The Fight Over The Future of Texas' Deer
A procession of Texas Parks and Wildlife trucks pulled slowly past Sharon Anderton's home in southern Hunt County not long after daybreak. They carried ATVs and pulled short trailers that, for now at least, were empty. As Anderton caught the scene on video, a child could be heard in the background, asking, "Where are they going?"
Anderton knew where the wardens and wildlife biologists were headed. She climbed into a gas-powered utility vehicle and puttered after the trucks, steering along dirt roads that wound past the overgrown sod fields of Bermuda grass she once cultivated with her husband, past the 10-foot fences surrounding a lucrative herd of nearly 80 whitetail deer they bred and sold.
Wardens were positioned at gates leading to all of her pens and paddocks. They conferred in clutches, as though they were hashing out the final details of a coordinated police raid. She spoke with one of the wardens briefly and returned to the utility vehicle. "They're gonna tell us where we can go," she said, her voice strained, close to breaking. "But it'll probably be behind the fence."
Her cell phone rang. It was her husband, James. "They're not going to tranquilize them," she told him. "They're gonna shoot 'em. With bullets."
She cursed under her breath. The gearshift was sticking. Anderton worked it loose and made for one of the larger paddocks. It was five acres or so, and it held about two dozen does and a buck. One of the wildlife biologists was already padlocking the gate behind him as she pulled up. Anderton strode over to the high fence and watched as two men in khaki hunting jackets moved out into the paddock, each carrying a .22- or .17-caliber rifle in one hand and a tripod in the other. The herd streamed away from them, moving low, fast, fluid through the wild vetch and ragweed, white tails flashing. They bunched at the fence, no more than 100 feet from Anderton.
One of the men leaned against a utility pole and waited. The first shot rang out as the deer rushed past him again. Then a second, and one of the animals disappeared into the grass. For hours they worked the herd back and forth this way across the paddock, picking them off one by one. Most went down with a single, well-placed shot. Some took several bullets, gut shot and staggering. At the snap of the report and the whistle of the bullet, others sprang into the air, flailing, and fled as best they could on shattered limbs that swung loosely. With nothing but a few scrawny mesquites for cover and no way over the fence, the deer crowded the corners until the rifle reports stopped and none of them moved in the grass anymore. In other parts of the ranch, where the 70-by-100-foot pens were built with swing gates for working the deer into chutes like cattle, the killing was much easier. By dusk on December 6, 2010, Texas Parks and Wildlife had destroyed more than 70 of Anderton's prized animals, including a buck with a 272-inch rack. A white helicopter with what appeared to be a forward-looking infrared camera mounted to its nose flew lazy loops over the ranch, scanning for survivors.
TPW would return five months later to shoot a handful they'd missed.
Deer breeders across Texas — representing an estimated billion-dollar industry — reacted with horror to the extermination of the Anderton herd. They called it a stunning display of brutality by one of the state's most powerful law enforcement agencies. Much of the leadership in Texas Parks and Wildlife, they believed, had little but contempt for the deer breeders it was required by state law to police. And they feared TPW would shut down by any means necessary an industry that violated a closely held, almost canonical belief — that whitetail deer were a public trust, belonged to the people of Texas and should not be corralled, bred and sold like livestock.
The agency, for its part, said it destroyed Anderton's herd to test for a fatal contagion that is similar to mad cow disease. Experts say chronic wasting disease is decimating populations in parts of Wisconsin, Colorado and Wyoming and so far has been detected in nearly 20 other states. It was identified last year in West Texas mule deer for the first time. The agency has quarantined much of Hudspeth County, hoping to prevent the illness from spreading to the state's four million whitetail deer. James Anderton, the chief warden said, was a "bad actor" whose deer were untraceable and potentially infected. TPW needed to know for certain so it could locate other breeders who may have purchased deer from him.
The agency's supporters — many of them conservationists, wildlife managers and low-fenced hunting ranches — believe Anderton and his ilk threaten wild deer herds with disease. They say pen-raised, genetically cultivated bucks with incredible (and occasionally grotesque) spreads of antlers represent not only the commodification of wildlife, but the outright perversion of traditional hunting culture.
Breeders call it antler envy.
Either way, it's a fight with fronts in the courts and in the Legislature. And the victor may just shape how we breed and hunt Texas' most iconic game.
Mike Wood whispered with a mix of pride and reverence, "There he is. It's Max Dream!" High atop a sound-proofed, air-conditioned deer blind on the Madera Bonita Ranch in Kaufman County, Wood peered through binoculars at the crown jewel of his herd. Max, one of the top five whitetail bucks in the U.S., was feeding placidly on pelletized grains from a trough inside a heavily wooded, two-acre pen surrounded by a 10-foot fence.
His antlers, even this early in the growth process, were more befitting of an elk than a whitetail deer. The rack's main branches were like live-oak limbs, and its kickers and drop tines and points twisted and canted in all directions, crowding like branch coral. The huge, perennial growths of bone scored 342 inches, derived by measuring their length and every point sprouting from them. He'd be the highest-scoring whitetail deer ever, if the Boone & Crockett Club, the arbiter of hunting records, allowed consideration of pen-raised bucks.
Wood declined to disclose how much Max Dream was worth. "It's enough that I'd never have to work again," he said. "He's a once-in-a-lifetime buck."
In magazine advertisements in which Max is backlit in messianic grandeur, his value can be determined in other ways. Wood sells half-cubic-centimeter straws of the animal's cryogenically frozen semen (or about a 10th of a teaspoon) for $5,000 a pop. And breeders will pony up just for a shot at a fawn boasting the great Max Dream as sire. Bear in mind, a buck in his prime with an electroejaculator inserted in his rectum can produce 60 straws at a time.
Though Max never leaves the confines of Madera Bonita, FedEx spreads his cryogenically frozen seed far and wide.
Many of his offspring could be found in the pen next to his, where yearling bucks already sported 10-point, even 12-point racks — estimable antlers for a full-grown wild buck but commonplace among Wood's farm-raised youngsters.
As we drove back toward the main lodge, he gestured out the window at the native buffalo grass and the bluestem that grew lush and thick, and at the brimming ponds they'd dug. It was about more than money, he said. When his business partner Art Browning bought the place from a rancher in 1995, the land was a shambles. It had been grazed down to the nub and took years to rehabilitate. The way he sees it, outfits like his preserve native habitat that might otherwise be destined for the dozer and the concrete slab. It's a business that's keeping failing cattle ranches, struggling through drought and narrowing profit margins, in the family.
What's more, Wood believes deer breeding is democratizing trophy bucks. "People pay $25,000 to the King Ranch to shoot what we'd call a scrub buck. Or they can come here for $7,000, $8,000 — for half the money — and shoot a genetically superior buck."
That may be one reason, he says, why deer breeders have encountered so much opposition to the legislation they've pushed over the last two sessions: one bill to establish their ownership of bred deer, another to transfer oversight of the industry from Texas Parks and Wildlife to the state animal health commission, which deals exclusively with livestock. Yet even uncontroversial measures like microchipping the deer in place of plastic ear tags and tattoos faced impassioned resistance. Wood believes it all springs from massive, low-fenced wild game ranches whose bucks can't compete anymore. "It's all about the money," he said.
Greg Simons, a wildlife biologist and outfitter, said the industry had to have known it would face resistance when it pushed a slate of controversial bills in 2011 and again this year. "This was legislation they knew would be hot-button issues: privatization of natural resources, transfer of regulatory authority. These were very sensitive issues that would not conveniently come into the capitol and go unnoticed."
The industry nevertheless cheered a bill recently signed into law that will grant breeders whose permits have been denied by TPW the chance to contest the decision. The agency has never revoked a permit, which would allow a breeder the opportunity to plead its case before the State Office of Administrative Hearings. Instead, TPW denies the permit when it comes up for renewal, when the breeder has far less recourse to appeal.
"It was quite alarming that come renewal time, Parks and Wildlife could tell you, 'We're not going to issue a permit or renewal and, by the way, you have so many days to close down your operation and vacate the premises of any deer,'" says Texas Deer Association President Gilbert Adams. "When someone has hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars invested in that farm, that's concerning and alarming."
But most breeders I encountered claimed the absence of due process was typical of an agency that polices rather than promotes the industry. "Texas Parks and Wildlife is regulating us to death," Wood said.
When I pressed him for specifics, he rattled off a list of bureaucratic backlogs and headaches. Robert Williams, one of the first deer breeders in the state and known by some in the industry as "The Godfather," admitted he'd personally never had a problem or "a cross word" with the agency. Yet if you want to get a breeder truly riled, ask him about chronic wasting disease (CWD). Both Wood and Williams called it a "political disease." They characterized TPW's efforts to control its spread as fear-mongering.
In cases like Anderton's, Madera Bonita co-owner Art Browning said the slaughter had more to do with retribution than disease prevention.
According to TPW's numbers, between 2009 and 2010, the year Anderton's deer were destroyed, the number of breeder deer the agency dispatched for CWD testing rose 350 percent, to 289 animals. The following year, that number doubled. The TPW big game program's director, Mitch Lockwood, said he isn't sure what might explain the sharp increase, apart from the discovery of big herds of untraceable or smuggled deer coming to the agency's attention more often. And when they do, he said the agency does what must be done to prevent an epidemic.
For now, that means a post-mortem sample taken from the animal's spinal column. There is a live tonsillar biopsy, but the deer must be sedated, making for a lengthy process.
"We certainly look forward to a day when there's another option out there," Lockwood says.
Wood doesn't buy it. "There's no doubt CWD is just used to keep us under their thumb."
Disease experts, of course, see it differently. "If you look at a deer in the clinical phase of the disease, I find it hard to understand how you'd call it a 'political disease,'" U.S. Geological Survey CWD coordinator Bryan Richards says. It's a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, so named because the brain of an animal in the end stage of the disease will be pocked with tiny holes like a sponge, where neurons used to be. It usually takes a few years to kill a deer, but once an animal begins to display the symptoms — listlessness, rapid weight loss — it's dead within weeks.
"Take everything you know about disease and throw it out the window," Richards says. The fatal illness is caused by a prion, which is nothing more than a common protein found in animals. But at some point, its sequence of amino acids mutates, and it becomes deadly. Because the body can't recognize the prion as an infectious agent, it puts up no immune response. It can be transmitted between deer through excrement or animal-to-animal contact. Prions remain dormant in the soil for years, decades even, and are impossible to eradicate.
CWD has been detected in wild populations in 22 states and in 50 different breeding farms. It was first identified in Colorado in 1960, at a government research facility. The disease moved quickly through animals in tight concentrations. It sprang up in another facility in Wyoming that was known to trade elk back and forth with the one in Colorado. In mule deer near Boulder, it's been detected in 40 percent of bucks and has caused a "significant reduction," Richards says, in doe lifespans. Over a 20-year period, they've documented a 50-percent decline in that population.
In a 65,000-square-mile range in Wyoming, some 50 percent of mule deer bucks are infected with CWD. Their numbers have declined by 50 percent over the last decade. In parts of southwest Wisconsin, disease rates among whitetail deer have climbed 30 percent a year after its initial discovery in 2002. "That type of growth is unprecedented," Richards says.
He cautioned that it's difficult to prove just what exactly is behind the declines. Other factors like drought and land development could be contributing. But the disease is spreading, and he fears that its best vector is a trailer going 60 mph down the interstate. He finds it suspicious that the disease emerged in Wisconsin, some 900 miles away from where it originated, on the other side of the Mississippi River and in a state with a vibrant breeding industry. "The Canadian food-inspection agency has spent significant time and resources tracking movement in facilities," Richards says. "They believe they can track how CWD has moved between a majority of those facilities and that it is in fact through the transfer of animals — deer farmer to deer farmer.
"The idea that there's no involvement by this industry, that's probably not true."
The same year CWD was detected in Wisconsin, Texas Parks and Wildlife officials closed the state's border to imported deer. Wildlife officials said the move was an attempt to protect a nearly $3 billion hunting industry from the ravages of the disease. And as much as they worry about its impact on the state's deer, just as troubling is the shadow it could cast on Texas' reputation among hunters nationally. If CWD found its way into high-density whitetail populations in the Hill Country, local economies in hunting meccas like Llano could be devastated.
In 2012, however, the disease walked right into the state, carried by wild mule deer. In the Hueco Mountains spanning the Texas-New Mexico border, the agency believes 30 percent of the mule deer population is infected.
James Anderton waded through the overgrown wild vetch around his empty deer pens. Sections of neglected fence bowed and rusted. The black canvas he'd hung along the working chutes was tattered and fluttering. During fawning season, when Anderton would artificially inseminate the does laparoscopically, there'd be several hundred deer in these pens. He'd bottle-feed the females himself or nurse them on blindfolded goats to make them gentle. He could sell a trailer full of 25 yearlings for $2,500 apiece. In good years, when his does dropped two fawns each, he made more money off deer than he did his 300 acres of irrigated Bermuda sod.
"I could walk in my pen, push them out the gate and walk 'em down the chute and work them like cattle," he said. "We didn't have to tranquilize the deer or nothing on our farm.
"My deer were nothing but pets."
He still wished he had been there when Texas Parks and Wildlife came to exterminate his animals. But he was sitting in a Texarkana prison camp at the time, serving a 25-month sentence. He thinks the investigation was personal, stemming from a lawsuit he filed against TPW in 2006 for failing to issue his breeder permit in a timely fashion. "That's what made them mad," he says. "They don't want people to contest them."
Nonetheless, the FBI and Texas Department of Public Safety caught wind that Anderton and his son Jimmie were involved in a conspiracy to move stolen trucks, tractors and trailers across state lines. The same informant told them in 2006 that Anderton was trucking deer in from out of state. According to investigative records, it's clear investigators also suspected Anderton was breaking state law by capturing wild deer. In 2003, the year after Texas closed its borders, a man named Raymond Scott Sly said he hitched his pickup to a low-slung, shop-built trailer with plywood partitions at Anderton's ranch, according to the records.
He followed Anderton to a Walmart in Greenville, where the deer farmer bought a road atlas. Anderton put his finger on Bald Knob, Arkansas, northeast of Little Rock. If Sly got pulled over, he instructed him to tell the officer they were fallow deer — an exotic, legally transportable breed similar to whitetail deer.
Sly hauled the trailer north and before dusk came to a gravel road, with a high fence on one side. As he pulled up to his destination, he told investigators, he was scared. There was an Arkansas Game and Fish truck parked next to a double-wide trailer. A man he thought might have been Native American came out and waved him in, told him he'd come to the right place. The Arkansas warden would later tell investigators during an interview that he didn't think it was his job to worry about where the deer he sold were headed, even if the end customer was flouting federal law. So Sly backed the trailer up to a barn and he and the game warden pushed a herd of does and a few bucks inside. One of them balked, and the warden darted the doe with tranquilizer, then administered a reversal once they'd loaded her. Sly handed the warden a check from Anderton and steered south into Texas. He had an auxiliary tank on his Dodge, so he wouldn't have to stop at a fueling station where curious eyes might pry.
As he was instructed, he left the trailer-load of deer at Anderton's hunting ranch in Delta County, near the guest house. Two weeks later, he was paid $2,000 for his trouble. Years later, he was paid a visit by state and federal investigators. By 2009, Anderton and his son received federal indictments for trafficking wildlife and stolen property. From 2003 to 2005, investigators said, they'd moved 125 deer across state lines. These weren't high-quality deer, according to one U.S. Fish and Game agent involved in the investigation. They were shooters, he said, worth about $62,000 all told. The Andertons pleaded guilty in August 2009. Anderton surrendered himself to a federal prison camp in March 2010. The month before, even though he'd admitted to trafficking deer, the breeder license he'd been waiting on finally came through. That's because TPW's own rules didn't allow the agency to strip him of his license for a federal prosecution. So, in August 2010, TPW changed the rules and revoked Anderton's permit.
Four months later, agents showed up at his ranch to carry out the destruction of the herd. It would have been roughly five years since the federal complaint accused him of bringing in the last shipment of deer. TPW said Anderton couldn't provide proof of origin for the animals. They may have been infected with chronic wasting disease, the agency reasoned. "They could've come from anywhere," a spokesman told Lone Star Outdoor News in 2010 (the agency wouldn't comment on the case because of pending litigation).
"They had zero evidence that a deer that came from out of state went into my breeder pens," Anderton claims, adding that each animal had a state-issued unique number. The deer he was accused of transporting, he says, went to his game ranch in Delta County, not the farm in Hunt County. If they'd come into contact with infected animals, they'd be dead by now. "This was all done in 2002, 2003 and 2004. They killed my deer in 2010 and 2011, five or six years after all this stuff was supposed to happen. They knew about it in 2005!" he says. "They wanted me out of the deer business."
TPW leadership, for its part, seemed to agree. In documents obtained by WFAA-TV, the former chief warden sought changes in the rules in order to "shut [Anderton] down." In an internal message, he wrote that he'd "already put too much info in emails about putting Anderton out of business."
In a lawsuit filed on his behalf by Dallas attorney Steven M. Griggs in April, Anderton is seeking the return of his breeder permit and compensation for his deer. His complaint attacks the foundation of TPW regulatory authority over deer breeders — the Texas statute that says all wildlife belongs to the state. "... A person's legally obtained property may be seized at any time by the state, without due process of law and without any administrative or legal remedy," he argues. This, he claims, violates his constitutional rights.
TPW, in its response, says Anderton could only possess deer legally as long as he held a permit. When the rules changed, his was taken away. He was "legally bound to dispose of the deer and TPWD had legal justification to take the actions it did," the agency wrote in its response.
Anderton may not exactly be the upstanding test case the deer breeding industry was hoping for, but right now he's the best they've got.
"That's what the industry is waiting on," Madera Bonita Ranch's Browning says. "Someone to say, 'Those are my deer.'"
It took a while for two Bobcat tractors to dig a 10-foot-deep trench big enough for more than 70 deer. Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists had severed their heads, their antlers and their ears. They took samples from the spinal cords. Sharon Anderton picked up the corner of a black tarp and stared at the pile of heads. She knew these deer to a one, but shorn of ears and antlers, they were unidentifiable.
"It's one of those things you always remember," she says. "You're never going to forget that."
If a judge orders TPW to compensate Anderton for them, the decision may prove private ownership in a state where every whitetail, even those conceived artificially and born in a pen, belongs ultimately to Texas and its people. It would signal a fundamental shift in the concept of wildlife as an irrevocable public trust. That outlook dates to the backlash to market hunting and the near extinction of whole deer species for the sale of pelts and venison. Beginning with Teddy Roosevelt's presidency, a movement to set aside federal wildlife refuges took shape. The secretary of agriculture created hunting seasons and bag limits, effectively ending the mass harvesting of game species for personal gain. Deer populations rebounded.
Now wildlife conservationists can't help but wonder if this isn't somehow a creeping return to the bad old days. "We recognize that wildlife is a public trust, and it belongs to all people in the state, held in trust and managed on behalf of the people by private landowners," says Doug Slack, director of the Wildlife Society's Texas Chapter. "[Breeders] consider me old-fashioned, but they're promoting new legislation that's promoting ideas and concepts that came up in the 1800s."
But because game species like whitetail deer are no longer in danger of extinction, the industry wonders whether the prevailing public trust model is outdated.
"There's a lot of religious zeal and elitism in my profession that hangs tenaciously to that old belief that wildlife belongs to everybody, and that wildlife in commerce is an evil thing," says Dr. James Kroll, a deer breeder and director of Stephen F. Austin State University's Institute for White-tailed Deer Management and Research. "They're looking at the days of market hunting, but those were days when there was no regulation.
"Academicians and wildlife scientists still have this attitude that is good in many ways but needs to evolve with the times."
Yet these times are witnessing a disease that researchers scarcely understand and don't know how to control beyond quarantine and the preemptive slaughter of deer like Anderton's, placed belly to belly at the bottom of a mass grave. And it's an industry that survives only by moving deer like trading cards, swapping genetics from herd to herd, farm to ranch, in every corner of the state. What if the disease finds its way out of far West Texas and into a deer farm?
Says TPW's Mitch Lockwood: "You begin to see the spider-web effect that traps and tangles many deer breeders."
For now, at least, it hasn't. When the test results for Anderton's deer came back, his herd was given a clean bill of health.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.