RALEIGH — The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is defending a mandate that has ruffled the feathers of some backyard chicken owners and supporters across the state.
On July 22, the department released a statement regarding the requirement of all chicken owners to register their birds — regardless of number — with the state through the N.C. Farm ID program as a preemptive measure due to the threat of highly pathogenic avian influenza, expected to hit later this year.
Joe Reardon, assistant commissioner, said the department’s goal is to protect commercial and backyard flocks both from exposure to the virus.
“We recognize that agribusiness is the No. 1 industry in our state and we want to work diligently to preserve this segment of our industry,” he said in a telephone interview on Monday.
Reardon said that state agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler didn’t enter the decision lightly.
“This action the department has taken is based on the lessons learned from the other states,” he said.
According to Reardon, the strain of bird flu has had a “significant impact” in 21 states, resulting in the depopulation of nearly 50 million birds so far this year.
He said Minnesota lost 20 percent of its turkey industry and Iowa had its egg-laying population decreased by 10 percent.
“It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” he said. “The potential impact is unprecedented and can be catastrophic.”
Reardon said one thing the department learned from other states is: “Know where your backyard flocks are.”
“There is a real high probability this virus will be transported south this year during the southern waterfowl migration,” he said. “North Carolina being centrally located in that migration places the state at a high risk. With the potential issue, it could represent one of the biggest disease outbreaks we’ve seen.”
He said the purpose of the registration is so the department has a framework of communication so backyard flock owners can have situational awareness.
“(Registration) shouldn’t be seen as overreach of government,” he said. “We’re here to work with our industry collectively.”
If the virus is detected in an area, Reardon said, it can be expected to be prevalent in the environment up to five years.
“We’re asking everyone to register with the department to minimize the potential impact,” he said.
Although a state news release said registration was required, Reardon said there are no penalties for non-compliance.
“At this point, there are no plans to pursue anything beyond a request beyond voluntary registration,” he said. “We have no intent on being the chicken police.”
While looking into the rule-making history of the mandate, Raleigh attorney David Williams found a determination letter dated July 1 from State Veterinarian Doug Meckes to Gov. Pat McCrory, who gave the measure the green light the following day.
Another use of emergency power was approved June 10 — the same day the determination was made — which put a hold on live bird shows, auctions and sales. An announcement was made the following day.
Williams also discovered that the effective date of these mandates is the date of the governor’s approval — meaning the latest was in play well before any public notice was made.
“In a self-governing system, we should be very reticent to employ emergency powers that deprive folks of personal liberty and property rights,” Williams said. “We certainly shouldn’t ever hide the exercise of those emergency powers behind an opaque wall of bureaucracy, nor require the efforts of an investigatory attorney to uncover it.”
Last week, liberty activist Nicole Revels created the Facebook page “NO to NC Chicken Registration” in opposition to the mandate. By Thursday evening, the page had more than 1,000 “likes.”
“I question why the Department of Agriculture went through the process of having the governor sign an emergency measure mandate if they intend to keep the registration process voluntary,” she said Thursday. “If they intend for it to remain voluntary, why not simply ask people to register, rather than state that registration is required?
“The fact that the mandate was signed yet hidden from the public for weeks, combined with the confusion over whether the program is voluntary or required, causes me to second-guess anything that the Department of Agriculture is stating about their intentions,” she continued. “If they intend for it to remain voluntary, they should solidify their intent by taking action to retract the mandate.”
Susan Kelly, director of the Richmond County Cooperative Extension office, said she has not heard any complaints from local chicken owners.
Richard Goforth, area specialized agent for poultry with the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service based in Monroe, said he’s only had a few calls regarding the registration throughout his 31-county region, including one from the Hamlet area.
“For the most part, I haven’t heard many actual complaints,” he said, just those wanting to more about the process. “Only one person (from Rowan County) expressed unease or unhappiness about having to do so.”
Reach reporter William R. Toler at 910-817-2675 and follow him on Twitter @William_r_Toler.