Texas Officials Are Taking A Big Risk To Fight A Devastating Deer Disease

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In the spring of 2021, Texas wildlife officials delivered Ox Ranch some bad news: Three captive deer on a nearby ranch in Uvalde County had tested positive for a fatal neurodegenerative disease called chronic wasting disease, or CWD. Ox Ranch Genetics, the breeding operation for one of the country’s most high-profile exotic game ranches, had bought four whitetails a couple of years earlier from the contaminated site.

Most wildlife biologists view the highly contagious disease as the single greatest threat to America’s wild cervids — a family of animals that includes deer, elk, moose and caribou. Even one case of CWD at a deer breeding site is typically a death sentence for both the deer and the business. After killing and testing all the deer penned at a CWD-positive site, the state then requires the owner to bury, incinerate or chemically ingest topsoil from the pens, mostly at the breeder’s expense. Texas usually bars CWD-positive sites from holding deer for five years.

A whitetail deer grazing. (File photo.)

Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

That’s exactly what happened at the site owned by Fred Gonzalez, who unknowingly sold the exposed deer to Ox Ranch Genetics and at least two other breeders — resulting in the farthest-reaching outbreak in Texas since the disease first appeared among wild mule deer along the western border in 2012. After a state-ordered euthanasia carried out in the middle of the night, Texas Parks and Wildlife extracted lymph nodes from the several hundred deer Gonzalez had bred. About 100 of them tested positive for CWD.

But the situation was different for Ox Ranch. In a previously unreported experiment, the ranch can keep breeding deer — under close supervision. The approach, if successful, could revolutionize the way the state government manages this existential threat to its cervid population.

News publications have repeatedly profiled the colorful but controversial ranch, which was founded by tech entrepreneur Brent Oxley, who sold the web hosting platform HostGator in 2012 for $220 million. The ranch caters mostly to upscale clients willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to hunt African species like the bongo, sable and cape buffalo.

It’s perhaps the only place in the country where, in a single weekend, customers can hand-feed giraffes, hunt an endangered species and tool around in a World War II-era tank while firing a machine gun. Guitarist, gun enthusiast and host of the hunting show “Spirit of the Wild” Ted Nugent once praised Ox Ranch as “truly a bowhunter’s heaven.”

One of the bucks that Ox Ranch Genetics bought from Gonzalez tested positive for CWD on June 23, 2021, according to public records obtained by HuffPost. The does he bred, however, did not. Neither did the fawns the buck sired, nor the rest of the deer penned with him for more than two years — all of which were tested after either dying naturally or being euthanized to extract their lymph nodes. After Ox Ranch Genetics live-tested the rest of the more than 800 remaining deer, buck No. XM 28 was still the only one to come back CWD-positive.

What happened at Ox Ranch was so unique that Texas wildlife officials are letting a CWD-positive facility keep breeding deer. Starting next year, Ox Ranch will continue to release the deer onto portions of its 18,000-acre game ranch for hunters to shoot and eat while the research progresses, emails between the ranch and wildlife officials show.

Under its new agreement, Ox Ranch can only release a total of 200 microchipped bucks for hunting, and only if they pass rectal and tonsil tests for CWD twice a year — often enough that Ox Ranch CEO Jason Molitor emailed Texas Parks and Wildlife to object to the plan because he worried the deer may “run out of tonsil material to test.”

The deer will also carry ear tags and tattoos with their identification numbers, and the ranch will have to notify neighboring properties that it is conducting scientific research before carrying out their hunts. When the season ends, the ranch will have to locate, kill and test any deer that survive the hunting season.

The state of Texas reserves the right to kill all whitetails on the property if Ox Ranch fails to follow any of the new regulations.

The experiment marks a major shift for Texas, where wildlife officials have spent the last few years waging a scorched-earth campaign against CWD.

It’s also risky. From 2016 to 2018, Texas Parks and Wildlife let two other CWD-positive ranches keep releasing deer, while monitoring them with less-reliable live tests. Both times, the live tests failed to detect CWD in deer that tested positive for the disease after being killed. Both of those ranches eventually had to kill off their captive deer.

Now, armed with a more sophisticated understanding of deer genetics, the same officials feel cautiously optimistic that the research at Ox Ranch holds the key to weeding out CWD from the state’s captive herds, and may even help them contain the spread of the disease in the wild.

Mitch Lockwood, the big game program director at Texas Parks and Wildlife, told HuffPost in May that the research was “really exciting work,” though he declined to say where it was being conducted until HuffPost independently confirmed it was Ox Ranch.

“With genetic selection, we think the disease is interrupted,” Lockwood said. “It doesn’t mean they wouldn’t get it if they were exposed long enough. But it does look like there are deer out there who are not going to test positive within their normal lifespan.”

Ox Ranch has not publicly disclosed the CWD case at its breeding site. Molitor declined to comment on the CWD infection, except to say that only a single buck tested positive for the disease and that none of the exposed deer were released onto the game ranch itself.

‘A Scientific Mystery’

Like mad cow disease in cattle or Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans, CWD causes brain proteins called prions to misfold, leading to a slow death by neurodegeneration. Deer spread it to one another through bodily fluids like saliva, urine and semen. (There is no evidence that CWD can jump to humans, but if it were to jump the species barrier like mad cow disease, it would most likely happen by eating infected venison, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Diseased prions can remain contagious long after exposure to air, making CWD difficult to eradicate once it takes root in a new population.

But the contrasting experiences at Ox Ranch Genetics and Gonzalez’s breeding site provide evidence for something that Texas A&M scientist Chris Seabury has demonstrated in recent studies: Some deer have genetic makeups that make them more likely than others to develop the disease.

No single genetic variation reliably predicts whether a deer will become more susceptible to CWD. Seabury’s research instead analyzes tens of thousands of pieces of genetic data to predict which deer are more likely to develop the disease after exposure. His research indicates that genetics can explain somewhere between 60% and 80% of differences in deer susceptibility to CWD.

“It was a bit of a scientific mystery as to why we aren’t seeing dissemination of disease at this facility,” Seabury said. “One hypothesis is that this particular herd is durable. All deer are not equally susceptible to CWD.”

So far, Seabury’s genomic analysis appears to confirm that, by a stroke of luck, the deer that Ox Ranch has been breeding are less likely to get infected with CWD. With his help, the ranch will try to keep it that way by culling out deer with genetic makeups tied to CWD susceptibility.

Texas deer breeders are now looking at Seabury’s research as a tool that could help them keep the disease out of their pens, the same way the U.S. Department of Agriculture has all but eradicated scrapie, a similar prion disease, from domestic sheep.

It’s a hopeful sign for an industry facing a major crisis. CWD has ruined dozens of deer breeders. Hundreds of others have abandoned the business since the disease first appeared in Texas pens in 2015. Many breeders see Texas Parks and Wildlife’s aggressive containment strategy as a war of attrition with the ultimate goal of ending the state’s captive deer industry.

Conservationists, however, largely view genetic selection as a limited tool for combating CWD, given how much more difficult it is to control the behavior of wild deer.

“You can’t breed out CWD in the wild,” said Kip Adams, chief conservation officer of the National Deer Association. “This is just a ploy by the captive industry to stay relevant.”

Using rectal or tonsil biopsies to screen live deer for CWD remains too unreliable, Adams argued. The national herd certification program led by the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has repeatedly greenlighted herds as CWD-free, only to see undetected cases pop up later, he noted.

“There’s not a reliable or practical live animal test, so these animals continue to move,” Adams said. “It’s absolutely a flaw in the system.”

‘Lab-Created Monsters’

Repeated outbreaks of CWD have also cast a spotlight on the peculiar role that captive deer play in pricey Texas hunting ranches.

U.S. law generally classifies deer as publicly owned wildlife managed by state game agencies. Some states allow captive deer breeding, but classify those animals as livestock. Texas is one of a handful of states that allow private citizens to breed captive deer, while still classifying the animals as wildlife.

Through selective breeding, boutique buck semen and supplemental feeding, deer breeders generally aim to raise bucks with massive antlers, then release them onto game ranches, where customers pay handsomely to hunt captive-bred bucks on properties enclosed by tall fences. Breeding also allows ranches to stock more bucks and sell more hunts than natural reproduction would support.

Ranches that rely on captive deer rarely discuss their breeding tactics and sometimes give the impression that their deer breed naturally.

“Be wary of whitetail ranches that keep their deer penned up,” Ox Ranch’s website reads. “The majority of them are lab-created monsters that cannot survive in the wild!”

In reality, on top of running deer breeding pens, Ox Ranch has drawn on scientific tools to create the deer on its property, according to email records with state wildlife officials. Like other breeding sites, it has used laboratories to store buck semen and artificially inseminates does, rather than relying only on natural reproduction.

No one fully understands how CWD spontaneously took root in deer pens last year. The two original sites that turned back positive tests — Gonzalez’s, as well as Robert Williams’ in Hunt County — had not received deer from off their properties in years. Both of Gonzalez’s pens were enrolled in the federal CWD herd certification program.

Some scientists suspect that CWD can erupt spontaneously. Prion disorders like CWD are also associated with cannibalism. But the disease likely spread into Texas breeding pens from places where it was already established. Because diseased prions can remain in the environment for so long, they can travel long distances.

Hunters can unwittingly spread CWD by moving an infected carcass from one state to the other. Scavengers like coyotes and crows may also spread diseased prions. (Vultures routinely feed on some of the most contagious parts of the deer, like the eyes or rectum, then defecate in water tanks that deer drink from, one breeder noted.) And it’s possible that the supplemental feed used by breeders, game ranches or hunters relying on bait could be spreading CWD from faraway places where the disease is more common.

Selectively breeding deer with higher levels of resistance to CWD, however, can make them less likely to develop the disease once exposed. That, in turn, could keep farmed deer from shedding more prions that could expose others.

“You cannot keep the environment from being totally free from low levels of contamination,” Seabury said. “But what you can do is selectively breed animals with low susceptibility.”

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