Texas’ attempt to kill 500 deer hits a major hurdle

TERRELL, Texas — On a July afternoon, Maree Lou Williams reached out to offer some animal crackers to a group of white-tailed bucks huddled under the shade of an oak tree.

White-tailed deer are notoriously shy, but a pair approached them. They wore yellow ear tags numbered 60 and 98, but she knows many of these deer by their first names. She bottle-fed some of them as underweight fawns with legs as thin as pencils.

Taking care of her has become bittersweet. The state of Texas plans to kill all of the approximately 500 captive deer at RW Trophy Ranch to stem the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a contagious brain disease widely recognized by wildlife officials as the number one threat to the state’s deer herds.

“It breaks my heart,” Williams said, fighting back tears as she recalled nursing a struggling fawn named Curly, whose low birth weight appeared unrelated to CWD. “Should I have just put him to sleep? Is it worth trying to save a 2 pound deer?”

CWD causes brain proteins called prions to misfold, leading to prolonged death from neurodegeneration. The same phenomenon is called “mad cow disease” when it affects cattle, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. However, there are no confirmed cases of transmission of CWD to humans every time a hunter a rare case develops The origin of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease invites speculation. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against the consumption of CWD-contaminated meat.

RW Trophy Ranch has become the most controversial flashpoint in the state’s desperate fight to control a CWD outbreak in deer hatcheries that began two and a half years ago. The hunting farm, owned and operated by Maree Lou’s father Robert Williams, was among the first to see positive deer results on routine screening tests.

It’s not clear how CWD got on the ranch, but it spread quickly. So far, 124 deer have tested positive for the disease since January 2021, making it the most common outbreak in the state. According to Alan Cain, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s big game director, the surge in positive results there indicates “exponential growth.”

“Almost every deer that has been reported as mortal is CWD positive,” Cain said. “The concern is that it could somehow get out of this facility and create an even worse situation.”

Since the outbreak began, wildlife officials’ biggest fear has been that captive deer would transmit the virus to the state’s wild deer, making containment more difficult. This may have started. This year, a wild deer tested positive for CWD outside of the breeders’ pens at the highly fenced RW Trophy Ranch, as did a second deer killed at a release site and traced back to Robert Williams’ herd.

Because of the risks to feral herds, Texas wildlife agencies typically kill any captive deer in breeding facilities that test positive for CWD, then remove the top layer of soil from the stalls and bury them 6 feet deep.

Nineteen deer breeding facilities have tested positive since early 2021. State wildlife agencies have depopulated seven of them. an infected website, Ox Ranch, can continue to raise deer while the state is doing research there. The prospect of depopulation outweighs the others.

Deer breeders have gone out of business en masse since the outbreak. The number of licensed deer ranchers now stands at 635, according to the state — a 32% decrease since the current outbreak began in 2021. The number of Texas deer ranchers peaked at 1,395 in 2014, a year before state officials first began discovering isolated animals cases of CWD began in the state’s captive deer.

The only person who has flatly refused to let the state kill the deer on his property is Robert Williams, who is waging a lone war against what he sees as the indiscriminate and inhumane slaughter of the animals he has been raising for three decades .

And in a surprising series of developments, Williams continues to thwart the state’s planned eradication of his herd. Four times, the state gave Williams ten days’ notice that wildlife officials would euthanize the deer in its enclosures. All four timesHis attorney, Jennifer Riggs, has convinced a judge to issue an injunction to stop the state from killing the deer.

State wildlife officials insist that Texas has always won captive deer euthanasia litigation, which typically involves whether breeders have ownership rights to animals the state classifies as wild animals. But after more than two years, the dispute over the fate of the captive deer at RW Trophy Ranch remains unresolved as Williams fights a two-fronted legal battle to keep the deer alive at his ranch.

Williams has moved his fight against euthanization to Travis County, where the state capital Austin is located and where conflicts typically arise over the state’s authority to kill captive deer. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department attorney Todd George said it will be months before the appeals court decides the case. If Williams loses again on appeal, he could attempt to take the case to the state Supreme Court, but there is no guarantee the case will go there.

But Williams also denies state authority to kill deer on his Kaufman County property, southeast of Dallas, where a judge issued the latest restraining order earlier this month. On Friday, Williams won an injunction barring the state from killing the deer on his property pending a court hearing scheduled for February next year. “We won the battle, but we didn’t win the war,” Williams said. “I did nothing wrong.”

Both cases paving the way for Williams raise the prospect that a state court might recognize expanded rights for breeders, Riggs said.

“One of our main concerns is that they could come in and kill the deer without due process,” Riggs said. “There is no hearing to consider whether the deer actually pose a threat to other species. They don’t have to prove why they want to kill the deer.”

The resulting standoff has left wildlife agencies scrambling for solutions as the disease spreads. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission this week passed emergency rules to curb the spread of CWD, including a two-mile containment zone that includes the area around RW Trophy Ranch. The National Deer Association, the nation’s largest deer conservation group, this week called on its members to submit public comments in support of the changes.

“We do not want to create any danger or risk to wild deer by breeding captive deer,” said Torin Miller, senior policy director of the NDA. “We cannot control the movements of wild deer, but we can control the movements of captive deer.”

Williams has made several offers to state officials, except allowing state biologists on his property to shoot his deer at night with noise-suppressed rifles, which Williams sees as wasteful and cruel.

He is asked to give only the money that passes the tonsil and rectal exam for CWD. He is aiming for a similar research plan as Ox Ranch. He argues that they should at least allow him to euthanize the deer by letting them run down the chutes he uses for vaccination, rather than shooting them in the neck as they scramble around their pens in the dark.

This summer he offered to let wounded veterans come to his ranch and shoot them for free.

“I’d rather do that than let them put them in a hole and cover them up and waste them,” Williams said. “If they refuse, they get hearts of stone.”

But wildlife officials believe the CWD outbreak is too widespread on the site to continue to be used as a research site, and they believe live testing is too unreliable to study a population where the disease is prevalent is common. Even if they could agree on a herding plan for the RW Trophy Ranch, it would require such a low density of deer that it would make little economic sense to continue running it as a game farm. In cases like Williams’, state officials refer growers to federal compensation funds, which cover only a small portion of losses.

“I said, ‘I don’t want your money — I’m not broke,'” Williams told HuffPost. “I might be broke before it’s over, but I don’t want to kill my deer.”

Bambi Jr

Robert Williams, seen here in a showroom at his RW Trophy Ranch, says he offered a compromise of letting wounded veterans come to his ranch and shoot the deer for free, rather than having state officials kill the animals en masse.
Robert Williams, seen here in a showroom at his RW Trophy Ranch, says he offered a compromise of letting wounded veterans come to his ranch and shoot the deer for free, rather than having state officials kill the animals en masse.

Robert Williams, 84, has full, cotton-white hair and a ruddy complexion and leathery skin that come from a lifetime of toiling under the Texas sun. The 1,500-acre hunting farm he bought in 1994 sits on a hilly plain in Northeast Texas, dotted with pillar oaks and pecans and surrounded by high fences to keep the deer indoors.

Wild native deer live on the property, but he raises those that hunters pay to hunt in a series of enclosures totaling 68 acres, dotted with ponds and metal fixtures that provide shade.

Williams is proudest of a lineage that goes back to a buck named Bambi. He bought this buck more than 30 years ago when he still lived on 22 acres in Sunnyvale and raised cattle, elk and deer – a long-cherished exotic imported from game farms in India and now common in Texas.

“Old Bambi was mean,” Williams said. “He messed everything up there. In fact, one day he jumped at me. He would have killed me now.”

One day, Bambi got into a fight with an ax deer, suffering a sting in his stomach and killing him. But his son, Bambi Jr., laid the genetic foundation for the wide-framed buck with classic antlers that Williams likes best.

Robert Williams, owner of RW Trophy Ranch, stands in front of a wall made of shoulder rests made from deer antler scales he has raised over three decades of his career.
Robert Williams, owner of RW Trophy Ranch, stands in front of a wall made of shoulder rests made from deer antler scales he has raised over three decades of his career.

By the time Bambi Jr. grew into a three-year-old buck with a respectable 170-inch rack, Williams had purchased a much larger property and began turning his attention to raising white-tailed deer. Passers-by stopped and watched Bambi Jr. and the rest of the herd through the chain link fence.

An admirer offered Williams $1,000 for deer sired from the buck. As his herd grew, the offerings kept getting bigger.

“I remember the first time one of my deer brought in $25,000, I just couldn’t believe a deer would do that,” Williams said. “Then I sold a dollar one time and it brought in $260,000.”

A Texas company

The business Williams built was made possible by Texas’ unusual deer laws. In the United States, wildlife such as white-tailed deer are considered a public resource owned by citizens and managed by state wildlife agencies. At least Five states ban keeping deer in prison. At least 20 states allow deer to be bred in captivity but treat privately owned deer as livestock. Texas is one of about a dozen states that allow individuals to breed captive deer and still classify the animals as wild animals.

The unusual arrangement allows ranchers to selectively breed deer while supplementing their forage, making it possible to raise bucks far larger than those in the wild. Big-budget hunters pay prizes in excess of $20,000 for the opportunity to shoot one.

This system has led to a lucrative trade in captive deer and buck semen to supply a highly fenced hunting market that blurs the lines between livestock and wildlife. Boone and Crockett, the conservation group that developed the most widely used system for Census of big game animals in 1906does not recognize deer kept in corrals or killed behind high fences.

And in recent years, conservation groups have become increasingly concerned about CWD infection rates in breeding facilities.

Wildlife biologists worry that uncontrolled spread of the disease could threaten the health of entire herds of cervids, a family of mammals that includes deer, elk, elk and caribou.

CWD was first discovered in Texas in wild mules near the New Mexico border in 2012. Four years later, the disease first appeared at a breeding site in Medina County west of San Antonio. The next year, positive testing in free-ranging deer began in the same county.

But the past three years have dealt an almost existential blow to Texas deer breeders as the disease continues to emerge in isolated breeding grounds, often with no clear explanation. Because diseased prions can remain in the environment for years withstand temperatures up to 1,832 degrees FahrenheitSome speculate that vultures spread the disease by feeding on infected deer carcasses and then regurgitating diseased prions into water tanks used by deer and livestock.

Be that as it may, deer herders keep the animals close together and routinely buy and sell deer across the state, allowing the animals to travel much farther than they normally would. Both practices allow contagious diseases to spread much faster than in the wild.

Breeders who receive animals from a CWD positive location usually lose their ability to transport deer. Emergency rules passed Last month, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department required all captive deer exposed to hunters to retain their ear tags and subject them to mandatory CWD testing.

“No one is looking for breeders — that’s the situation we’re in,” said Justin Dreibelbis, executive chairman of the Texas Wildlife Association, a conservation group. “We keep getting one positive system after the other. We continue to move deer in a trailer across the state at 70 miles per hour, much faster than a deer can travel naturally. If we’re serious about treating this disease, let’s look at the biggest risk and address it.”

A captive deer roams over a corral at RW Trophy Ranch in Kaufman County, Texas.
A captive deer roams over a corral at RW Trophy Ranch in Kaufman County, Texas.

While breeders dominate a unique and profitable area of ​​the hunting industry, they make up only a small portion of the overall hunting economy, Dreibelbis noted.

Texas is home to more than 5 million deer, of which only about 105,000 live in breeding facilities Texas A&M University survey released in May. Only 5% of Texas landowners supplemented their native herds with captive deer, the survey said.

Williams argues that the biologists at Texas Parks and Wildlife and low-fenced ranchers want to put breeders like him out of business because the breeders raise deer so large.

“The whole thing is they want to put the deer farmers out of business,” Williams said. “That’s because we breed bucks with huge antlers. And if we had only raised small 160, 170, 180 inch bucks, none of this would have happened.”

However, Dreibelbis said the response was really about safety.

“I don’t want anyone to go out of business or lose money — no one wants to see that,” he said. “But ultimately in Texas we have a hunting economy that revolves heavily around white-tailed deer, the vast majority of which are native, free-ranging white-tailed deer. We must continue to focus on our native white-tailed deer. While that may be unfortunate for some, I think we need to keep an eye on the state deer herd.”

“I’m not worried one bit about that.”

Williams believes the concerns about CWD are overblown. Deer are dying in droves from much more common diseases like epizootic hemorrhagic disease and bluetongue without eliciting the same outcry as CWD. The deer in his enclosures only tested positive for CWD after they died of something else, such as pneumonia, he said.

Although always fatal, deer rarely live long enough to die from a slowly progressive neurodegenerative disease like CWD. The effects at the population level remain unclear, although some researchers have shown this CWD-infected deer are more likely to die than those without the disease, likely because they are caused by neurodegeneration more vulnerable to predatorsincluding human hunters.

Many biologists and wildlife conservationists worry that if CWD spreads unchecked, it could lead to deer population declines. And some suggest that given sufficient exposure, the disease could spread to humans, as has been the case with mad cow disease.

The incidence rate of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease has slowly increased from 1 case per 1 million people in 1980, the world average, to about 2.5 cases last year. according to CDC.

However, improved identification and reporting of an unusual disease could account for this growth two clusters with a total of five cases in Michigan last year may indicate that human infection rates of CJD are much higher than health officials currently estimate and may be linked to venison consumption.

But some biologists share Williams’ skepticism. Few deer live longer than five years in the wild. According to Horace Gore, a former deer specialist at Texas Parks and Wildlife, this change in population limits the spread of all diseases.

“I have no concerns about the future of white-tailed deer and deer hunting,” Gore said. “There is no world where CWD could be future harm to white-tailed deer or deer hunting. There are too many factors controlling it. The turnover rate is one.”

Some of the white-tailed deer bred for hunting at RW Trophy Ranch have tested positive for the chronic wasting disease CWD.
Some of the white-tailed deer bred for hunting at RW Trophy Ranch have tested positive for the chronic wasting disease CWD.

Nor is he concerned about the possibility of CWD spreading to humans. If it had that potential, the disease would become more common, Gore claimed.

Williams isn’t worried about the disease spreading to humans, either. During the last hunting season, he and his cousin shot six native deer on the ranch and then took them to a CWD control station that wildlife officials set up in the area. One of the deer Williams shot, with a stout body and worn teeth suggesting a ripe old age, gave a positive result the next month — the first case of CWD detected in a free-roaming deer in Hunt County.

Texas wildlife agencies viewed the CWD-positive deer as disturbing evidence that the disease had spread from its penned deer to the wild deer outside. Williams saw this as another reason why he should be allowed to release his money.

“Supposedly I have CWD deer here at the ranch,” Williams said. “Why would they care if they kick these people out and let these military personnel who are risking their lives and become crippled and divorced and let them go and shoot them? Let’s not ask anything of them.”

When the CWD test came back, it had already processed the dead deer into jerky.

“I eat some of this beef jerky every week,” Williams added. “I’m not worried one bit about that.”

The fact that the state classifies captive deer as wild animals has historically posed a huge business risk for breeders, making it difficult to challenge decisions to kill a captive herd in court.

Breeders have tried to convince Texas courts that they have a proprietary interest in the deer they breed.

But Williams’ attorney Riggs wants to break new legal ground by arguing that as a landowner, Williams still has rights to protect the deer on his property. And she claims state wildlife agencies aren’t testing enough wild deer to prove the breeders are causing the problem.

“They don’t have the evidence to support their actions,” Riggs said. “This whole idea that breeder deer would pass it on to free-roaming deer fails when the free-roaming deer already have it.”

Williams can only wait for now. The game farm is unable to produce bucks for the hunting season and is unwilling to euthanize them. It is in limbo and causes enormous costs. He has four full-time employees and spends between $15,000 and $20,000 each month on feed alone.

The value of his ranch, where he lives in a stately brick home with four white pillars, plummeted after the infection struck. No deer breeder would buy it. The proliferation of CWD and the government restrictions that come with it make it difficult to sell as a game farm.

“It cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars to be stubborn and not let them kill her,” Williams said. “They say deer belong to the people. But people don’t come to feed and take care of my deer.”

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