GENE RISER WHEELS HIS PICKUP over the caliche road in the thorny South Texas brush country near the town of George West, halfway between Corpus Christi and San Antonio. He's showing off his 2,500-acre mesquite-studded property while explaining why he became a deer rancher. His grandfather, he tells me, bought this land and tried to make a living as a cattle rancher. He barely made ends meet. Riser's father cleared a lot of the brush away and tried to farm the land, but the lack of rain doomed that effort too. In the sixties Gene left the family farm and took up other work. His father still kept a few cattle on the ranch, but that business, in Texas and elsewhere, was an increasingly bad bet. Over time the family land had been overgrazed, abused, hunted-out, and rendered more or less useless. If not for a small oil and gas lease, the family might have had to sell it off.
Then, in 1987, the Risers decided to try another way to earn money from their land. Instead of selling farm produce or cattle, they focused on selling hunters the right to kill deer on their property during the three-month hunting season every fall and early winter. To do this they put up an eight-foot-high fence to keep their white-tailed deer from roaming onto their neighbors' property and to keep other deer from coming onto the Riser ranch. The Risers then selectively hunted the deer and allowed the herd to mature fully, something that rarely happens to deer on low-fenced lands. Older deer are larger and have bigger antlers, which allowed the Risers to charge higher prices for hunting leases.
The idea was not exactly new. High fences were already a signature of many South Texas and Hill Country ranches. They had first been erected in the thirties on spreads such as the YO Ranch near Kerrville to contain exotic game imported from Africa for the purpose of hunting—a lucrative means of supplementing ranching income. But the Risers and others like them wanted to use the same type of fence for what was already there—white-tailed deer—the one species of ungulate that is native to almost the entire state. The idea worked. The operation ultimately allowed Gene Riser to move his family back to the ranch.
Two years after the high fence went up, Gene Riser went one step further and became one of Texas' first scientific deer breeders, a business that became legal for the first time in 1985. Under the new law, up to 320 acres could be set aside to improve the breed with stud stock from another game breeder. That stock and their progeny are the property of the game breeder and, unlike wild whitetails, can be bought and sold. Riser built some pens on a forty-acre plot, bought some hardy whitetails from other ranches, and started his breeding business. His main market: high-fence deer ranchers who wanted bigger bucks with bigger antlers.
This idea worked even better—and, indeed, was already working around the state for other ranchers trying to survive in a brutally depressed cattle market. The 56-year-old Riser now makes money from both operations, hunting and breeding. He doesn't intermingle the deer he breeds with those on his hunting acreage because the breeding stock is far more valuable.
Deer ranching is hardly an isolated practice on a few experimental properties. What Riser is doing with his land is being replicated all across the state of Texas and especially in South Texas and the Hill Country. Our state leads the world outside of South Africa in high fencing: at least 3 million of the 16 million acres of deer habitat in South Texas are now high-fenced. High fences and genetics, combined with the huge natural constituency of hunters who will pay handsomely to hunt deer are effecting a massive change in land use. For large swaths of the state, what is happening amounts to the de facto privatization of deer, a wildlife resource that is defined by law as the property of the people, and the redefinition of hunting as a sporting amusement reserved for people who can afford hefty fees, similar to the system in Great Britain today. It has also caused an increasingly bitter controversy among landowners, hunters, and government regulators.
The first charge leveled at deer ranchers like Riser comes from their potential clientele, the hunters themselves. How, critics wonder, is it really "fair chase" when you shoot a corn-drunk whitetail that is confined on fenced land? And indeed, the Boone and Crockett Club, the arbiter of game records in North America, does not certify trophy deer taken within high fences. Someone who high-fences a spread, then jams it with imported whitetails who are then baited and shot, is engaging in what many people believe to be unethical hunting.
The second charge is more serious, and more practical. Confining deer within high fences can lead to overcrowding and the infection of whole herds with diseases. These include anthrax and chronic wasting disease. The latter, which is the wildlife equivalent of mad cow disease, has broken out on high-fenced elk ranches in Colorado over the past year, prompting the Texas Animal Health Commission, the agency which regulates domestic livestock health in our state, to ban the importation of both deer and elk from Colorado. Those same factors influenced the citizens of Montana in a statewide referendum last year to ban new game farms and prohibit property owners with high fences from charging hunters to shoot game within their enclosures.
"Anytime you put white-tailed deer or any animal in a confined area where their numbers are concentrated, you run a very high risk that disease will break out," says Scot Williamson, the director of big-game programs for Parks and Wildlife from 1990 to 1993. "Landowners who say that they're not going to let the deer on their land get a disease just don't know enough to make the claims they're making. There are too many variables,