Investigation finds deer illegally imported into area in 2005

This was a case of illegal immigrants, but not of people who entered the United States without passports or immigration green cards.

The illegal "aliens" in this case had four legs, not two, and some of them were in Barnwell County.

Authorities from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have gotten indictments in a three-year long investigation involving the illegal shipping of white-tailed deer into the area from Ohio.

James Schaffer, a Charleston resident who owns Graham's Turnout Hunt Company in Bamberg County, worked with Danny L. Parrott of Kimbolton, Ohio to import 54 deer from Ohio to Schaffer's hunting lands in Bamberg and Barnwell counties. At several times between August and November of 2005, deer were shipped to South Carolina, according to information provided by DNR.

Parrott had falsified records that indicated the deer were being shipped to Florida when in fact they were taken to Graham's Turnout, according to indictment documents from the U.S. District Court for the southern district of Ohio.

Schaffer had the imported deer released into two hunting enclosures. One enclosure encompassed more than 500 acres, according to a DNR press release on the case.

One of the enclosures included land in Barnwell County, said DNR Sgt. John Bedingfield.

Graham's Turnout is located in Bamberg County, just over the county line from Barnwell County.

Schaffer has plead guilty in the case and agreed to pay $50,000 to the S.C. Harry Hampton Wildlife Fund and another $50,000 to the National Wildlife Trust Fund as well as $150,000 in fines, according to the DNR press release.

The case has raised two major concerns with DNR authorities.

One, DNR officials fear the importation of out-of-state deer could infect South Carolina deer with chronic wasting disease, a deer malady that so far, has not been found in deer populations here, said Charles Ruth, the deer and turkey project supervisor for DNR.

"Each animal is a biological package and you just don't know what you are getting," he said of possible diseases and parasites that out-of-state deer may be harboring.

Chronic wasting disease is a sickness that has been noted in deer in other parts of the nation but has not yet been found in South Carolina, said Brett Witt, a DNR spokesman.

"Chronic wasting disease has not been detected in South Carolina and not in the Southeast. That has not occurred in this state. South Carolina is several states away from incidents of chronic wasting disease," Witt said.

Chronic wasting disease, or transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, is the deer equivalent of "mad cow disease" that ravaged the British cattle industry several years ago. Chronic wasting disease affects the nerve and brain centers of deer.

South Carolina does not allow out-of-state deer to be imported here to prevent the spread of wildlife diseases elsewhere from gaining a foothold here, which could jeopardize the $200 million hunting industry the state has, Ruth said.

"Historically, we have had many (import) requests and denied them," he said.

"Deer hunting is very important to this state, especially when you get down to Allendale and Barnwell counties," Ruth said.

Bedingfield echoed Ruth's comment.

"The hunting industry is really important in these smaller rural counties or sparsely populated counties," he said.

Since South Carolina has a large, viable population of deer for hunting, so why would someone want to import deer from other states?

"I think it's the whole ‘big buck' thing. We've always had issues with that here," Ruth said.

Deer from Ohio and the grain belt states are bigger and have larger bodies and racks than South Carolina deer, which accounts for the appeal of importing them, said Bedingfield.

"Their intention there was to provide the monster buck," Bedingfield said.

The federal and state governments have spent millions of dollars on monitoring commercial livestock animals that are transported from state to state, but they do not have the infrastructure available to do the same for wild animals, Ruth said.

More than 200 deer from Schaffer's enclosures - including some native South Carolina deer - were rounded up and killed to test them for the possibility of chronic wasting disease. No evidence of the disease was found. The resulting venison was distributed to three food banks to give to needy South Carolinians, according to the DNR press release.

Bedingfield said the case was a joint investigation between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and DNR.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had the big role in it. They coordinated it," he said.