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.

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Brantley Hargrove