The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission passed an immediate ban on the importation of deer from other states and countries on Friday, a move intended to protect Florida deer from a deadly mad cow-like disease.
The commission voted unanimously to prohibit deer farms, hunting preserves and others from importing the animals to stop the spread of chronic wasting disease.
"Our mission is to manage resources for the long-term wellbeing of Florida's people. Based on the science, geography and risks associated with this disease, I am comfortable that we need to close our borders," Commissioner Adrien Bo Rivard said following more than three hours of public comment on the issue Friday morning.
Rivard and other commissioners said it was important to enact an immediate ban because the number of deer imported to the state has spiked since they first raised the issue in June.
"We will be criticized for allowing a de facto grace period. Chronic wasting disease may well have come in to our state during that window," Commissioner Brian Yablonski said before voting to approve the ban.
Unlike mad cow disease, chronic wasting disease has not been shown to transfer to humans who come into contact with contaminated meat. Florida is one of just seven states that have not yet documented cases of the disease, which cannot be treated or prevented.
Groups from the National Rifle Association to the Humane Society spoke in favor of closing the state's borders.
But owners of small deer farms and hunting preserves said the move was an overreaction and would give an unfair advantage to the owners of larger farms and preserves with established herds.
"We have dealt with false information and hype for 10 years. This is part of an agenda from people who want to do away with the deer industry and they are making a mountain out of a molehill," said Laurie Seale, a Wisconsin deer breeder. Despite the presence of chronic wasting disease in her state, the deer population has continued to flourish, she said.
Supporters of the ban said the state should do everything it can to keep Florida's deer population free of the disease.
"No one knows right now if chronic wasting disease will become transmittable to humans like mad cow," said Marion Hammer of the Florida Veterinary Medical Association and the National Rifle Association. "Some say chronic wasting disease is a cousin to mad cow, but I think it is more like a sibling. They are the same type of disease. Some preserve owners are putting their own personal, financial interests above the future of hunting in Florida."
Mad cow disease, whose scientific name is bovine spongiform encephalopathy, causes a spongy deterioration in the brain and spinal cords of cows and has proven deadly to humans who consume contaminated meat. Chronic wasting disease causes weight loss and eventually death in deer.
The commission also voted to continue studying the disease and to take other measures aimed at protecting Florida deer.