Despite that, Porter said, the DNR wouldn’t grant an exception allowing him to haul his deer to St. Paul while the ban was in effect, even though the deer never leave the trailer. The winter sports show season is essential to his bottom line, Porter says.
“I have nine months a year I don’t get paid, roughly,” he said. “All my business comes in a short period of time.”
The St. Paul outdoor sports show proceeded without further incident, but the next weekend Porter’s son Dillan had a trophy whitetail show, the Third Annual Minnesota Monster Buck Classic, scheduled for Jan. 17-19 at the Armed Forces Reserve Community Center in Cambridge, Minn.
An aspiring buck show promoter, the younger Porter held the first two Monster Buck Classics in Perham, Minn. Both shows went well, drawing about 2,000 people, Dillan said, but he moved the show to Cambridge to be closer to the Twin Cities. He had 35 vendors from as far away as Africa signed up for the show, only to find out less than 10 days before the event that the state-run facility wouldn’t allow the trophy bucks to be on display. That wasn’t an issue at the time he booked the venue, Porter said.
According to Don Kerr, executive director of the Department of Military Affairs, armories and other facilities administered by the agency require prior approval before live animals are allowed. Exceptions can be made, but that wasn’t an option at the Cambridge venue because of the DNR’s transportation ban on farmed deer, Kerr said.
“We are a state agency so when another state agency makes a rule, we make sure we comply with it because we are part of the executive branch of government,” Kerr said. “We have a more broad restriction on rental of our facilities for use of live animals.
“It’s not targeted at deer; frankly, it’s targeted at circuses because we’ve had bad experiences with circuses coming to town and doing shows in our armories and then doing inadequate cleanup afterwards. That has been a problem in the past, so we have issued guidance to our armory managers to seek approval from our level before they agree to any live animals. That includes dog shows, too.”
Because the live bucks weren’t allowed, Dillan Porter said only 202 people attended the show, far short of the 5,000 he was anticipating. It would have represented about $60,000 in income.
People came to the door, he said, only to turn around and leave when they learned the trophy bucks weren’t on display.
“This doesn’t just hurt me this year,” Dillan Porter said. “It took me four years to get a reputation because I worked on it for a year before I even had the first show. If I call potential vendors for another event, the first question they’re going to ask is, ‘What was your attendance last year?’ And if I say 202, they will hang up the phone and never talk to me again.”
Later in January, Steve Porter was scheduled to take his traveling whitetail display to a show set for Jan. 22-26 in Little Rock, Ark. As he did for the St. Paul show, Porter says he thought about violating the travel ban and hitting the road, only to realize he’d potentially violate the federal Lacey Act if he broke Minnesota law and crossed state lines with his trophy bucks.
The Lacey Act prohibits trade in wildlife, fish and plants that have been unlawfully taken, possessed, transported or sold. While farm-raised deer are considered livestock under Minnesota statute, Porter said, they’re considered wildlife under federal statute.
“That’s a federal felony,” he said. “That’s possible prison and a $200,000 fine.”
So, Porter called the Arkansas show promoter and canceled his appearance, a decision he says cost him $18,000 in income.
“Do you think I’ll get to go back next year? Will he wrap up all his advertising in me to be at that sport show? I’m damaged, possibly for a long time,” Porter said. “I don’t know what this guy’s going to say.”
Fighting for the future
On a bright, sunny Wednesday in February, Porter and his three sons were prepping three of their trophy bucks – Heart Attack, Typhoon and Waldo – for a road trip to a sports show in St. Cloud, Minn. With the transportation ban no longer in effect, no laws would be violated to transport the deer in the 32-foot custom trailer they use for the exhibit.
Still, a cloud of uncertainty lingered.
“I built this farm while I worked in law enforcement for my kids to have something,” Porter said. “I built it for my kids. And I thought, ‘the American dream of a farm.’ And I can do it on not-large acres.
“My kids could stay close to home and I can have grandkids coming around. And I can have daughter-in-laws and I can have fun and I can get out of law enforcement and the farm can function and my kids can make a living closer to home,” he said. “I’ve worked my butt off for this whole goal.”
Porter’s challenge to the expired transportation ban remains in the courts, which ultimately will decide whether a rule he says the DNR had no right to implement was broken. A GoFundMe page set up in early January has raised more than $3,600 to offset his court costs.
“I have a right to go to court and see what’s going to happen,” Porter said. “I could pay $300. And if I lose and they decide to be hard on me and stick me in jail for 90 days, well, my kids are going to know, ‘Dad fought for this business.’
“And I’m going to fight for it.”