When you think about the clandestine operations involved in the smuggling business in Texas, you probably immediately think of the region straddling the U.S./Mexico border along the Rio Grande River, right?
Well, a new kind of smuggling taking place in Texas has nothing to do with illegal immigration or the illicit drug trade. This contraband is coming from northern states, where white-tailed deer have strong genetics and grow unusually large headgear. And it’s all about big bucks—as in greenbacks.
Last month, a prominent deer breeder from eastern Texas received the most costly fine and restitution order ever handed down in a wildlife-related crime after pleading guilty in June to illegally transporting at least 40 whitetails into Texas over a 3-year period from game farms in Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Ohio, in violation of state and federal statutes. Billy Powell, 77, was sentenced to 6 months of home confinement and a $1.5 million fine, sending a strong message to the Texas deer-breeding industry.
In his court testimony, Powell acknowledged that the fair market value of all of the illegally imported deer exceeded $800,000, that the value of the illegal deer semen exceeded approximately $961,000, and that the value of the offspring exceeded approximately $290,000.
An article in "The Houston Chronicle" this week notes that a Texas A&M University study found deer breeding pumped $650 million into the U.S. economy 4 years ago, and was the fastest-growing industry in rural America. In Texas, permits have been issued to 1,233 breeders, who have 103,000 deer registered. Deer breeding is probably as common in The Lone Star State as anywhere in the country, and remains legal as long as it involves registered, captive deer from within the state.
“There’s a strong market for deer with those monster antlers. Hunters will pay thousands of dollars to bag one,” Michael Merida, special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Fort Worth, told the Chronicle. “That’s why a frozen semen straw from a big-name buck can be worth $2,000, and a breeder can extract 70 or 80 straws at a time.”
In 2008, two men received jail time for Lacey Act violations in the smuggling of 14 trophy whitetail over a 4-year period from Minnesota to a Texas game ranch, where they planned to sell high-dollar hunts. Robert Eichenour, owner of Circle E Ranch in Grimes County, Texas, was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison, 36 months probation and fined $50,000. Brian Becker of Minnesota received 33 months in federal prison and 36 months probation.
“Texas game wardens and Fish and Wildlife agents continue to work together to deter illegal trafficking in wildlife across our state and across America,” said Col. Peter Flores, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department law enforcement division director. “The illegal trade may be perceived to be profitable for some, but the price to pay is high when they are caught, and we hope that this type of penalty will deter those who would engage in the illegal wildlife trade.”