Hornography

The faux-frontier world of manufactured deer and canned hunting in Texas.

A YOUNG WHITE-TAILED DEER lies tranquilized on a gurney in a fitted-out garage on a deer-breeding farm somewhere in central Texas. Its narrow face is wrapped in a black cloth, nose exposed. Tight tourniquets to slow blood flow have been applied to the base of its massive antlers — antlers so abnormally large that the young buck’s undeveloped neck muscles can no longer support his head. If he is to be kept alive, those heavy, branched horns have to go. A man wielding an electric saw slices the antlers off one at a time. Thin jets of blood spurt out of the cut veins in the antler stubs. The man plugs the veins with toothpicks, which he gently hammers in, and then cauterizes each of the stumps with a branding iron. Once the deer comes around, he will rejoin the rest of the captive-bred bucks being reared in half-acre fenced pens on the farm. In another year, his antlers will regrow. Probably back to a similar, unwieldy dimensions. Because that is what this deer, and the rest of the bucks on the farm, have been bred for — maximum antler size. If this buck continues to produce a truly extraordinary set of antlers each year, he won’t be sold off any time soon. Instead, he will live out his life in the pen as a prized stud. He will continue to be fed a high-protein, mineral-rich diet to accelerate both body and antler growth. He will also be routinely sedated and have a metal rod inserted into his rectum, with its front end near his prostate. An electrical charge from the rod will cause him to involuntarily ejaculate. The resulting semen “straws” will be auctioned off to the highest bidder, usually another deer breeder, to impregnate their does.

The US has a thriving canned deer-hunting industry that rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars a year by capitalizing on the nostalgia many have for the bygone days of the American frontier.

The less spectacular bucks — but ones that still have large racks — will face a different fate. They will spend one to three years in the pen before being sold to fenced “stocker” deer-hunting preserves where hunters will pay anything from $6,000 to $35,000 to shoot them. Sold in August each year before the fall “hunts,” few will survive past December.

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), also called Virginia deer or simply whitetails, are the smallest members of the North American deer family and have long been a target of hunters, who have chased them down in the wild for their meat and hide, and for sport. But in recent years a growing group of so-called hunters have decided they can’t be bothered with the chase. They would rather pick out a big-racked buck from a catalog and pay to have it produced before them for the killing. As a result, these once-wild ungulates are being bred like livestock for the United States’ not-so-well-known, but thriving, canned deer-hunting industry, an industry that rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars a year by capitalizing on the nostalgia many have for the bygone days of the American frontier.

But rearing deer for the killing using factory-farm style production techniques developed by the cattle industry brings with it not only many of the usual problems associated with animal feedlots, including the spread of diseases, it also toys with our notions of what defines “wild.”

White tailed buck
Before Europeans arrived in North America, some 35 million white-tailed deer lived in this country. As with many other native wildlife, this hardy deer couldn’t withstand the pressures of colonization. By 1890, as a result of unregulated hunting, only about 350,000 whitetail deer survived, a 99 percent decline. Photo by Larry Smith.

I GREW UP IN FORT WORTH, Texas in the 1950s and 60s. When I was 13 years old, I expressed a desire to hunt deer at a dinner with my dad’s extended family in a small town east of Dallas. My Uncle Vance, a trickster, offered to take me to another small town in East Texas where “an ole’ boy had a deer in a pen.” My parents did not hunt, and Uncle Vance knew I badly wanted to join other relatives who did. The entire group of relatives gathered in the house howled with laughter at the proposal. My grandmother, Dee-Dee, bounced up and down in her chair. It was unthinkable that anyone would shoot a deer in a small fenced pasture or pen, certainly not a Gibson!

That was hunting ethics in this country, and in Texas, in the mid-1960s. Much has changed since then.

There are now some 4,000 deer breeding farms in the United States, principally in the South and Midwest, but in some eastern states such as Pennsylvania as well, holding over 230,000 captive deer. The industry’s core flourishes in Texas. According to state records, in 2018, some 1,100 breeders possessed roughly 100,000 deer and sold them to over 1,550 release sites — usually fenced, private game reserves of varying acreage — to be shot by trophy hunters.

This trophy hunting subculture of shooting genetic freaks raised in pens represents the complete opposite of what early advocates of sport hunting envisioned the practice to be. Modern trophy hunting, with its focus on shooting only mature males with big antlers, came into existence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in response, ironically, to the dramatically depleted populations of most big game animals, including white-tailed deer, at the time.

Before Europeans arrived in North America, some 35 million white-tailed deer lived in this country. As with many other native wildlife, this hardy deer, which predates the Ice Ages and is the oldest extant deer species in the world, couldn’t withstand the pressures of colonization. By 1890, as a result of unregulated hunting, only about 350,000 whitetail deer survived, a 99 percent decline. As extinction loomed, scientists and a few pioneer conservationists and hunters began to express concern for the future of the white-tailed deer.

This trophy hunting subculture of shooting genetic freaks raised in pens is the complete opposite of what early advocates of sport hunting envisioned the practice to be.

It was in this milieu, in 1887, that Theodore Roosevelt, who was an avid gentleman hunter, and George Bird Grinnell, the publisher and editor of Forest and Stream, founded the Boone and Crockett Club. The club’s mission statement reads, “To promote manly sport with the rifle” and it aimed to spread the ideals of ethical hunting and wildlife preservation. The club is associated with the popularization of the term “fair chase,” which meant the animal being hunted had to have a chance to escape, and that certain types of hunting, like the kind my Uncle Vance had suggested, should be out of bounds.

Boone and Crockett established a measuring system for scoring the antlers of big game ungulates, whereby the tines are measured in inches, along with other measures, such as the distance between the two racks of a deer, to create a total “B&C score,” tallied in points, for a trophy. Only animals killed in fair chase were eligible to be counted as a trophy.

Over the next 50 years, all the pieces of a national wildlife management system came into place. In 1900, the hunter-led conservation movement persuaded Congress to pass the Lacey Act making the interstate trafficking of all wild game illegal. In most states today, the public legally owns all wildlife, even wildlife on private lands, and agencies manage animals for the public, following common law doctrine called “public trust.”

By the mid-1960s, this conservation/wildlife management system had pulled deer and elk — including whitetails — back from the edge of extinction and into healthy recoveries. A vibrant hunting culture flourished, one that focused on sport rather than trophy hunting. Shooting a buck with a modest rack was completely respectable. As one conservationist, who didn’t want to be identified, explained to me: “To any population around the world that hunts antlered game, those animals are revered as mystical, majestic, and sacred.” A great many ordinary hunters from the 1960s-1980s tacitly shared this reverence, he said. They sensed something was going on out there in the woods, something really old, and incredibly important.

ALTHOUGH THE 1960s-1980s period was the golden age for sport deer hunting, during this same period trophy hunting began its ascent. In 1965, Leonel R. Garza, a gas station owner in the deep-south Texas town of Freer, started the “Muy Grande” trophy buck contest, claiming “South Texas deer are as wide as the Rio Grande and as big as the state of Texas.” It caught on, attracting hundreds of contestants each year.

1998 and 2019 covers of NorthAmerican Whitetail magazine
Copies of North American Whitetails magazine from 1998 (right) and 2019. Dr. James Kroll, a professor emeritus at Stephen F Austin University, calls the magazine the “Playboy of deer hunting.” By the 1980s the Boone and Crocket Club’s scoring system had been transformed into a fetish, much like Playboy’s fixation on its models’ breast measurements.

In 1975, the Texas Trophy Hunters founded their own state contest and a glossy magazine, The Journal of Texas Trophy Hunters. Another glossy, North American Whitetails, appeared in 1982. Dr. James Kroll, a professor emeritus at Stephen F Austin University who became a leader of the deer-breeding industry who later became a leader of the deer-breeding industry and a hunting media guru, calls North American Whitetails the “Playboy of deer hunting.” Boone and Crocket’s scoring system was transformed into a fetish, much like Playboy’s fixation on its models’ breast measurements. Kroll concludes, “They put a number on it, and when you give a human being a number, you’ve got a problem.”

As hunting culture changed, making deer bigger became a Texas-style Apollo space program of sorts, a joint effort among large landowners, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) — especially its 5,500-acre experimental deer ranch called the Kerr Management Area — and Texas A&M wildlife researchers, to develop an industrial agriculture model for deer management.

In 1975, after roughly a decade of fieldwork, two A&M wildlife management graduates, Al Brothers and Murphy E. Ray, Jr., published a 226-page book, Producing Quality Whitetails, which became a hit in the deer world. Brothers and Murphy called for ranchers to imagine “deer as a money crop.”

“In the past,” they contended, “cattle prices have fluctuated up and down, but hunting leases and the value of wildlife populations have consistently increased.” Therefore, ranchers should not clear too much brush; instead “the livestock operation should be tailored to fit with the wildlife operation.” The authors promoted changes in deer hunting — let the bucks live to five years or more to reach full maturity and fulfill their genetic potential. And stop the practice of hunting only bucks; shoot enough does to create a 50-50 buck-to-doe ratio.

But beyond this sensible stewardship, the authors pushed an industrial agriculture approach. They pointed out that “Most Texas range is deficient in levels of protein adequate for deer to obtain maximum growth and thus trophy quality.”

As more and more ranchers built high fences, both the economic and ecological dynamics of deer management radically changed.

The deer, they said, needed to be fed just like livestock both before and during the fall hunting season. The authors even offered sample recipes for deer feed — combinations of soybeans, peanut hulls, alfalfa, corn meal, cotton seed, and minerals. Once a rancher made the investment in deer feeders and deer feed though, they faced the prospect of the deer on their land jumping low, three-foot-tall fences. To protect their investment, the rancher needed to erect high, eight-foot fences. Brothers and Murphy quipped, “The deer produced on his land stay on his land.”

As more and more ranchers built high fences, both the economic and ecological dynamics of deer management radically changed. In 1991, 8-foot fences cost $6,000 to $14,000 a mile to build, and these costs did not include additional fees for drilling holes in bedrock, dealing with “water gaps”— meaning creeks and ponds, and gates. By 2017, costs for high fences, which by then did include closing those water gaps, were running $27,000 to $36,000 a mile. Ecologically, a ranch enclosed by a high fence became what Dr. Wallace Klussmann, former chair of the Texas A&M Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences Department, calls a “closed ecosystem.” Whereas a low-fenced ranch was in some ways comparable to a river, with wildlife moving in and out, a high-fenced ranch resembled a pond: Closed ecosystems took much more intense management.

To make the new investments pay off, ranchers began to feed deer grains not only in the fall, but all year long. Greg Simons, a wildlife biologist, hunt outfitter, and past president of the Texas Wildlife Association, surmised, “The ranchers started to think, I can carry one deer per two to three acres on pellet feeding as opposed to one deer per 20 to 30 acres on natural forage.” That meant a ten-fold increase in deer density. The deer became conditioned to come from the brush to visit “deer feeders” at dawn and twilight, when the feeders — typically 55-gallon steel drums with spinners below the drum — would spew the grains in a 15-foot circle.

As the deer-as-livestock industry was expanding, another pathway to produce bigger deer with larger antlers was being explored: genetic manipulation.

IN 1975, THE TEXAS PARK AND Wildlife Department began genetic experiments with whitetails at its Kerr facility. Adapting infrastructure from the cattle industry, the department built pens for raising deer, feeders for grain, and special chutes to hold the deer for injecting them with drugs or artificially inseminating them. Biologists wanted to determine if bucks with only two antlers, called “spikes,” were genetically inferior to bucks with larger, forked racks and multiple tines. Spike bucks and multi-antlered bucks were raised apart in separate pens but treated the same. By the late 1980s, Texas researchers concluded that herds without spike bucks in their lineage grew bigger bodies and bigger antlers.

Deer at breeding farms are fed high-protein, mineral-rich diets to accelerate body and antler growth. Photo by Danita Delimont / ALAMY STOCK photo
Deer at breeding farms are fed high-protein, mineral-rich diets to accelerate body and antler growth. Photo by Danita Delimont / ALAMY STOCK photo.

Ranchers took note. “The tour [of the breeding facilities] at Kerr ended with a tour of the pens, big deer in pens eating feed,” recalls my conservationist source, who is a strong critic of deer breeding. “[The ranchers] saw bottle-raised fawns. There was an opportunity. The ranchers thought to themselves, ‘That habitat stuff, that’s hard, that’s a long-term project. But I can put out pens and feeders real quick.’”

In 1985, TPWD made deer breeding legal as long as ranchers had a “scientific breeder permit.” Breeders sold deer only to other breeders or released the deer on their own lands. (Texas is the only state where breeder deer can be released to comingle with wild deer.) It was a kind of country club hobby. Don Steinbach, a retired professor of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences at Texas A&M, saw deer breeding at that stage as status seeking.

Around 2008, the free flow of oil money began to profoundly change how deer are hunted in many parts of Texas.

“Having a 200-inch buck as a breeder buck was like having a triple-crown winner in your herd. There were bragging rights to that,” he says.

Not many joined this rich man’s club at first; in 1998, only 270 people held scientific breeder permits. But a decade later, in 2008, the oil and natural gas industry’s boom-bust cycle began to profoundly change the Texas economy. Rather unexpectedly, the free flow of oil money also began to profoundly change how deer are hunted in many parts of this state.

By the late 1980s, the oil and natural gas industries had developed highly profitable ways to use hydraulic fracturing — the application of water, chemical and sand mixes under explosive pressures — to break open seams of oil and gas bearing shale and release the fluids. Old oil fields could be revisited and fracked, and new fields opened up with this technology. Oil prices hit an all-time high of $156 a barrel in June 2008. Though prices plunged to $32 a barrel that December as the national economy tanked, by early 2009, while the much of the US was still reeling from the Great Recession, Texas was already bouncing back. Statewide, the oil industry nearly tripled production between 2008 and 2014 — from 346,000 barrels a day to over 900,000 barrels a day; natural gas production likewise rocketed. Hundreds of thousands of landowners, from those who owned the mineral rights under their homes to big landowners, sold drilling rights for up to $28,000 per acre; if the drillers struck oil or gas, royalty payments ensued. Even high school graduates could make $100,000 a year in the oil services industry. Construction took off; suburban sprawl morphed into exurban sprawl far from urban cores.

During this time, buying deer hunts became a preferred form of business entertainment for many of the cash-rich oil and gas corporations operating in Texas. As a result, deer became worth more to release as stocker bucks than as breeder bucks. By 2009, deer breeders’ focus had shifted to rearing bucks specifically for trophy hunting, and pen-raised deer had become the face of the trophy-hunting industry, says Alan Cain, who oversaw both wild and breeder deer as Whitetail Deer Program Leader for the TPWD. For instance, he says, “in Medina County west of San Antonio, a rancher can stock 200 to 300 stocker bucks from breeders on 2,000 acres. Each buck costs a shooter $12,000 to $15,000 …. It’s a manufacturing model.”

A big-horned buck
Breeding farms can now rear exceptionally big deer with massive antlers in two to three years instead of the six to to years they would take to get to that size in the wild. Photo by Whwthunts/Wikimedia Commons.

And it was a fast assembly line. As Greg Simons observed: “We [can] now have exceptionally big breeder deer in the two- to three-year-old age class that would take five to six to seven years to grow in the wild with the best wildlife management.” Simons attributed the rapid growth to “in-line breeding,” (for example, grandfather to granddaughter insemination), use of metabolic muscle builders such as Paylean (developed to produce leaner, bigger pigs), analgesics, and antibiotics. The animals thus produced grow antlers so bizarrely massive that they have earned the moniker “frankendeer.”

WITH BIG DEER AVAILABLE in large numbers, even formerly “wild” deer hunting operations —meaning ranches where the deer bred naturally in the wild and got at least some of their food from foraging — increasingly turned to stocker deer outfits to supply their ranches. One South Texas deer manager who lived through the transition from wild to stocker bucks explained, “When you get a high fence, you can charge $10,000 to $30,000 an animal. Three years down the road [there are] no animals. You have to buy stocker bucks.”

By 2010, when the Eagle Ford Shale field opened up in South Texas, “people were spending money like it was free,” Simons recalls. Officials from oil companies or insurance companies or other associated businesses would say to him: I’ve got a good budget. I want quality facilities. I want to shoot big bucks. I want to get in and get out of there as quickly as possible. By “big bucks” they meant Boone and Crockett antler scores of at least 150 inches. “Quality facilities” meant luxury rooms on the hunting ranch designed along a frontier motif, with leather furniture and cowboy décor, offering catered gourmet food and a well-stocked bar. Hunters arrive on a Friday afternoon, hunt that evening through Sunday morning, and go home with their trophies by Sunday afternoon.

Those attending corporate-sponsored weekend stocker buck hunts don’t usually get to pick the deer they shoot. The company makes those choices for them and negotiates a total package price. Alan Cain gives an example: “A special client gets a $17,000 buck, while an ordinary client gets a $5,000 buck.”

Individual hunters setting up their own hunts make their own choices. The South Texas deer-ranch manager says high-end clients call him to “build-a-buck.”

A guide always accompanies the shooter at canned hunting ranches to make sure the client shoots the buck he paid for. In some cases, the guide also fires when the client fires to make sure the deer is hit. Photo by Tosh Brown / ALAMY STOCK photo.
A guide always accompanies the shooter at canned hunting ranches to make sure the client shoots the buck he paid for. In some cases, the guide also fires when the client fires to make sure the deer is hit. Photo by Tosh Brown / ALAMY STOCK photo.

“They let us know what they want and we build it for [them]. I hear this: Four years old, 250 lbs., so many points or inches. I show them a 180-inch typical [symmetrical antlers all pointed up].’ They reject it as ‘too small.’ They then say something like, What’s the biggest deer you got? Or I want a freaky deer, something nasty. [such as asymmetrical antlers with some tines pointed down] … Their dens [are] full of [trophies of] typical bucks. Now they want their freaky buck. It’s like car shopping.”

Less affluent hunters look at the deer prices each shooting preserve advertises on its website. A hunt featuring a buck that will never grow antlers bigger than 140 inches costs $3,000. A bigger buck, running 140 to 150 inches, costs $3,000 plus $200 an inch up to 150 inches and so on.

But once a hunter has agreed to buy a certain size buck, it’s not a completely done deal. A second South Texas breeder and hunt operator I met with explains how the deal is often renegotiated. “Say the guy has decided to buy a 170-inch [rack] deer for $7,000 …The guide first shows his client a much bigger buck. He tells the client, That’s 180 inches. Let’s talk to the boss and see what we can do for you. Boss says, We’ll work with you. The guy then calls his wife, asks if it’s okay to spend the extra money.”

Many deer breeders and canned hunt operators suffer few illusions about their industry. Scott Bugai, a veterinarian who also breeds deer and offers them up for hunt on his 406-acre property in Guadalupe County, told me candidly that breeder deer were not really wild. “They are alternative livestock. There is no way I can have 300 deer in a 12-acre pen [and say] that they are wildlife. They are not wildlife. I consider them wildlife when I let them out of my pen,” says Bugai, who is a former president of the Texas Deer Association, the industry lobby group.

“We are going through the transition from hunter to shooter. Some of it has to do with our instant gratification society.”

Bugai says what he does is participate in the tourist industry. “Compare Disney World as a tourist destination to a family going hunting. Hunting is in competition for tourist dollars,” he says. “We are going through the transition from hunter to shooter. Some of it has to do with our instant gratification society. People don’t have the background, experience, and education. Now they look at hunting shows [and think]. I want to do that. They don’t have faded camouflage clothes. I see them peeling the price tag off their binoculars. They want to go home with bragging rights. They want to decorate their house with a big buck.”

Usually, clients come out to a ranch for the “hunting” experience. They stand in deer blinds that conceal them from deer feeders, and shoot their pre-determined deer as it arrives for a feeding. A guide always accompanies a shooter to make sure he shoots the buck he paid for; on some ranches, the guide also fires when the client fires to make sure the animal is hit. (Well over half the states in the US either outlaw or regulate the use of deer feeders as violating fair chase hunting ethics, and for increasing the risk of disease transmission. But in Texas feeding deer is unregulated.) At times, the desire to show the mounted head makes even the token shoot irrelevant. Wallace Klussmann, who opened a conventional deer hunting ranch after he retired from Texas A&M, says he once ran into a local breeder and hunt operator in the city of Fredericksburg in central Texas who told him a story: “The client picks a deer on my website. We make a deal. He sends me a check. Man says, You dispose of the deer. Send me the mount.”

This fetish of huge antlers, called “hornography” by some, has inverted the fundamental relationship between land stewardship and deer, says Matthew Wagner, a former Texas Parks and Wildlife official who is now a wildlife management consultant. “Big bucks used to be a product of the landscape, something rooted in the land. Now it’s the opposite. It’s the deer driving the land management.” The growing demand for huge deer antlers is part of a larger hunting consumer culture, he concludes. “People are more interested in seeing all the gear than in seeing game.”

This hunting consumer culture comprises but one component of what I call Texas’s faux frontier culture. Texas cities are now filled with $60,000 pick-up trucks that never see dirt, driven by men and women wearing $500 to $800 cowboy boots that never get scuffed by stirrups. They drive to shopping malls with store facades resembling Main Streets of old towns and eat at restaurants celebrating Texas frontier mythology with offerings of barbecued rattlesnakes and big steaks topped with enchiladas.

Faux frontier culture comprises a form of conservative nostalgia. It pretends to mourn the loss of rural lands and the culture of old rural Texas. But at its core, it both causes and legitimizes the death of old Texas — including old style hunting of ordinary, small deer — because it values relentless modernization and expanded consumption above all else.

MONEY THROWN AT NOSTALGIA aside, the deer breeding and canned hunting industry also enjoys strong political support thanks to the Texas Deer Association (TDA). Between 2007 and 2017, the association’s political action committee raised $2 million in cash and $1.7 million in donated goods and services, making it one of the state’s most well-funded lobbies — roughly ten times larger than its most diligent adversaries in the Texas Wildlife Association.

The spread of CWD across the nation — it is now found in 24 states in the US — parallels the rise of the captive-deer industry.

The TDA has been lobbying for legislation that would re-classify breeder deer as private property similar to livestock rather than “wildlife,” in order to lessen the already lax oversight of the industry. Breeders currently require permits from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. While the association hasn’t managed to push such a law through, it has so far managed to stave off any efforts to seriously regulate the industry.

TDA’s success in the state legislature has allowed the deer breeding industry to downplay the threat posed by chronic wasting disease (CWD), a contagious and always-fatal spongiform encephalopathy similar to mad cow disease that afflicts corvids like deer and elk. The spread of CWD across the nation — it is now found in 24 states in the US — parallels the rise of the captive-deer industry. In nearly half of the states where CWD has been detected, it was first detected in a captive deer facility. Wildlife biologists, who fear the disease is a major threat to wild cervid populations, believe that deer that escape from farms or have nose-to-nose interactions with wild deer through fencing are instrumental in its spread in the wild. The abnormal proteins, called prions, that cause CWD spread between animals through body fluids like urine, feces, saliva, and blood. They spread not only through direct contact but also through contaminated soil, food, or water. Researchers think that feeders and mineral licks are potential contamination sites.

In Texas, only 34 free-ranging mule and whitetail deer have been diagnosed with CWD since 2012, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife, while 110 white-tailed deer raised by breeders were diagnosed with CWD during the same period. Of these, 70 were diagnosed in 2018 — a radical increase from previous years. All of the breeder-related CWD cases can be traced to two breeding ranches and their release sites in Uvalde and adjacent Medina counties. But by no means can CWD be considered contained.

A buck shot at a canned-hunting operation. The industry enjoys strong political support thanks to the Texas Deer Association, one of the state’s most well-funded lobbies. Photo by Becky Wright.
A buck shot at a canned-hunting operation. The industry enjoys strong political support thanks to the Texas Deer Association, one of the state’s most well-funded lobbies. Photo by Becky Wright.

Texas Parks and Wildlife has enacted certain regulations to stem the spread of diseases like CWD, including requirements that breeder deer and stocker bucks released into shooting preserves be contained by fences at least seven feet high. But one study found 95 percent of deer can jump a seven-foot fence and 5 percent can jump an eight-foot fence. Nor do fences always stay upright. One Texas game warden told me “normal, healthy trees, in ground saturated with rain, will fall over and collapse part of a fence. That’s all it takes, one tree or one flood.” The warden concluded, “If a fence can’t keep a deer in, how can it keep a prion in?”

The CWD prion itself is something out of science fiction. It can survive in the soil for long periods of time, so once the disease is established in an area, it can remain in the environment indefinitely.

In 2016, Texas Parks and Wildlife also imposed rules restricting ranchers from moving deer that hadn’t been tested for CWD. If an animal tests positive for the disease at a captive facility, no other animal in the herd can be sold or moved for five years until they prove to be asymptomatic, though there’s no conclusive evidence that a five-year period is a safe limit. Many Texas deer breeders feel the state’s rules unfairly target their industry.

CWD, which has no cure so far, has never been confirmed in humans. But given its similarity to mad cow disease, which has crossed species and killed humans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people not eat venison from CWD-infected deer.

SPORT HUNTING OF ANY KIND, of course, has long been opposed by many within the animal rights and wildlife conservation community. The more moderate animal welfare groups like the Humane Society of the United States don’t oppose sports hunting outright, but say that the deer breeding and trophy hunting industry is an inhumane “system of wildlife CAFOs” that fuses wildlife husbandry and agribusiness and consumerism.

But increasingly these days, the criticism of this latest iteration of trophy-hunting is coming from within the hunting community itself.

In 2015, the Boone and Crockett Club put out a statement criticizing the industry.

In the two years I spent reporting this story, I found that both sides were exhausted, fearful, and depressed with the situation.

“Such intensive manipulation of the natural characteristics of a wild deer and elk is a major departure from what occurs in nature, and challenges our understanding of the terms ‘wild’ and ‘wildlife,’” the statement read. In Texas, the conflict between the breeders and more traditional hunting opponents has been waged so intensely that it’s being called the “deer wars.”

Neither side has won. Rather, in the two years I spent reporting this story, I found that both sides were exhausted, fearful, and depressed with the situation. Many people I interviewed didn’t want to be identified. Industry critics fear breeders would threaten them with lawsuits or somehow ruin their professional lives. Even those who support sport hunting fear that hunters might soon grow bored of stocker buck shoots and quit hunting altogether.

Deer breeders, meanwhile, feel like they have helped create an industry that has gotten out of hand, but one they can’t put a stop to because it pays their bills. They also worry that CWD outbreaks will push the state to issue much more stringent rules for their operations and scare the hunting public. One South Texas breeder/stocker buck hunt operator told me he thought operations like his “had ruined Texas.” He said it had ruined his desire to hunt as well. “You see 40 deer in a pen. Anytime you let one out… you could shoot it. It’s not hunting,” he said. In fact, all the breeders I interviewed said they no longer hunted.

Some hunters are now seeking to restore the old way of hunting, one that they see as being respectful of wildlife and affording the hunter renewed contact with “sacred antlered game.” One such hunter is Dan McBride, a veterinarian from a small town near Austin. McBride originally supported deer breeding, thinking it would improve Texas deer genetics. “But what I saw was atrocities, because there was too much money,” he told me. “I saw a 200-point buck at a breeder; he was not able to hold his head up, not enough testosterone to produce big neck muscles. I had to take off his horns to save his life. That’s when I began to fall off the road into the gutter.”

McBride eventually shook off his despair. He now leases a vast tract of land in far west Texas where only wild deer roam in a landscape unfettered by high fences. As McBride describes it: “No feeders. No deer stands. No helicopter. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who want to go up there. In their hearts, men still want the mystery.”

An earlier version of this article identified Dr. James Kroll as a professor at East Texas State University. He is actually a professor emeritus at Stephen F. Austin University.

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