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