Texas deer breeders challenge ruling on state’s disease regulations

Some breeders of captive deer for the multibillion-dollar Texas hunting industry are continuing their fight against the state’s wildlife agency and its regulations aimed at curbing the spread of a deadly contagious disease that can infect the animals.

A court ruling last fall upheld the authority of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to enact rules to curtail chronic wasting disease, which is fatal to deer, elk and moose, either in captivity or the wild.

A pair of deer breeders who challenged the agency’s regulations — Ken Bailey and Bradly Peterson, who were ordered to pay about $426,000 combined to cover the state’s legal expenses — are appealing, arguing among other things that the court erred by not recognizing that the agency had trampled on their private property rights by issuing rules for the handling of captive-bred deer as well as for wild deer.

“It is undisputed that (the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department) now contends that all deer, including Peterson’s captive-bred deer, are the property of the state,” the appeal says.

Chronic wasting disease was first discovered in Texas in 2012 in free-ranging mule deer in far West Texas. More than 50 cases have been documented since then — including many involving white-tailed deer either in or originating from captive deer breeding facilities, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

The disease, which doesn’t infect humans, is a neurological condition that causes weight loss, behavioral changes, brain lesions, excessive salivation, pneumonia, difficulty swallowing and head tremors.

The wildlife agency has put in place a number of measures to prevent it from spreading in Texas, including initially banning the transport of captive deer but then instigating testing requirements for breeders who want to do so and rules regarding release sites. In addition, the agency has established what it calls “chronic wasting disease management zones” in certain regions of the state, within which hunters are required to take deer carcasses to checkpoints for testing within 48 hours of shooting the animals.

Steve Lightfoot, a spokesman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said the disease appears to be contained in Texas.

“Our management response plan has been effective,” Lightfoot said. “The likelihood that this disease is going to manifest in the areas beyond where we’ve already discovered it is pretty remote.”

He declined to comment extensively on the ongoing legal battle over the regulations, saying only that “we feel pretty good with where we are” based on the initial ruling.

But attorney for Peterson and Bailey called the rules heavy-handed in their appeal of the lower court decision. The wildlife agency “imposed restrictions on Peterson’s (breeder’s) license and his deer, prohibiting him from moving his deer, selling his deer, or to do anything with them … effectively alleging that all captive-bred deer were unhealthy,” the appeal states.

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