SALEM — Arguments over whether lawmakers should prohibit mink farms in Oregon recently centered on whether coronavirus risks from such operations are either unjustifiable or exaggerated.

Proponents of Senate Bill 832, which would ban mink farming within nine months of enactment, argue the animals pose a unique danger for spreading the coronavirus and amplifying its hazards to humans.

Mink are the only species known to get infected by the virus and then transmit it back to people, said Jim Keen, a veterinarian who serves on the veterinary council of the Animal Wellness Action nonprofit.

Mink

Joe Ruef holds a mink at his farm in Mount Angel. Ruef recently testified against a bill that would ban mink farming in Oregon.

The animals are housed in stressful conditions under which the virus can more readily spread, adding to the risk of new variants developing, Keen said.

The species is also considered a top candidate for the “missing link” that transmitted the coronavirus between bats and humans, starting or accelerating the pandemic, he said.

One Oregon mink farm had an outbreak of the coronavirus during which three of the animals escaped, said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health program director for the Center for Biological Diversity nonprofit.

Aside from the threat to public health, escaped mink can imperil related species such as river otters, fishers and martens, Burd said.

“This is not an attack on Oregon agriculture,” she said.

John Easley, a veterinarian and mink industry consultant, countered that mink farms have developed new biosecurity measures aimed at thwarting coronavirus spread, in collaboration with federal and state agencies.

A vaccine against the coronavirus has been developed for mink, which will further reduce the chances of transmission and mutations, Easley said.

Denmark, which euthanized 17 million mink after an outbreak, had 1,100 mink farms in an area one-third the size of Wisconsin, so the odds of virus transmission among them was much higher, he said.

Even so, the animals clear the disease quickly and pose a minimal threat to the public health, Easley said. “The decision to cull an entire industry was not warranted. The science did not support that.”

Opponents of the bill claimed that battling the coronavirus pandemic is merely a pretext for animal rights organizations to ban fur production, which has long been their aim.

The bill’s critics also argued that prohibiting a single agricultural sector would set a terrible precedent for the state’s farm industry.

Mink farmers testified that provisions in the bill that would provide them with loans and training could not compensate for the loss of their operations.

Joe Ruef, a mink farmer near Mount Angel, said his family has been in the industry for 50 years and would have no other uses for the associated equipment and would squander valuable genetics if the bill passes.

“We make every effort to keep our employees safe and our mink safe,” he said.

If the bill is approved, it would prohibit farmers from doing anything but culling and burying the animals, which is unconstitutional, said Nick Masog, a mink farmer near Lebanon.

“The bill as written is nothing more than the seizure of private property by the government without just compensation,” he said.