In an effort to keep a potentially fatal disease from decimating the state's deer population, Florida is immediately closing its borders to the importation of out-of-state deer.
The ban comes as a number of deer farmers have reportedly ramped up importation to increase their stocks because of the expected prohibition.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Friday unanimously agreed to prohibit the importation of deer and other cervids in an attempt to keep Chronic Wasting Disease from reaching the state's deer population.
"I think the economy impacts are important, but the economy impacts would be far greater and outweighed if CWD (the disease) gets transmitted into our state," Commissioner Ron Bergeron said during a meeting in Pensacola.
In addition to an executive order to immediately close the borders, the commission directed staff to develop additional rules intended to reduce the risk of spreading the disease, increase inspections and educate hunters about transporting carcasses.
Commissioner Adrien Bo Rivard said it's better now to "err on the side of protecting the long-term well being of fish and wildlife," though he's philosophically opposed to the addition of new regulations. He said the ban could be lifted if improved preventive measures are found.
The vote comes with backing from several state lawmakers, including Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who was among a group of legislators who initially opposed the ban but changed their tune in July, saying the scientific case for closing the border was stronger.
The disease has spread since being first detected in free-ranging populations in the mid-1980s around northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming. The disease has been described as similar to Mad Cow disease, with animals becoming emaciated and often being found isolated and trembling.
Chronic Wasting Disease is not known to affect people.
Critics of the ban, including the Southeast Trophy Deer Association, contend that closing the border will actually increase the chance for the disease to turn up in Florida. They envision an increase in smuggling, increasing the risk that deer from impacted areas will be brought into Florida to make up for a drop in the amount of deer available for hunts.
Steve Munz, a deer farmer from Sumter County, argued that the state and proponents of the ban were using misleading information and proposed the commission instead increase permitting costs as a means to improve enforcement to check for the disease.
"I'm not for taxes and more money, I'm for what makes sense in life," Munz said.
Several opponents of the ban recommended the state consider changing a requirement that imported deer come from herds that have been certified disease-free for at least five years. They suggested doubling the standard to 10 years.
Shawn Schafer, executive director of the North American Deer Farmers Association, said the state should consider an increase in monitoring of herds rather than prohibit the cross-border movement of deer.
"For Florida to say (the disease) is not here, you're not testing enough," Schafer said. "If you test enough animals you're probably going to find it."
But powerful backers of the ban said the rule is critical to preserving the future of hunting in Florida and for those who enjoy the outdoors.
Marion Hammer, representing the National Rifle Association and the Florida Veterinary Medical Association, contended that a few deer farmers and preserve operators were putting their self-interests above the long-term outlook for hunting in Florida.
"Leaving the border open even a crack exposes us to damage that is not reversible," Hammer said during the meeting, which was broadcast across the state by The Florida Channel. "If CWD gets into Florida we will never be the same, it can never be reversed. It will affect our wildlife, our soil, and potentially our citizens."
Other groups and organizations in support of the ban include the United Sportsmen of Florida, the Quality Deer Management Association, the Florida Bowhunters Council, the Florida Chapters of the Safari Club International and the Humane Society of the U.S.
Philip Bryan, vice president of the Florida Deer Association, said protecting native deer species is "the most important thing."
"Since we didn't close it in June, in the month of August more deer has come in in one month than in any other time," Bryan said.
The commission in June delayed a vote so more information could be gathered on the potential impacts of a ban, both economically and in the effectiveness of keeping out the disease.
Commission staff noted Friday that since the start of the year 800 cervids --- 600 just in August --- have been permitted to be imported by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The number is up from 295 permitted in all of 2012.
The state has about 300 deer and game farms and 100 hunting preserves.
Clifford Shipley, a Chronic Wasting Disease expert from the University of Illinois' College of Veterinary Medicine, said the actual source of the disease remains unknown and there is no known cure.
"It is a death sentence to a deer farm," Shipley said.
If an animal is found with the disease, the entire population in the area, free-ranging or farmed, would need to be eradicated in order to prevent further spreading.
Currently, to reduce the chances of the disease entering Florida, the state also prohibits most deer from being imported from states and Canadian provinces where infected populations have been found.
The disease has been found in 22 states, with eight added to the list since 2010. None of the states where the disease has been detected are in the Southeast.
Florida now joins 18 other states that have banned the importation of deer, including all of Florida's neighbors.
The new rule does exempt zoos, which would be allowed to bring in most cervids --- except for white-tailed deer --- from out-of-state facilities that have been cleared of the disease.