For some Texans, there’s big money in deer. Breeding and raising whitetail deer, running deer hunts on ranches, it’s all part of a multibillion-dollar industry. But since 2015, deer breeders and the state have been locked in an old-fashioned standoff.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission has restricted the movement of this deer population in an effort to contain chronic wasting disease. Meanwhile, the Texas deer industry says this hurts its livelihood, and it plans to push lawmakers to make changes during the 2019 legislative session.
Every August, the Texas Deer Association hosts its annual convention and deer auction in San Antonio.
All 120,000 square feet of the convention hall is lined with mounted trophy bucks, and kiosks with vendors advertising everything from hunting excursions to the latest in deer feeders, deer stands and hunting gear.
Patrick Tarleton is the association’s executive director and calls the expo “the greatest deer show on Earth. This is the largest deer industry convention in the country — in the world. We’ll have over 3,000 people walking through the doors.”
Across from the exhibit hall, an auctioneer sifts through a PowerPoint presentation of the pedigreed deer up for sale.
Ranchers who purchase these animals will use them to breed bigger bucks with more majestic antlers.
For those who don’t want to buy a whole deer, you can even buy “material” for artificial insemination. That’s what Tom Crews, of HC Whitetails near Alice, is here for.
“They sell semen from deer and they are really good genetics and people ‘AI’ them. It’s a really good deal,” Crews said.
Each deer’s auction card describes the animal lineage and is labeled with a very important statement: “This animal is free of chronic wasting disease — or CWD — and is eligible for transport in Texas and Mexico.”
That’s important for ranchers who want to avoid introducing CWD into their herds, said Dr. Brodie Miller, a veterinarian with the Texas Animal Health Commission.
“In simple words, chronic wasting disease is a progressive, degenerative and ultimately fatal neurological disease found in deer, elk, moose and other members of the deer family,” Miller said.
He said CWD attacks a deer’s brain stem, causing the animal to stop eating and drinking, and eventually die.
Miller said the disease is spread through abnormal proteins in the animal’s skin, saliva, urine and feces.
“These abnormal proteins called prions are shed from infected animals which ultimately can infect the environment where other deer and cervids live,” Miller said.
When comes to whitetail deer in Texas, CWD has only shown up in whitetail deer bred in captivity. That’s why the Texas Parks and Wildlife commission imposed rules restricting ranchers from moving these animals if they haven’t been tested, or if any deer in their facility have tested positive for CWD or come in contact with a deer testing positive for CWD.
Many Texas deer breeders feel the state’s rules unfairly target their industry. They’d like to see rules that are less restrictive for the relocation of these deer.
Marty Berry owns Berry Whitetails Ranch, which sits right on the waterfront of Nueces Bay near Corpus Christi and called the state’s rules a waste of public resources.
“We have pens of deer that have been together since birth and you have two in the pen with it and the rest of them don’t have it. Why is it two of them have the disease and rest don’t get it, that’s pretty phenomenal, what a waste of money,” Berry said.
Carter Smith, executive director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, disagrees.
“Animal science, disease management 101, tells us there is a higher probability for disease transmission risks for animals that are concentrated or are in high numbers or moved from place to place,” Smith said.
Every Aug. 23, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission holds an annual public hearing so that anyone can voice their concerns about the management of Texas wildlife, including deer.
But back at the convention and auction, Patrick Tarleton, with the Texas Deer Association, felt commissioners have not addressed their concerns about what they label as overregulation, so they won’t be attending the public hearing this year.
“The disease caught our regulatory agency off-guard, and what we found out is there wasn’t any emergency in most of our facilities. They’ve now found four, five facilities with CWD, and it has no effect on our population here in Texas,” Tarleton said.
Officials with Texas Parks and Wildlife disagree and said the disease has the potential to infect Texas’ total 3.6 million whitetail deer population if left unmanaged.
So, Tarleton and others are taking their concerns to state lawmakers to address during the 2019 legislative session, asking that they create regulations that better suit their industry.