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 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.

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.

"That's what the industry is waiting on," Madera Bonita Ranch's Art Browning said. "Someone to say, 'Those are my deer.'"

It took awhile for two Bobcat tractors to dig a ten-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 said. "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," said 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," said 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?

"You begin to see the spider-web effect that traps and tangles many deer breeders," said TPW's Mitch Lockwood.

For now, at least, it hasn't. Because when the test results for Anderton's deer came back, Texas Parks and Wildlife gave his dead herd a clean bill of health.

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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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