The Bucks Stop Here
When deer breeder Billy Powell was nabbed for smuggling more than forty whitetails onto his East Texas farm, his case was hailed as the highest-dollar crime of its kind in history. But was he just a casualty of our ever-rabid hunting culture?
One crisp morning in September, Billy Powell sat slumped on a hard bench in the federal courthouse in Tyler, looking bewildered. As he surveyed the courtroom, a heavy door swung open, and several state and federal wildlife investigators strode in. Powell, a 77-year-old deer farmer from New Summerfield, knew them well. Earlier that year, they had caught him in a crime that made headlines across the country: Powell, one of the state’s best-known deer breeders, had smuggled more than forty bucks, does, and fawns from out of state onto his East Texas farm, all in violation of a ban on importing live whitetails.
For Brad Chappell, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department sergeant, and Mike Merida, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent, it was a trophy moment. Powell’s was the highest-dollar federal deer-smuggling case ever, a hunt that took the investigators nearly four years. As they approached him, Powell stood and offered a wan smile and an extended hand, in what seemed a final gesture of surrender. The agents nodded at his ashen-faced wife, Ruth, and took front-row seats. They exchanged satisfied looks when the judge announced Powell’s punishment: three years’ probation, including six months under house arrest, and $1.5 million in fines and restitution.
Across Texas, Powell’s competitors were outspoken in their criticism. “We would all like to think that it’s the Ponderosa Ranch out there, but it’s not,” said Karl Kinsel, the executive director of the Texas Deer Association. “There are bad actors out there.” Privately, however, many breeders cringed as the scrutiny surrounding Powell’s case dredged up a long-standing debate over the merits of commercializing wildlife. In a state where deer season is second only to football as community ritual, big-buck fever has transformed rural life. Thanks in part to cable TV shows and hunting magazines that extol Texas as a prime destination for trophy deer, the state is a mecca for hunters nationwide, and its four million whitetails fuel a $2 billion industry. Yet the lust for ever-bigger deer—known in some circles as hornography—has highlighted some thorny questions: What divides hunting from shooting, predator from purchaser, and prey from product? When does bagging a buck become uncomfortably similar to shooting a cow in a pen? And are breeders like Powell criminals, threatening the state’s homegrown deer population, or simply cogs in a machine powered by the pocketbooks and appetites of trophy hounds?
A month after his sentencing, Powell was still raw as he drove me around 5P Farms, his nine-hundred-acre spread. Though deer-hunting season was a mere week away, workers were checking water wells and laying irrigation pipes instead of prepping blinds, feeders, and the hunting lodge. (As part of his plea deal, Powell had agreed not to profit from deer—including hosting paid hunts—while on probation.) Powell, a big-bellied man with wide ears and sad eyes, parked his Silver Nissan pickup by the whitetail-breeding pen, where fawns had been bottle-fed and nursed by nanny goats. The pen’s sunburned grass was now consigned to his wife’s favorite heifers. Powell was wistful as he talked about the good he’d accomplished with his animals. He’d helped ten families get into the deer business, and he had donated high-dollar hunts to his church and the Red Cross.
Deer breeding, he told me, was initially a retirement pastime. In the fifties, as a construction worker just out of the Army, he had parlayed a green thumb, a knack for building greenhouses, and a country-boy friendliness into the largest plant farm in Texas. By the time he sold the business, in the mid-nineties, Powell Plant Farms shipped landscaping plants, chrysanthemums, and poinsettias to 26 states for retail chains like Lowe’s and Home Depot. Powell then began dabbling in the deer business for fun. It was after losing his oldest son to suicide and his youngest to drugs that breeding became a full-time obsession.
In 1998 he began trucking in dozens of farm deer from the North and Midwest, betting on an ecological rule that animals grow larger in colder climates. Though the animals “died like flies” from the stress of Texas weather and diseases, enough survived to give him fast-maturing genetic strains that produced ready-to-shoot bucks far more rapidly than native deer would have. This was all perfectly legal until 2002, when, in response to a Midwestern outbreak of chronic wasting disease, a fatal contagion similar to mad cow disease, Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Texas Animal Health Commission halted deer imports. Though the ban was lifted in 2003, authorities closed Texas borders for good two years later, asserting that the state had enough whitetails and shouldn’t risk disease. (Importing semen, on the other hand, remains both legal and highly profitable.)
Powell considered the ban a bid by politically connected deer men to eliminate competition, and he decided to ignore it. “Billy just got excited,” Ruth told me later. “He simply got wrapped up in bigger and bigger horns.”
As any whitetail hunter knows, antler size is everything. And for trophy hounds, the more freakishly wide, knobby, and curlicued, the better. This fixation was formalized soon after Teddy Roosevelt created the Boone and Crockett Club, in 1887, to prevent American big game from being hunted to extinction. The club published the first trophy record book and developed formulas to rank big game; the Boone and Crockett scoring system, perfected in 1950, assesses whitetails based on the length and circumference of their antlers. Though the club won’t recognize the scores of farm-bred animals or wild-born deer shot in high-fence hunting operations, its scoring formula is nevertheless the gold standard for breeders and hunters everywhere.
In Texas, the endless appetite for higher-scoring antlers has developed on a parallel track with the evolution of hunting as a big-money sport. The practice of leasing land for deer hunting took hold in the fifties and sixties; this was soon followed by the adoption of high game fences and mechanical feeders to supplement deer diets. The more owners managed their herds, the more trophy buck scores climbed. In the seventies, the best Texas whitetails scored 150 to 160 in the Boone and Crockett system; today they can score 180 to 200.
But nothing has driven the rack race quite like commercial breeding. What began as a few registered operations in 1995 has morphed into an industry that comprises 1,236 breeders—and 103,155 captive animals—making Texas the state with the most deer farms in the country. (In 2007 a Texas A&M University study declared deer breeding the nation’s fastest-growing rural industry.) The effect on antler size was evident in Powell’s own numbers: In 1998 his best breeding buck scored 210. In 2009 a prized buck named Barry, after his first son, hit 440—a score that dwarfs the Boone and Crockett whitetail world record of 333 7/8. (Sales of Barry’s semen totaled $229,000. “He was the biggest deer in Texas,” Powell told me.)
“I refer to it as a bio-ego activity,” said Uvalde biologist Bob Zaiglin, who heads the wildlife management program at Southwest Texas Junior College and scores antler contests for the Texas Deer Association. “There’s a little bit of biology involved. There’s a lot more egos rubbing together.” When the financial stakes are high, he continued, “you’re always going to have people cheat. Some breeders want to be the biggest and the baddest, and that’s the gamble they’re willing to take.”
For those charged with protecting and managing the state’s wildlife, the rise in deer breeding has brought regulatory quandaries. Texas law deems every whitetail—captive or wild—a public resource, which means that commercial herds, whitetails behind game fences, and wild deer alike are state property, the modern-day equivalents of the king’s deer in old Robin Hood tales. This makes Texas Parks and Wildlife officials high sheriffs in an increasingly commercialized Sherwood Forest. For investigators like Chappell and Merida, the drive for colossal bucks has meant a clear spike in illegal activity, as breeders truck in whitetails to boost their herds.
I caught up with Chappell soon after Powell’s sentencing. A second-generation game warden who favors razor-creased Wranglers, a Western shirt, and a cowboy hat, the sergeant joined Texas Parks and Wildlife’s special operations unit in 2002. He now has more than twenty deer-smuggling investigations open. As a lifelong whitetail hunter who has never bagged anything close to a Boone and Crockett trophy, Chappell is bothered that antler mania is pricing some people out of the sport. “I’ve had a good many folks comment that they don’t hunt deer as much as they used to because of lease costs,” he told me.
Chappell teamed up with Merida in 2005. Together, they have taken down the likes of a wealthy Houston businessman who brought in $300,000 worth of Minnesota deer for his ranch and a father and son who sneaked 125 Arkansas deer into Hunt and Delta counties. Powell first came to their attention in October 2007, when an anonymous tipster confided that the East Texas breeder was going to add a couple of massive, out-of-state bucks to his operation. Sure enough, over the next year, Chappell and Merida heard more and more gossip—including rumors from as far away as Michigan—about the two behemoths that had arrived at 5P Farms. Then, in December 2008, they saw an ad that Powell had placed in the Texas Deer Association magazine to sell semen from two prize bucks, named Hit Man and Barry. The ad included photographs of the animals, and on closer inspection, they appeared to be two well-known breeder bucks, named Silver Storm and Fat Boy, from Indiana and Pennsylvania, respectively. The ad listed Hit Man’s score as 275 and Barry’s as 400-plus. “That pretty well confirmed we were onto something big,” Chappell told me.
Perhaps because he took such a dim view of the ban on imported deer, or perhaps because he was one of the richest men in Cherokee County, Powell did little to cover his tracks. He let visitors gawk at his prize bucks. He emailed photos to potential customers. Internet chatter among breeders pointed to the animals’ uncanny resemblance to the out-of-state bucks. As Powell filled orders for straws of semen, some of the deliveries bore labels with the bucks’ old names, while others featured their new monikers. “Everybody in the business knew what Billy was doing,” Merida told me. He and Chappell prepared to visit 5P Farms in the fall of 2009, but Powell, aware of the agents’ interest, took a preemptive step: he hired one of the region’s best-known criminal defense lawyers, a Tyler attorney with the auspicious name of Buck Files. Files got to work immediately on negotiating a deal, but Powell’s luck was running out. By the end of 2010, his foreman and his out-of-state deer broker had caved to pressure and agreed to testify against him if necessary. Investigators also played their trump card: they warned that Powell’s grandson, a deer breeder, could face prosecution too.
Powell was cornered. He surrendered 1,300 straws of semen, worth nearly $1 million, as well as a roomful of antlers and mounted deer heads. In June 2011 he pleaded guilty to smuggling more than $800,000 worth of deer from Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio and lying about it to investigators. (In exchange, prosecutors agreed to let his grandson plead guilty to misdemeanors.) Texas Deer Association officials booted Powell from their membership, telling reporters that news stories about deerzillas ignored their industry’s contributions. “We know how to improve our deer to keep Texas a destination state, so that people want to come and shoot a trophy in the pasture, not a freak in a pen with a rocking chair on its head,” said Kinsel.
When Powell learned that Texas Parks and Wildlife big-game biologists planned to euthanize 334 of his breeding deer, he put up one last fight. He had a prominent deer expert examine his animals to confirm that they came from closely monitored, disease-free breeding operations and to argue that there wasn’t a scientific basis for slaughter. He also hired a civil lawyer, who proposed that the deer be sent to a ranch in Mexico or donated to A&M for study. It was no use: workers descended on Powell’s farm to anesthetize the whitetails, kill them with a bolt gun to the skull, and sever their heads for testing. On the final killing day, the bloodied, headless bodies were piled four feet high into a twenty-foot utility trailer; it took five trailerloads to haul all the carcasses away for burial. The agency’s stated aim was to ensure that the animals were free of diseases that plague wild deer in other states. (There is currently no method to test live deer for chronic wasting disease.) “In no way was this a punitive action,” Mitch Lockwood, the head of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s big-game program, said in November. “We’re not going to euthanize deer to punish a person.”
But within the deer industry—where disease concerns are seen more as hysteria than science—many considered the move a massacre. “It was a terrible thing and a huge message,” Kinsel told me. Among the 22 states that allow commercial breeding, only Texas and Alabama ban whitetail imports; even so, Texas does allow entry for other commercially bred animals, like elk, that are also known to carry and spread disease. (They are considered “nontraditional livestock.”) Though he was careful not to criticize Texas Parks and Wildlife, Kinsel told me that the state’s rule book clearly needs changing.
Several months after the slaughter, test results showed that Powell’s deer were free of disease. Paradoxically, the kill order had excluded any deer that had been turned out to his pastures, even though they had been in and around the same pens as the condemned animals. For Powell, these seeming contradictions are evidence of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s unchecked power. “They do not like deer breeders,” he said, eyes flashing, as we rode around 5P Farms. His confiscated deer semen will soon be sold at auction, much as authorities do with drug dealers’ seized Hummers and Escalades, and as part of his plea deal, he is cooperating with Merida in a federal investigation of other prominent deer men.
These days, Powell spends his time puttering with cattle and checking on the stock-pond bluegills and bass he’s fattening with a mechanical fish feeder. He drives around his property, keeping a lookout for his remaining whitetails. “I think at the end of three years,” he told me as we toured his farm, “I’ll have a real good deer crop out there.” The sunlight dwindled, and Powell turned toward home to beat his house-arrest curfew. We passed a barbed-wire fence lined with bleached antlers, all of them from pen-bred bucks. The shed horns made the antlers of wild deer look puny, Powell told me. “Those local deer aren’t worth shooting.” He spoke with palpable longing about the days when he had dispatched a King Air turboprop to retrieve the eggs of a super-doe he owned in Missouri, or when other breeders had counseled him to hand-feed bucks Viagra—advice he didn’t get to try before being run out of business. In the 2010 deer season, the last year he had been able to breed or hunt, half of the forty bucks shot at 5P Farms had scored over 200.
“Brought in a little over $200,000,” Powell said, shaking his head. “Best year we ever had.”