For eight hours, rifle reports echoed across the Anderton Whitetail Ranch in Hunt County. In the larger paddocks, a wildlife biologist standing in the bed of a white Texas Parks and Wildlife truck picked them off with a scoped .22- or .17-caliber rifle mounted to a tripod. Another shot them in the smaller pens, where the deer couldn't run far. The kills weren't always clean. Some lurched away until another well-placed bullet finally brought them down. In all, the agency killed 71 bucks, does and yearlings on Dec. 6, 2010.
They took brain stems for testing, and left the headless deer behind. The Anderton men, though, weren't there to see the awful deed done. James and Jimmie were sitting in federal prison after pleading guilty to one count of wildlife trafficking and transporting stolen property in 2009. That was why the ranch was strewn with dead deer. Texas Parks and Wildlife said that the Andertons couldn't provide evidence of the state of origin for every animal, and so they all had to be wiped out to prevent the Texas incursion of a highly transmissible, neurodegenerative killer of deer known as chronic wasting disease.
The men said the deer had been bought in Arkansas, a state with no documented cases of the disease so far. But because it can be diagnosed only through autopsy, the agency said there was only one way to be sure. Of the six animals tested, none were infected. Five months later, the agency returned to destroy seven more animals.
"To me, it was just senseless," James' wife, Sharon, told Lone Star Outdoor News the day after. "You come out here and start shooting ... I won't ever forget that."
Neither would the Anderton men. James and Jimmie are suing TPWD in federal court, claiming the agency violated their constitutional rights by depriving them of property -- $700,000 of it, they claim -- without due process. The complaint poses a legal question that has yet to be definitively answered in the courts: Who ultimately owns the deer? Are they wildlife, and thus the property of Texas and its people? Or are they livestock belonging to the Andertons?
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Texas Parks and Wildlife asked the State Attorney General for an opinion in 2005, then withdrew the request a week later, perhaps not wanting to know the answer. It has long contended that all deer belong to the state, but that authorized breeders can sell them.
There's a raft of pending legislation right now to clarify some of these issues, like providing recourse to breeders whose permits have been denied. The Andertons say that after being awarded permits 10 times, TPWD refused to grant a renewal for 2010 through 2012 (likely because of the wildlife trafficking charge). When breeders lose their permits, they have 30 days to dispose of the deer, or TPWD will do it for them. In court, the Andertons will argue that the government can't simply confiscate or destroy property without allowing its owner to contest the decision.
It's not just the Andertons who want the rules relaxed. There's a $652-million deer breeding industry that says the TPWD bureaucracy is burdensome and rule-crazy. A bill in the Texas Senate seeks to give oversight to the Texas Animal Health Commission. Another in the Texas House of Representatives would institute an appeals process for revoked permits.
As it becomes tougher and tougher to make ends meet in the farming and ranching business, hunting and deer breeding have replaced some of that income in rural economies. The question before the courts and the legislature is what role the government should play.