87th LegislatureLocal NewsTexas Deer Breeder Sues Over State Agency’s Latest Planned ‘Depopulation’ of Entire Herd

The state has killed hundreds of deer in an effort to stop a disease that has not demonstrably killed a single Texas whitetail yet.
April 26, 2022
North Texas rancher Robert Williams, called “one of the fathers of the deer breeding business” in Texas, bought his first deer for $250 nearly four decades ago.

Now that Williams earns thousands for each trophy buck he breeds, the Texas agencies that regulate the industry are fighting him in court to kill his herd and charge him for the slaughter.

The depopulation of Williams’s herd is meant to curb chronic wasting disease (CWD), a condition that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) fears could spread quickly in breeding pens and transmit to wild deer.

Informed by biologists who say CWD doesn’t pose a real threat, Williams and other breeders call the mass slaughters an overzealous approach that reeks of politics.

Infection at Williams’s Ranch

Deer breeders earn money by breeding impressive bucks and charging for hunts or selling the animals or their semen, usually to landowners. Compared to some of the historic ranches that have sold hunts for decades, deer breeding is a relatively young industry in Texas, and regulation of the industry has developed quickly.

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Under one requirement, deer breeders must send tissue of any deer that die on their property to researchers at Texas A&M to test for diseases.

Three of the does at Williams’s RW Trophy Ranch died of pneumonia after the February 2021 freeze. Williams sent the tissue to the Texas lab and was told that one deer tested positive for CWD, a result he still disputes on scientific grounds. TPWD refused to send the sample to a national lab that Williams says can measure more DNA markers more efficiently than A&M.

“That threw the first red flag up,” Williams says.

“I have argued with every one of them about that… Why should you not have a second opinion?”

According to the petition Williams filed in court, TPWD later refused to let Williams release 49 bucks from the pens to his fenced release site ahead of hunting season, even though the bucks tested negative for CWD.

The agency has since killed all of the deer that Williams sold to other breeders in the last five years and has still not found another positive case of CWD outside of several does inside the breeding pens.

At the moment, Williams’s herd is temporarily protected by a court order. However, his herd would not be the first to die for CWD prevention. The agency has euthanized the herds of other breeders in recent years as part of the same effort to slow the spread of CWD.

One customer bought a pair of young bucks from Williams whose horns were still in velvet and had not hardened. After TPWD ordered the customer to kill them, he asked for enough time to let them shed the velvet and mature so their semen could at least be collected for future breeding. TPWD denied this request.

Williams claims TPWD is taking vindictive action against him and other breeders to protect the interests of established ranchers that formerly enjoyed little to no competition in the trophy hunting industry before deer breeders began building a better buck.

‘Over 330 deer killed. Zero positives.’

State Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) said the deer breeding industry has declined since 2015 when they discovered a case of CWD in Medina County, saying it caused a “panic” that gave TPWD and the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) an opportunity to quash the young industry.

“Their goal at Parks and Wildlife and Animal Health Services is to put the deer breeders out of business because that’s what the big ranchers want,” Hall said.

“And their argument is that it will spread fast in deer breeding pens because of the close proximity of deer and then it will get into the wild and we will destroy the wild deer in Texas. Well, that’s a bunch of baloney. It’s never happened in any other state, and it’s not going to happen here.”

A committee of the Texas House held a committee hearing on September 29 to discuss CWD and its consequences for ranchers and breeders. One testifier was a breeder in Matagorda County named John Boger who had bought a deer that later tested positive for CWD. The agency killed his entire herd, more than 300 deer, and failed to find a single positive case. Boger says each deer would have fetched anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 to sell live.

John True is president of the Texas Deer Association and a partner of Big Rack Ranch, a deer breeding operation east of Dallas. True described the Matagorda County incident as an example of the state’s poor strategy for dealing with CWD, especially compared to existing strategies the state employs effectively against scrapie, a near-identical sheep disease that farmers have known about for three centuries.

“Over 330 deer killed. Zero positives… This is clearly not a process that’s working,” True said.

Under the scrapie eradication program, sheep owners genetically analyze their herd and kill livestock whose genes make them susceptible to scrapie instead of killing the whole herd. As generations pass, this strategy lets the animal population breed around the disease.

True said he trusts most members of the agency commissions but believes TPWD staff, who make recommendations to the commission, are under political pressure from established ranches.

“Let’s just say a certain ranch is selling hunts and they’ve been doing it for decades, and it costs X amount of dollars to go and shoot a trophy buck. What happens when a guy buys a piece of property a mile down the road and brings in some bred does and bucks or whatever and then a couple years later he starts selling hunts?” True said.

“Well, now, he’s taking business from that guy… There is business that is being continually taken away from people who have had no competition, and they’ve got competition now.”

While True stopped short of blaming the institutional heads of TPWD, Williams chose his words less delicately.

“They want to come shoot them with suppressed guns at night. Nobody can be back there. Wouldn’t want you to fly a drone over. I told them, ‘Well, why would you not want me back there taking pictures to show what great heroes y’all are saving all the deer in Texas? You ought to be proud of yourselves,’” Williams said.

“They’re a wicked bunch of people. That’s all I can say. And you can put that in the paper.”

Gauging the Threat of CWD

The veracity of supposed bias against deer breeding naturally depends on what danger CWD poses to Texas whitetail. Former TPWD big game program director and wildlife biologist Horace Gore thinks agency heads have erroneously characterized CWD as a new, dangerous disease when it is actually just scrapie.

“I have kept up with [CWD] for over 20 years, because it has been over-played as an insidious disease of cervids, and, in my opinion, used to harass deer hunters, landowners, and deer breeders here in Texas for the past 10 years,” Gore wrote in an affidavit in Williams’s case.

Gore has also written in the Journal of the Texas Trophy Hunters, which he edits, that Texas state researchers have refused to use available testing methods that would distinguish CWD from the more familiar scrapie. As a result of this refusal, he writes, the state has killed hundreds of deer in an effort to stop a disease that has not demonstrably killed a single Texas whitetail yet.

“As previously stated, TPWD has tested about 206,000 wild whitetails and found 16 positives for CWD/scrapie—in areas where deer are thriving; where deer hunters are hunting, and Texas folks are eating about 15 million pounds of deer meat every year. The 16 positives out of 206,000 are very small and insignificant,” Gore wrote in the March/April 2022 issue of Texas Trophy Hunters.

“More whitetails than that get killed on I-10 every day.”

Terry Hensley, assistant agency director of the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Library, wrote in an email to The Texan that the same pathogen is called scrapie in sheep and CWD in deer.

“The important thing to understand is that once the prion crosses the species barrier, it behaves as CWD in deer or scrapie in sheep,” Hensley said.

However, Hensley said methods of distinguishing CWD from scrapie are laborious and expensive.

Although Gore, Hall, and Williams all say state officials cannot point to any Texas whitetail that has died from CWD, Megan Radke, a TPWD spokeswoman, observed that an actual CWD death would be improbable to spot.

“It’s difficult to quantify the number of deer in Texas that have died from CWD, first because deer breeders are not required to report cause of death if they are able to determine such, and second, it would be quite unusual for someone to be in the right place at the right time to see a native, free-ranging deer die (except for those harvested by hunters or hit by vehicles),” Radke stated.

Issues of State Law

Williams’s lawsuit seeks to enjoin implementation of the Texas law that allows the depopulation because he claims it lacks due process and because TPWD’s slaughter plan would allegedly run afoul of the law’s provisions.

The law requires the agency to conduct an “epidemiological assessment” and only destroy deer that threaten the health of other animals. According to Williams, the state is deliberately avoiding research that would demonstrate CWD does not pose a major threat to Texas deer.

“If the TPWD and the TAHC were to conduct a real epidemiological assessment, they would have to disclose that the ‘disease’ at issue is nothing more than a variant of Scrapie, a disease affecting sheep, that has been known and under control for hundreds of years,” the lawsuit reads.

In response, TPWD says Williams has not shown an adequate threatened injury to assert a constitutional challenge to the law.

“Accordingly, by its own terms, § 43.953 identifies the legitimate, and statutorily recognized, government interest in preventing CWD’s spread. And CWD is currently spreading at RW’s facility, which, despite being a ‘closed’ operation, has had eight positive cases in the past year,” the TPWD response reads.

Williams initially filed his lawsuit in Travis County but failed to secure a court order protecting the herd and refiled the case in Kaufman County, where he won a temporary restraining order. TPWD accused him of court-shopping.

The case is currently on appeal in the Dallas-based Fifth Court of Appeals, which granted Williams the current order protecting his herd. The only upcoming date in the case is the due date for TPWD’s brief, May 10.

Williams said Texas restricts deer breeding far more stringently than some other states.

“What really, really burns me up — and there’s nobody seems to put it in the paper — Louisiana and Oklahoma, you can do exactly what I’m doing,” Williams says.

“In my opinion, the only reason TPWD does that, some of these big ranchers got a lot of money, they don’t like high fence, and they charge a lot of money to come hunt.”


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Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell is a reporter for The Texan, a Texas native, and a huge Allman Brothers fan. He graduated cum laude from Trinity University in 2020 with a degree in English. Isaiah loves playing music and football with his family.