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.

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 they do 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 tonsular biopsy, but the deer must be sedated, making for a lengthy process.

James Anderton pleaded guilty to trafficking wildlife.
Sebron Snyder
James Anderton pleaded guilty to trafficking wildlife.
Max Dream, the Madera Bonita Ranch's prized buck, is a semen-producing cash cow.
Mike Wood
Max Dream, the Madera Bonita Ranch's prized buck, is a semen-producing cash cow.

"We certainly look forward to a day when there's another option out there," Lockwood said.

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 said. 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 for it 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 said. 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 said, 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 said.

He cautioned that it's difficult to prove just what exactly is behind the declines. Other factors such as 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 said. "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's 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.

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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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