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After long court battle, state kills 249 deer exposed to chronic wasting disease

USDA NRCS Texas via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

For years, Robert Williams raised white-tailed deer at his ranch in Kaufman County, east of Dallas. He raised them to sell for trophy hunts. But when one of them tested positive for chronic wasting disease, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department moved to depopulate the breeding facility, per the agency’s policy.

Chronic wasting disease is a contagious neurological condition that has spread to a number of Texas deer breeding facilities in recent years. At the end of May, a three-year court battle between Williams and the state ended with wildlife officials killing almost 250 deer.

Roque Planas, an Austin-based reporter for HuffPost, spoke to the Texas Standard about the case.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: This struggle between the state and Mr. Williams has been going on for a long time. What brought it to a head in May? 

Roque Planas: Well, yeah, as you mentioned, the battle had been going on for a long time. Robert Williams had been trying in the courts to establish some kind of property due process rights that would allow him to keep the state from killing off the deer herd that he had raised.

That question had been settled legally for a long time, and the state’s lawyers always insisted they would eventually win. In April they were able to get a decision from the state Supreme Court to depopulate, and the legal wrangling continued for another couple of months. But, they finally were able to in May depopulate that herd.

How has he been affected now by this event? 

Well, I think he’s affected quite a bit emotionally. He has a great attachment to these deer that I don’t think people necessarily understand.

He’s been working on this project for decades. And one of the deer that they put down before Texas Parks and Wildlife got there was treated more like a pet, was allowed to enter the house. His daughter had bottle fed some of these deer. So emotionally, he’s taking a huge hit.

From a business perspective, his business was basically done the moment that CWD was found on the ranch. I mean, he couldn’t at that point sell deer to hunt. He couldn’t sell deer to other breeders. His ability to act as a deer breeder, which is what his business was based on, was over at that point.

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But let’s consider what the state was concerned about, because chronic wasting disease is similar to mad cow disease, just for animals like deer and elk. This can be enormously destructive. Is there broad agreement about the risks, or not so much?

Generally speaking, conservation biologists view CWD as the biggest threat facing our country’s deer herds. The problem with CWD is that ones it gets into an area it’s very hard to get it out.

There’s not a lot of success stories of wildlife managers getting it out of an area once it’s established; the name of the game becomes manage and contain. Over a certain prevalence, you’re going to start seeing decline of the deer population in that area, which a lot of people are afraid of.

And then there’s the lingering fear – there’s no evidence of this, but – that perhaps it could one day spread to humans. And so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that people don’t eat CWD infected meat.

Is it clear how these deer came down with CWD in the first place? 

No, it’s not. And there’s some theories about that. In Robert Williams’ case, the herd was closed. He hadn’t been receiving deer from other property for years. It’s really not known how it got there.

There’s been some speculation that perhaps people can spread the disease to prions via other carcasses, their boots, things like that, that perhaps that’s the way that it’s coming into new areas.

There’s also some theory about perhaps vultures feeding on diseased prions and regurgitating them into the environment elsewhere. We really don’t know. It’s a question the biologists are studying right now.

How do you see this case and its conclusion – though we should mention that Mr. Williams plans to continue his legal battles here. How do you see this affecting how the state handles CWD and its impact on the industry more broadly? 

I think that we’re going to still see the state favor depopulation as its primary way of dealing with new infections in breeder facilities. The fact of the matter is that the state’s mandate is to protect wild deer, and these breeder deer remain a small but very lucrative corner of the Texas hunting industry.

And Texas is in this unique position where wildlife like whitetail deer are considered a public resource but the state is allowing people like Robert Williams to breed those deer and then turn around and sell those deer to hunt for profit – for prices that can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars.

It’s an uncomfortable position to be in, but ultimately, state still asserts its right to manage these deer as wildlife and to depopulate ranches where the disease appears.

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