For the past decade, a deadly brain disease periodically pops up in Texas deer populations. Chronic wasting disease, also called CWD, distorts brain proteins called prions, causing fatal degeneration of the brain. The same disease is called “mad cow” when it strikes cattle, “scrapie” in sheep, and “Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease” in humans.
Three-quarters of the cases are in captive deer, which are usually being bred for hunting. Most wildlife officials view CWD as the single greatest threat to wild cervids like deer, elk and moose — and when captive deer test positive for CWD, the state response is swift, brutal and total.
Texas Parks and Wildlife normally orders that not only the infected deer be killed, but also every other deer at the site. The breeder is then required to disinfect the deer pens by removing the soil and burying it six feet deep, incinerating it, or having it chemically digested, according to court records. The site can’t hold deer for five years after depopulation.
But in an unusual case that highlights the growing tensions between wildlife officials and breeders who farm deer for customers willing to pay upward of $10,000 to hunt on high-fenced ranches, a rancher outside Dallas is refusing to exterminate his herd, despite several deer testing positive for the disease.
Robert Williams, the 83-year-old owner of RW Trophy Ranch, has scored a series of legal wins that are testing the limits of the state’s control over its deer herds. No other CWD-contaminated facility in the state has managed to delay euthanizing its herd this long, according to Mitch Lockwood, the director of the big game program at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Williams found three dead does in a pen in February 2021 and sent tissue samples for routine CWD tests. One came back positive. The size and color of the red stain on the sample’s slide indicated the deer had carried diseased prions for more than a year, Lockwood said.
Williams didn’t believe the result when it came back positive. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department exhumed the deer’s corpse to confirm the test with a DNA sample.
In the 16 months since, another eight deer on Williams’ property have tested positive for CWD. The CWD-positive deer were housed in four separate pens.
“We consider the whole facility to be contaminated,” Lockwood said.
Williams has flatly refused to let the state euthanize the deer, saying the mass culling would cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars and torpedo a business he has run for decades. He also objected to the state’s plans to kill the deer at night using suppressed rifles, saying imprecise head and neck shots would prolong their suffering.
“It would be a slaughter,” Williams told HuffPost. “I said there’s no way I’d agree to that. That looks like Nazi Germany’s deer herd plan.”
A Larger Outbreak
It’s not clear how CWD found its way onto RW Trophy Ranch. But the outbreak there started after captive deer started testing positive at five other breeding sites across the state, leaving wildlife officials scrambling to contain the disease.
Because deer breeders buy and sell animals across the state and eventually release many of them onto game ranches, the sudden uptick raised fears among wildlife biologists that captive deer could further spread the disease among wild deer.
“If the disease was released, there are other deer being exposed to it right now,” Lockwood said.
State game agencies have so far failed to remove the disease once it takes root in a wild population.
RW Trophy Ranch transferred 559 deer to 64 different facilities, including 24 release sites, in the five years leading up to its first positive case, according to the state veterinarian affidavit.
CWD can infect all cervids — including all species of deer, along with elk, moose and caribou. No evidence has shown that CWD can jump to humans, though mad cow disease has jumped the species barrier to infect more than 200 people, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that hunters should not eat CWD-infected venison. Limited testing and widespread skepticism, however, virtually guarantee that hunters routinely eat diseased animals.
“They let them out, they shoot them. By the time the test comes back, they ate the deer up. It hasn’t hurt anybody.”
Wildlife is generally classified as a public resource managed at the state level. The only time a wild deer becomes private property is when a hunter kills one and affixes a state-issued tag to its carcass.
Texas, however, is one of about a dozen states to allow private citizens to farm captive deer, though it still legally classifies them as wildlife.
That system has created a $1.6 billion business in which breeders use artificial insemination, genetic selection and supplemental feed to create bucks with antlers far bigger than those occurring in the wild, which makes them more attractive to paying hunters. Enclosed game ranches typically charge hunters based on the antler score of the deer they shoot.
Conservation groups widely oppose classifying captive animals as wildlife and enclosing them behind tall fences, viewing it as the effective privatization of deer. And since CWD entered the state of Texas, breeders have increasingly butted heads against state officials.
CWD has only been found in a few small pockets of free-ranging deer in Texas. Officials first detected the disease among wild mule deer in West Texas back in 2012. They were likely infected by deer in neighboring New Mexico. Deer have also tested positive in the Texas Panhandle.
Captive deer, however, account for more than three-quarters of confirmed CWD cases in Texas, state data show. Several breeder deer tested positive in Medina County, west of San Antonio, in 2015. Two years later, CWD started appearing in wild deer there, too.
Since last year’s outbreak on breeding sites, 132 deer have tested positive for the disease, either at breeding sites or after release to a game ranch, along with one elk and one red deer. Red deer are an exotic import to Texas. Though elk are native to the state, the Texas legislature reclassified them as an exotic species in 1997, allowing game ranches to sell hunts for captive elk year-round.
The state has so far depopulated deer at three of the five other breeder properties with CWD. A fourth breeder killed all his deer himself. The fifth facility killed and tested most of its captive deer, but reached an agreement with Texas Parks and Wildlife to keep raising captive deer, provided it participates in a research program testing whether animals can build genetic resistance to the disease.
The state offered Williams a similar research plan, but he refused the conditions.
Williams asked a judge in Travis County, which includes the state capital, Austin, for a temporary restraining order in January to block the state from entering his property to kill deer. The request was denied, so Williams’ lawyer went to a second judge, this time in the ranch’s home county of Kaufman. That judge granted a temporary restraining order.
The case remains in legal limbo, awaiting a decision from the Texas Supreme Court. In the meantime, RW Trophy Ranch cannot legally move its deer or release them for hunting.
“The deer belong to the people of the state of Texas — that’s been litigated in the past,” Texas Parks and Wildlife Department lawyer Todd George said. “We’ve always been successful.”
Williams, for his part, hopes to win in the court of public opinion.
“Now that I got fawns born, I want to have children holding those innocent fawns and say, ‘That’s what those sons-of-a-guns want to kill,’” Williams said.
A ‘Political Disease’
Williams dismissed wildlife officials’ concerns that CWD could decimate wild herds, calling it a “political disease.” He claimed other more common diseases pose more of a threat, and that CWD shouldn’t prevent him from releasing his deer.
Williams said he’d been following a ranch manager in Michigan who releases CWD-positive deer and who is experimenting with a diet that he believes could reverse CWD. (That ranch manager did not return HuffPost’s phone calls.)
“They let them out, they shoot them,” Williams said. “By the time the test comes back, they ate the deer up. It hasn’t hurt anybody.”
Ranchers can test deer for CWD with a rectal biopsy before releasing them for hunting. However, Lockwood said those tests are less reliable than post-mortem ones.
Wildlife biologists generally agree that CWD is incurable, but some cervid experts share Williams’ skepticism about CWD. Deer populations have exploded since the disease first appeared in Colorado mule deer in 1967, said Dr. Mark Westhusin, a professor at Texas A&M University. He also stressed that there’s no conclusive evidence that the disease can jump from deer to humans.
“There’s just not enough scientifically controlled experiments that prove or suggest in any manner in my mind that CWD is some crazy terrible disease that’s going to wipe out whole populations of deer,” Westhusin said. “Leave him alone. Let him have his deer.”
Skeptical hunters often raise similar points, according to Kip Adams, chief conservation officer with the National Deer Association.
But CWD incubates slowly, and it generally takes years for animals to show symptoms, Adams said. Rather than causing deer to drop dead in droves, the prion disease slowly erodes infected deer’s coordination and mental sharpness. That, in turn, makes it harder for them to evade predators and drives up their mortality rate from natural causes.
“They become an easy lunch for a coyote or a predator or a hunter,” Adams said. “It doesn’t mean it’s any less dangerous to the deer herd.”
Adams backed Texas officials’ plan to cull CWD-exposed herds like the one bred by Williams, saying that virtually all U.S. wildlife biologists studying the issue consider the disease a serious threat. Live testing is unreliable and any release of captive deer risks infecting more wild ones.
“The CWD skeptics in almost every case are people on the captive side,” Adams said. “They don’t want to believe in it because they have a business that depends on captive deer.”