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?
The Bucks Stop Here
Photograph by Darren Braun

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

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