Written by Craig Nyhus, Lone Star Outdoor News. Photos by Ti Walker and Chris Walker.
The mood was upbeat and positive at this month’s annual Texas Deer Association Convention in San Antonio.
Most members had resolved themselves to comply with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Texas Animal Health Commission officials with respect to testing their deer herd for Chronic Wasting Disease.
The mood quickly changed as members began to see social media posts from two TPWD employees condemning their business. Some breeders suspected a bias against breeders at the department, and cited the social media postings as proof the agency wants to shut down the breeding industry.
“CWD is in Texas,” wrote TPWD Caddo Lake biologist Vanessa Adams Neace on a breeder John Scott Hueske’s Facebook page. “It threatens the health of all free-roaming deer in the state and beyond. I have no sympathy for those that raise deer like cattle and make a ton of money off of them. Don’t be fooled, these deer are just a business venture. They are just money out of (his) pocket.”
TPWD spokesman Steve Lightfoot said he had been made aware of the comments and they went against the agency’s social media policy.
“We are aware of it and the employee is being counseled,” Lightfoot said.
A website with a petition to ban all movement of breeder deer was removed last week after TPWD was notified one of its employees, Richard Heilburn, the Conservation Outreach Program leader in San Antonio, was the site administrator.
When contacted by LSON, Heilbrun said he was not the author of the petition. When asked if he was the site administrator, Heilbrun said the site had been taken down. When pressed if he had been the site administrator before it was removed, Heilburn said, “I can’t comment on anything to do with CWD. Any questions must go through the communications department.”
Already having a rough August dealing with state-mandated killings of deer after Chronic Wasting Disease was found in a Medina County facility, some breeders turned to social media to post images that were tough to look at and forwarded images to Governor Greg Abbott and Department of Agriculture Chairman Sid Miller.
Piles of dead white-tailed deer with their heads chopped off were shown.
No live testing has been approved by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department or the Texas Animal Health Commission, so breeders were forced to kill the deer so their heads could be sent to a lab for testing.
Many of the deer tested had no connection to the infected facility, which made it tougher to comprehend for their owners. So far, no other deer have tested positive other than four in the same pen at the Texas Mountain Ranch in Medina County.
Emergency rules were signed August 18 by Carter Smith, executive director of TPWD, allowing for the movement of deer if facilities meet the “movement qualification” standards set by TPWD and TAHC.
“After effectively being shut down for 54 days, our industry will once again be able to conduct business,” said Patrick Tarlton, executive director of the Texas Deer Association.
The rules were supported by Texas groups, including the Texas Wildlife Association and the Texas Chapter of the Wildlife Society.
Other groups, including TDA, Deer Breeders Corporation and the Exotic Wildlife Association advocated for increased use of live testing, consisting of regular testing of both rectal and tonsil tissue samples. Texas Animal Health Commission officials said the live testing, although determined to be effective at the time the tests are taken, have yet to be approved by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Even though breeders knew of the possible requirement to kill deer, it didn’t make it any easier.
“That facility shipped or received more than 900 deer in the past five years, more than any other facility,” said TDA Treasurer Mike Wood. “I had deer from that facility. I followed the plan — killed the deer. (TPWD) came back to me and told me I was shut down for five years. I’m not going to take this lying down. I’m fighting for other people in the industry. They may only have 20 or 30 deer and they get a letter telling them they need to kill their deer.
“Every breeder has to kill 4 1/2 percent of their herd. By my math, that is 2,619 deer that have nothing to do with the index herd that have to be killed.”
Others remained unsympathetic to the breeders’ concerns. Greg Simons, the past president of Texas Wildlife Association, posted the following on the controversial Facebook page Texans for Saving our Hunting Heritage:
“I find it insulting and offensive to see all the photos of decapitated deer and orphaned fawns being posted this week on FB by people who are having to comply with CWD testing,” he wrote as part of a lengthy post.
Breeders have responded by starting a petition of their own at change.org titled “Support Live Testing for Chronic Wasting Disease,” created by hunter and television show host Alan Warren.
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