By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING – The owner of an elk breeding facility that was shut down during a year-long chronic wasting disease – CWD – quarantine waited too long to sue the state for damages, the Court of Appeals has ruled.
Ranch Rheaume LLC in Memphis, St. Clair County, also failed to follow the proper procedures to pursue its claim against the state, the court said.
The dispute is rooted in the August 2008 discovery of CWD in one whitetail at a deer-breeding facility in Kent County. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said it was the first such incident in Michigan.
As a result, DNR and what was then the Agriculture Department placed a statewide quarantine on all privately owned elk and deer facilities and prohibited the movement of privately owned elk, moose and deer.
“CWD is a contagious neurological disease affecting deer, elk and moose. It causes a characteristic spongy degeneration of the brains of infected animals resulting in emaciation, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions and death,” according to the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance, a coalition of hunting and wildlife organizations.
There is no vaccine or treatment for the disease, but experts say they don’t think it can be transmitted to people or most livestock.
The state classified Ranch Rheaume as having a “high risk of CWD infections,” in part because it didn’t comply with legal provisions that regulate privately owned elk-breeding facilities, the court said.
Andrew Rheaume started the facility in 2000.
It was quarantined in September 2008, meaning it couldn’t sell or move its herd. The state released it from quarantine in September 2009.
The suit filed in September 2012 contended that the “overly broad” quarantine “decimated” Ranch Rheaume’s business and caused the death of 24 animals, according to legal documents. It sought damages for violation of equal protection rights, due process of law and property rights.
In court papers, the ranch argued that it fully complied with all regulations and “should have been one of the first facilities released from the quarantine” because it was “bio-secure,” with all animals “bred, born and raised” on site “without any co-mingling, precautions that it took for the express purpose of being both disease-free and genetically superior.”
The facility “was breeding some of the finest elk in the country, including prize-winning bulls with sets of antlers, some with as many as seven points per side and with beams as thick as tree branches,” it argued.
Ranch Rheaume’s lawyer, Jonathan Frank of Bloomfield Hills, said the animals died because the ranch couldn’t afford to feed them since the quarantine barred it from selling animals or meat.
In 2008, the state quarantined 554 herds. Thirty-three facilities remain under quarantine, 20 of them hobby farms that don’t move animals and seven that are closing, said Jennifer Holton, the communications director for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
“The facilities still under quarantine, generally speaking, do not move deer or have not yet completed certain testing requirements,” Holton said.
She said Ranch Rheaume was the only quarantined facility that sued the state.
In its court papers, the state said the decision to impose the quarantine wasn’t easily made and that “the quarantine proved successful. No subsequent cases of CWD have been identified in Michigan.”
The state now has 382 registered cervid – deer, elk, moose and caribou – facilities, including Ranch Rheaume, according to the department.
Kent Syers, president of United Deer Farmers of Michigan, said his organization wasn’t involved in the lawsuit but is disappointed that it wasn’t filed on time so it could be decided on its merits.
The statewide quarantine was “indefensible,” he said, adding, “The whole industry suffered.”
“The industry took a hit in Michigan. We used to be one of the top states in the country, and now we’re not,” said Syers, who is affiliated with All Out Whitetails in Muskegon.
“It’s not easy to bring a court case against your own government, and I applaud this farmer’s attempt to protect our private property rights.”
A lower-court judge dismissed the case without trial.
In a unanimous decision, the Court of Appeals held that Ranch Rheaume didn’t submit its claim within six months of the start of the quarantine or, at the latest, within six months of the release from quarantine of another elk ranch in February 2009 – seven months earlier than it was released.
In addition, Ranch Rheaume missed the three-year deadline to start the lawsuit, the court said.
The new decision didn’t decide the merits of the allegations.
Frank said his client will ask the state Supreme Court to review the case.
By ERIC FREEDMAN