AUSTIN, Texas — A Republican legislator wants to legalize deer cloning, and is accusing Texas wildlife officials of using the COVID-19 pandemic to undermine a breeder’s attempts to spawn big bucks.
In a state that often blurs the distinction between hunting and farming, many game ranches have looked to science ― from supplemental protein to artificial insemination ― to grow bigger game for the deep-pocketed customers willing to pay well over $10,000 to shoot them. The proposed law, from state Rep. Matt Krause of Fort Worth, would legalize cloning to help in that endeavor.
But the prospect of commercial deer cloning has raised concern from wildlife officials, who say a rancher cloned and sold deer for years without the state’s knowledge or authorization.
Krause filed the bill on behalf of Jason Abraham of Canadian, Texas, who told HuffPost he has cloned somewhere between 35 and 40 deer over the past decade. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department issued a regulation forbidding deer cloning last November.
Officials say they thought their rules always barred commercial cloning, but decided to make the prohibition more specific after hearing from unspecified sources that breeders interpreted the rules as permitting cloning.
Abraham thinks they were specifically targeting him. “We did this for 12 years, making clones,” he said. “They put me out of business overnight.”
Legalizing the practice, wildlife officials say, threatens to introduce unknown biological variables into the state’s wildlife populations, and could make it harder to track chronic wasting disease, or CWD, a severe prion illness spreading across the country’s deer herds.
HuffPost was not able to verify if any other states allow deer cloning. Texas officials said they did not know, either, and deer conservation organizations said they don’t track the information. Asked about federal oversight, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service referred HuffPost to the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which in turn said to ask the Food and Drug Administration. An FDA spokesperson said the agency has no rules governing the cloning of either wild or captive deer.
Abraham said his is the only business in the country cloning deer ― or rather, it was, until Texas officials shut him down last year.
Krause, the state representative, described the action as regulatory overreach that threatens to upend the deer breeding business, a $1.6 billion annual industry in Texas.
“We need to get back to a place where the legislature gives their input on some of these big, wholesale changes, including the prohibition of deer cloning,” Krause said at a March 29 committee hearing.
Krause’s bill sailed through committee on a 6-2 vote, but needs approval from both houses of the state Legislature and the governor to become law.
A Market For Clones
Texas has a peculiar relationship with its deer, which creates unique incentives to clone. Unlike other western states that have vast public holdings, around 95% of Texas land is privately owned. Pay-to-hunt schemes abound due to the lack of access to public land.
In the United States, deer are generally considered a public wildlife resource managed by the states. At least five states either ban captive deer breeding or didn’t have a recognized industry as of 2018, according to a report that year by the Quality Deer Management Association. Other states allow it, but consider the animals livestock. Texas is one of about a dozen states that classify captive deer as wildlife.
Commercial hunting has driven major land use trends in the past few decades. Landowners have increasingly enclosed their holdings behind tall fences, partly to keep exotic wildlife from escaping hunting ranches and partly to keep desirable deer from getting killed on neighboring properties. And a 1985 legal change made it easier for game ranches to start breeding their own deer, in the interest of hosting the most impressive bucks.
Nearly 1,000 people in Texas hold deer breeder licenses allowing them to propagate and raise deer, usually with the ambition of growing bucks with the kind of towering racks that fetch the highest prices from paying hunters. Buck fawns raised in captivity can take just two years to grow to a size that might take four years for a fawn in the wild.
Commercial hunting in Texas spurred the first experiments with deer cloning. A few years after scientists cloned the first mammal, Dolly the sheep, in 1996, an unidentified hunter from South Texas presented Texas A&M University Professor Mark Westhusin, an expert in animal biotechnology, with the testicles of an exceptional buck, and asked him to extract the semen — a common industry procedure.
Instead, a group of researchers, led by Westhusin, used skin cells from around the testicles to clone eggs, which they inserted into a captive doe. They produced the world’s first cloned whitetail deer in 2003.
TPWD would not allow the deer, named Dewey, to be transferred beyond the university. Westhusin and two others went on to form a company, Revolution Whitetails, that cloned three or four more bucks from the cells that produced Dewey for the original requester. The company cloned between eight and 10 whitetails for private breeders before exiting the business.
“At that time, there was no talk about turning clones out to shoot ’em,” Westhusin said. “They were too damned expensive.”
A separate company, ViaGen Pets and Equine, went on to acquire rights for cloning technology, propagating both domestic and wild species. It partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to clone a copy of the endangered black-footed ferret earlier this year, for example.
Abraham connected with ViaGen to clone horses, propagating hundreds of them. In 2013, Abraham sued the American Quarter Horse Association in federal court for refusing to register reproductions of prizewinning racers and cutting horses. He lost.
Around 2009, a rancher approached Abraham and asked him if he could clone deer. Abraham acquired permission from ViaGen, along with a deer breeder’s license, and launched his business.
Abraham charged about $50,000 for whitetails and $75,000 for mule deer, focusing on what he calls “blue hens” ― does that reliably birth fawns that grow into exceptional bucks.
“We don’t necessarily need to clone the bucks, because they can freeze the semen on them,” Abraham told HuffPost.
Because Abraham produced his clones from cells harvested from hunted deer, he disputes TPWD’s authority to regulate them. In the United States, the only time public wildlife becomes private property is the moment a hunter legally kills it and places a state-issued tag on the carcass.
Abraham’s business attracted some local press attention in 2013 ― along with a condemnation from Outdoor Life magazine, which denounced his business as an unwelcome manipulation of wildlife. He began plotting his exit from the deer breeder business around 2014, saying he suspected TPWD would require him to kill off his deer herd because the agency had “weaponized” chronic wasting disease. He let his license lapse, but kept cloning for other breeders.
Wildlife officials say they only found out about Abraham’s work after Krause filed legislation to protect him. His cloning operation “was not lawful activity,” TPWD Big Game Program Director Mitch Lockwood told HuffPost. “We weren’t even aware that it was occurring.”
TPWD consulted with several deer breeders before the November changes. None opposed restricting cloning, Lockwood said. Some worried that expanded cloning would damage their industry.
Cloning threatened to introduce deer with modified genetics into wild populations, Lockwood said. And the agency worries that having more deer with identical DNA would thwart its efforts to contain CWD, the cervid version of mad cow disease. In Texas, every deer bred in captivity receives a unique ID number. If an animal’s identification tags get lost, which happens, the state relies on DNA testing to tell the deer apart.
“Obviously, that could be hard to do if these deer have the same DNA,” Lockwood said.
The idea of legalizing deer cloning struck Westhusin, the Texas A&M professor, as farcical. He never asked the government’s permission to clone deer for science. “I don’t know why there would be a bill to allow it — there’s no bill that says you can’t,” Westhusin said. “And there shouldn’t be, in my opinion.”
He dismissed the concerns of wildlife officials, saying there’s no scientific foundation for claiming the clones would mutate in the wild or make it harder to track CWD.
But he also questioned whether deer cloning makes business sense. Deer breeders today are growing much larger bucks than the one whose scrotal cells yielded his team’s first clone in 2003.
“We already have giant deer,” Westhusin said. “Times have changed. Someone might have an economic model that might make it work, but I can’t come up with one with the deer we have in pens now.”
‘More Like Livestock’
The deer cloning bill promises to heighten long-simmering tensions over deer breeding and high fencing — both controversial subjects in Texas hunting circles.
Tall fences have helped keep large ranches profitable and intact, preserving crucial wildlife habitat in an era where large holdings routinely get subdivided. Well-managed properties often encompass thousands of acres, vastly exceeding a typical whitetail’s home range. And some ranches are now looking to high fences not to keep wildlife in, but to keep chronic wasting disease out.
Abraham described the breeding system as a way to add value for hunters hoping to shoot bigger bucks than those that normally roam Texas.
“A low-fence guy, he puts out no effort, and he says ‘Come out and shoot a deer,’ and maybe you do it and you shoot a junk deer,” Abraham said. “It might be a little bit more money to shoot a bigger deer under a high fence, but not a lot more.”
“If a deer's identification tags get lost, the state relies on DNA testing to tell one animal apart from another -- which becomes more complicated with clones.”
But critics often view the fencing as the privatization of wildlife, and they deride enclosures as “canned hunts” where the wealthy can purchase large animals that skilled hunters spend a lifetime chasing. “It was never OK to clone deer,” rancher Brian Treadwell, the only person to testify in opposition to the bill at its March 29 committee hearing, told HuffPost. “However many he’s cloned, he’s cheating the value of public resources.”
Neither of the two most prominent groups that score deer sizes accept animals killed behind enclosures, no matter how large. That’s partly because the Boone and Crockett Club founded the scoring system in the late 19th century to preserve a biological record of wild animals at a time when unregulated market hunting pushed many species, including the whitetail, toward the brink of extirpation from the United States.
Comparing wild, free-ranging animals to those bred in pens would be like “comparing apples to oranges,” according to Roy Grace, records chairman for Pope and Young, the main scoring group for archers.
“Most non-hunters, if you told them you were hunting inside a pen, they would not have a positive response to that,” Grace told HuffPost. “They are often treated more like livestock than wildlife.”
And conservation groups typically prefer leaving wildlife to breed the old-fashioned way. “We will definitely oppose this,” said Kip Adams of the National Deer Association, the country’s largest deer conservation group, referring to Krause’s legalization bill.
While the state works with nearly 1,000 licensed deer breeders, TPWD Wildlife Director John Silovsky noted that every year, 1 million people in Texas buy a hunting license. About 4 out of 5 of them are planning to hunt deer.
“We have a responsibility to all those people, whether they’re a deer hunter or a deer breeder,” Silovsky said. “We’re managing this resource for everybody.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the location of the city of Canadian, Texas, and misstated the name of the National Deer Association.