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Natural Resources Minister Bruce Northrup said operators who don't comply will be prosecuted. ((CBC))

Illegal deer farm operators in New Brunswick have until Feb. 1 to tell the Department of Natural Resources how they plan to get rid of their herds.

Natural Resources Minister Bruce Northrup said his staff have hand-delivered letters to 15 operators, advising them they must kill their deer, or ship them outside the province to a jurisdiction, such as Quebec, that allows white-tailed deer farms.

Failure to comply by June 15 will result in prosecution, he said during a news conference in Fredericton on Thursday.

In addition, operators have been told not to release captive white-tailed deer into the wild due to the risk of spreading diseases to other wildlife.

Conservation officers will monitor the locations where animals are being kept captive to ensure white-tailed deer are not released, according to Northrup.

Under the Fish and Wildlife Act, white-tailed deer cannot be kept in captivity, regardless whether they were bred or raised in captivity.

But the department discovered 15 illegal operations with a total of more than 140 deer during an internal investigation launched last fall.

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Biologists warn that captive white-tailed deer pose a risk to native wildlife populations, human health and public safety. (CBC)

"The tragic death in October 2011 of a Saint-Léonard man killed by a captive male white-tailed deer brought to light the illegal practice of keeping white-tailed deer in captivity," Northrup said.

Donald Dubé, 55, of Saint-Léonard, was attacked and killed by a buck in his backyard pen.

Northrup said operators can harvest their deer for personal use only. Meat and other products from white-tailed deer cannot be sold, traded, exported or transferred to another person, he said.

The other option is to transfer the animals to another jurisdiction, but that requires approval from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Biologists warn that captive white-tailed deer pose a risk to native wildlife populations, human health and public safety.

Permits are available to keep some non-native deer species such as elk, fallow deer and red deer in captivity for agricultural purposes, said Northrup.

Department staff will work with people keeping non-native species to ensure they have the necessary permits and abide by the terms and conditions set out to minimize concerns related to the spread of disease, he said.