The New Hornographers: The Fight Over the Future of Texas Deer

A herd of headless deer, the looming threat of disease and Big Government in Texas's thriving trophy buck industry.

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 United States, was feeding placidly on pelletized grains from a trough inside a heavily wooded, two-acre pen surrounded by a ten-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."

Breeder Mike Wood, co-owner of Madera Bonita Ranch in Kaufman County, appraises his whitetail deer herd.
Brantley Hargrove
Breeder Mike Wood, co-owner of Madera Bonita Ranch in Kaufman County, appraises his whitetail deer herd.
Texas Parks and Wildlife shot breeder James Anderton's entire herd of nearly 80 deer. Pictured is a pile of severed heads, shorn of ears and antlers, that wildlife biologists tested for disease.
Courtesy of James Anderton
Texas Parks and Wildlife shot breeder James Anderton's entire herd of nearly 80 deer. Pictured is a pile of severed heads, shorn of ears and antlers, that wildlife biologists tested for disease.

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 tenth 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 ten-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 that 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 said, 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,'" said 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 that 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. Both Wood and Williams called it a "political disease." They characterized TPW's efforts to control its spread as fear-mongering.

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IT'S. THE. FEED.  If this is a prion disease, than it comes from the animal feed. This is from 30 years of experience in the UK. Mad Cow Disease was and is caused almost entirely by allowing animals to eat brain and spinal tissue infected with the disease.  Not a conspiracy, a well known, BASIC fact that means that in Britain (and elsewhere) it is now strictly illegal to allow culled dairy cows back into their own feed (yes, animal remains were added to herbivour feed for years).  Mad Cow Disease has been pretty much eliminated from Britain after years of strict rules on feed; the number of human deaths has been much lower (so far) than feared - hopefully due to years of enforcing rules on what bits of cow can enter human consumption.

What are you feeding your farmed deer?  Is it standard cattle feed or similar? Does it have cheap slaughterhouse reject animal protein in it?  Then, when you've thought about that... if deer have, basically, Mad Cow Disease... how prevalent is it in the cattle you are eating?

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