Owners of deer breeding ranches throughout the Hill Country are now worried about how the disease may affect their $2 billion industry.
Near Junction, a two-hour drive northwest of San Antonio is the Perfect 10 Whitetail Deer Ranch. It’s a high-fenced facility that uses genetics to breed big bucks with giant antlers. They’re sold to the hunting business for up to $30,000 a deer
Inside the ranch’s nursery for baby fawns, owner David Greiner is fearful about what will happen to his business which raises close to 340 deer a year. Texas Parks and Wildlife is trying to prevent the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease or CWD, which infects a deer’s brain, telling the animal to stop eating.
“Up north when CWD breaks out, they go in and usually decimate the herd and they come back with very little CWD, so here they’ve killed all these animals for no really good reason,” Greiner explained.
Greiner is afraid herds could also be wiped out in Texas as officials try to contain the disease. The state’s current test for the disease can only be used on a dead deer.
“There is a live test that is available and it least gives you the opportunity to save your herd. I have nothing other than the deer and the hunting, it’s really all we do out here,” Greiner said.
Greiner is not alone in his worries. His deer breeding ranch is just one of 13-hundred in Texas which is currently prohibited from selling its deer.
The moratorium on moving or selling captive deer began earlier this month after state officials learned a two-year old deer at the Texas Mountain Ranch in Medina County had tested positive for the disease.
Steve Lightfoot with Texas Parks and Wildlife says the agency acted swiftly because the disease can spread quickly .
“Among deer and elk it can spread easily from nose to nose contact, it can stay in an environment for long periods of time, the issue is that it doesn’t show physical symptoms right away, so it can be incubating for a number of years before anything occurs,” Lightfoot cautioned.
Lightfoot says that’s significant because this is the first time the state has identified a whitetail deer with wasting disease that was bred in captivity, before it’s only shown up in Mule Deer population, which is non-migratory.
“We immediately restricted movement of all captive deer in the state of Texas until we could do a risk assessment and determine the prevalence of this disease, whether it was isolated to this one herd which we consider the index herd, the source of the disease or whether it has spread to other facilities,” Lightfoot explained.
Wildlife experts are concerned the disease could jump from breeder facilities into the wild, and infect the state’s four-million free-roaming deer.
State Rep. Andrew Murr, a Junction Republican, has a large number of deer hunting and breeding ranches in his district and sits on a House committee looking at the problem. He’s urging breeders to stay calm.
“As of this week, that moratorium is being lifted on certain permittees depending whether or not they have any contact up or down with a trace in or trace out of the index test sample, which came from Medina County,” Murr said.
In other words, ranches that can prove that they’ve had no contact with the diseased deer can resume selling their animals.
But with two of the largest deer auctions scheduled in August just before the start of the hunting season, tension among deer breeders like Griener is running high. This is the most lucrative part of the year.
“Most people don’t even have their buyers even lined up yet, because who is going to put a deposit on deer to buy if they don’t know if they can move them and then they’ve screwed themselves out of someone who is able to move them,” Greiner exclaimed.
Seated in his all-terrain vehicle, Greiner passes rows of pens, filled with deer. He’s still hoping to auction his best stags at the state’s auction in San Antonio in couple of weeks.
Texas Parks and Wildlife says deer wasting disease is not a threat to human health, though they advise against eating deer that have died from it.