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‘Angst and frustration’: Emergency rules on chronic wasting disease frustrate Texas deer breeders

A Carman Mountain white-tailed deer seen in Big Bend National Park.
Robbie via Flickr
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(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
A Carman Mountain white-tailed deer seen in Big Bend National Park.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department recently enacted new emergency rules for the deer breeding industry, after an increase in cases of chronic wasting disease at breeding facilities.

Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, is a contagious neurological affliction that affects animals like deer, elk and moose. It can spread in a variety of ways, including between animals, and through contaminated food and water.

The disease is rare but a serious threat to deer, as well as members of the hunting industry: White-tailed deer hunting generates over $4 billion of economic activity in Texas each year, according to the Natural Resources Institute at Texas A&M University.

Deer breeding is a big part of that. Breeders manage herds of white-tailed deer to develop traits like big or unusual antlers. These deer are raised in pens and eventually sold to high-fence game ranches. They spend their life in a controlled environment but can still contract CWD by interacting with free-roaming deer at a fence line or eating a contaminated substance.

So far, CWD has been detected at nine Texas deer breeding facilities this year, the most since the disease was first discovered in the state in 2012.

“That certainly was of grave concern to the agency, by people who are concerned, you know, by white-tailed deer as a public resource across the state,” said John Silovsky, wildlife division director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

In response, the department issued an emergency order on July 25 that changed the rules for deer breeders. It has two main provisions: All deer in breeding facilities must now have an external identification tag, usually attached to their ear, and deer must test negative for CWD before being moved to another breeding facility.

Previously, ear tags were optional for bred deer. Any deer sold to a hunting ranch had to test negative for CWD before being released, but deer transferred between breeders did not have to be tested before the emergency rule went into effect.

“This additional surveillance we can gain by adding that requirement for that kind of movement will give us better information that we’re not moving CWD from one facility to another,” Silovsky said.

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White-tailed deer are hunted to control the population at Stasney's Cook Ranch in Texas.
USDA NRCS Texas via Flickr
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(CC BY 2.0)
White-tailed deer are hunted to control the population at Stasney's Cook Ranch in Texas.

The emergency rules have frustrated deer breeders, though, many of whom take more issue with how they were issued than with the rules themselves.

“Obviously as an industry we know we are going to be regulated,” said Kevin Davis, executive director of the Texas Deer Association, which represents breeders in the state. “I think the angst and frustration that we face right now is we’re being regulated through emergency order. In our opinion that’s indicative of a regulatory agency working around the Texas Legislature to drive their agendas.”

The Legislature is responsible for writing laws about how the state will manage CWD – and it’s done that. But the emergency rules were issued unilaterally by Parks and Wildlife – which has issued at least nine emergency orders related to the disease since 2019 – without debate or public comment.

“The thought process that we need to test [for CWD] between breeders is probably not a bad thought process,” Davis said. “But the way we got there was not inclusive of the body being governed.”

Deer breeders have an interest in preventing the disease from entering their herd. A positive case can be devastating: If just one deer tests positive, usually all the deer in that herd are euthanized, as well as any deer that’s been in contact with that herd over the past five years.

“Total depopulation remains the best method to contain and arrest the disease where it exists,” Silovsky said.

» MORE: ‘Early detection, rapid response’: Invasive axis deer spotted at Big Thicket

 The long-term solution to CWD may not have anything to do with regulation, however, but with genetics.

“In 10, maybe 15 years, these deer breeders have made quantum leaps in antler size in the deer that they’re producing. And they’re in the process of doing the same thing with the genetics in regard to CWD,” said James Kroll, a professor emeritus at Stephen F. Austin State University who spent much of his career studying how to manage the disease.

Researchers have identified genetic markers that make white-tailed deer more resistant to CWD, and some breeders are now cultivating those traits in their herds. This has been done before with sheep, who are susceptible to a disease similar to CWD called scrapie.

“What the sheep people did was put together a program – they figured out there was a genetic link, and they started breeding sheep that were resistant to it – not immune, but resistant,” Kroll said. “And they have pretty much reduced the occurrence of scrapie in sheep by doing so.”

 The emergency rules will be in place until at least late November, and possibly much longer. TWPD staff will recommend that they be made permanent at the department’s next board meeting on Aug. 23.

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