Texas is slaughtering hundreds of sick deer over the protests of an 85-year-old rancher

Conservationists in Texas killed 249 captive deer on a private ranch this week, ending the longest-running challenge in recent years to the state’s policy of euthanizing rancher-raised deer herds infected with chronic wasting disease (CWD).

The slaughter ends a three-year deadlock with game rancher Robert Williams, 85. His persistent legal challenges had raised the prospect that the deer ranchers who supply the state’s highly fenced game ranches with big antler dollars would adopt a strict euthanasia policy aimed at protecting wild deer from new CWD infections can hinder.

A herd of captive deer stands in the shade of a tree at the RW Trophy Ranch on July 27, 2023.A herd of captive deer stands in the shade of a tree at the RW Trophy Ranch on July 27, 2023.

A herd of captive deer stands in the shade of a tree at the RW Trophy Ranch on July 27, 2023. Roque Planas/HuffPost

Like mad cow disease in cattle or scrapie in sheep, CWD causes brain proteins known as prions to misfold, leading to prolonged death from neurodegeneration. Biologists widely consider the spreading disease to be the greatest threat to North America’s wild cervid herds, a family that includes deer, elk, moose and caribou. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends against eating meat contaminated with CWD due to concerns that the disease could jump to humans, as mad cow disease did.

Texas wildlife officials generally kill all captive deer in places where deer test positive for CWD, and then require extensive sterilization procedures, including removing a layer of topsoil from deer pens and burying them six feet deep. CWD-infected sites cannot house captive deer for at least five years.

Williams, a CWD skeptic who eats infected deer meat without concern, waged a three-year legal battle to prevent the state from killing the deer on his ranch southeast of Dallas, enlisting the support of Texas’ Republican state legislature, Bob Hall and right-wing rocker Ted. Nugent. Williams encouraged other breeders to follow suit. He begged Texas officials to release his money so wounded veterans could hunt for free.

The state’s ability to enter private breeding pens to euthanize sick deer is well established in Texas law, which considers the deer to be wild animals and therefore public property. But a Kaufman County judge repeatedly issued restraining orders to prevent the massacre and ordered a trial to determine whether Williams had a property interest that could hinder the depopulation.

After months of legal wrangling, the Texas Supreme Court ruled last month that the depopulation could proceed, although the dispute with the Kaufman County court was not resolved until May 24.

“This is a task we never take lightly and is always a last resort, but it has proven to be the most prudent and standard practice for managing prion diseases in wildlife,” the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wrote in a statement.

The legal battle ultimately proved financially disastrous for Williams, who took on the costs of feeding approximately 500 captive deer, which he could not sell or release to paying hunters. The value of the land, related to its attractiveness for deer hunting, has declined.

“I won some battles, but I lost the war,” Williams said. “They just ruined me.”

Robert Williams admires the mountains made from sheds of captive deer he raised on the RW Trophy ranch on July 27, 2023.Robert Williams admires the mountains made from sheds of captive deer he raised on the RW Trophy ranch on July 27, 2023.

Robert Williams admires the mountains made from sheds of captive deer he raised on the RW Trophy ranch on July 27, 2023. Roque Planas/HuffPost

He and his daughter, Maree Lou, killed three deer themselves — including a domestic doe they considered a pet and were allowed into the house — to prevent wildlife officials from shooting them.

Texas wildlife officials banned the Williams family from entering the breeding pens because the deer were euthanized Tuesday, Williams said. But he said they could hear the muffled sound of what he said were subsonic pistol rounds being fired repeatedly.

Texas wildlife officials dispatched most of the deer using suppressed centerfire rifles, according to an agency spokesperson. In three cases they used pistols to dispatch individual deer.

“When I walked by and looked at those empty cubicles where that money was, I just cried,” Williams said. “I couldn’t help it.”

However, conservationists welcomed the euthanasia of Williams’ herd, considering it a necessary measure to protect native wildlife.

“Euthanizing those deer is very good for wild deer,” said Kip Adams, communications director for the National Deer Association. “We know CWD was in this place…The longer these deer are allowed to live, the more opportunity they have to impact other deer.”

The state of Texas has struggled to contain an outbreak of CWD in deer farms over the past three years. Deer typically spread the disease to each other through bodily fluids such as saliva.

Williams’ ranch is one of the first in a series of unexplained cases to have surfaced in breeder pens since spring 2021. Williams’ RW Trophy Ranch was located in a CWD-free county and had not shipped or received new deer in several years. years before the outbreak.

Captive deer represent a small but lucrative corner of the Texas hunting industry. Federal law generally classifies wildlife as a public resource managed by the states. Texas is one of about a dozen states that allow private citizens to raise deer, while classifying the animals as wildlife rather than livestock.

Breeders like Williams use selective breeding and high-protein feeds to raise money with antlers much larger than those deer normally grow in the wild. Breeders then sell that money to high-fenced game farms that charge prices in the tens of thousands of dollars to shoot one.

The small size of breeding pens unnaturally concentrates deer, which can facilitate the spread of CWD once the disease emerges. During the time Williams was preventing depopulation, about 254 of the deer he raised tested positive for the disease, for a prevalence rate of 72%, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife.

When the first case of CWD was discovered in March 2021, the ranch’s pens housed 637 deer. The herd declined by more than half in the three years that followed — a rate of 2% per week, according to state officials.

The state is still awaiting test results showing how many of the 249 deer euthanized this week at the RW Trophy Ranch were infected with CWD, but wildlife officials expected many would test positive.

“During an inspection of the deer at the ranch on May 14, 2024, TPWD staff observed a number of deer exhibiting general signs of clinical CWD, including drooping ears and disorientation,” Texas Parks and Wildlife wrote in a statement. “One deer was visibly shaking and had tremors.”

Another 12 deer tested positive at release sites on or associated with RW Trophy Ranch, including at least one wild doe.

“The results of the surveillance of deaths at the RW Trophy Ranch demonstrate the devastating impact of an uncontrolled outbreak of CWD in a breeding facility,” the TPWD statement said.