Trophy whitetail breeding is big business in Texas

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'Scientific breeding' of whitetail deer for trophy antlers has become more than a hobby in Texas

By Dick J. Reavis, San Antonio Express-News

04/14/2002


Jeff Soele, a San Antonio real estate agent, feeds corn to his penned deer, among the many specimens at his Cinco Cañones Ranch south of Kerrville.


One night in 1988, Gery Moczygemba received a phone call that would change the life of the whole Moczygemba clan — and maybe of the Texas deer population.

"A patient called, about 1 o'clock at night, saying that he had a toothache so bad that he couldn't make it until morning," the Seguin dentist recalls.

"When I met him at the office about 2 a.m., I told him that we either had to extract his tooth or I had to do a root canal. He said, 'How about if I give you some deer for the root canal?'"

Within weeks, Moczygemba was bottle-feeding five fawns in a pen that he, his four brothers and father, Lucian, built on the family's homestead near Pawelekville in Karnes County.

They also were filing papers and forms with the Texas Department of Parks & Wildlife, to become what the agency calls "scientific deer breeders."

"We had no earthly idea what we were getting into," Moczygemba said.

The family joined the ranks of a growing wildlife industry that began in 1985 when the Legislature and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department set new standards for deer breeders and gave them ownership of their animals.

Under Texas law, breeders are allowed to pen, own, buy and sell native whitetail deer. The "scientific" improvement that most breeders aim for has nothing to do with hardiness or disease resistance, or even with body size. Instead, the object of such breeding is to produce trophy bucks with enormous racks of antlers.

After five years, one of the Moczygemba fawns, Paco, sprouted a set of antlers noteworthy enough to land his image on the covers of Texas Parks & Wildlife and Outdoor Life magazines.

As Paco's fame spread, breeders began to make offers for his offspring, and since 1993, the Moczygemba family has grossed about $1.25 million from the sale of Paco's fawns and semen. Three of his buck descendants have sold for $50,000 each.

Ranches in the Hill Country, the South Texas brushlands and other parts of the state have abandoned money-losing livestock operations and turned to deer to pay the bills.

The quest for the perfect trophy to mount on a wall draws wealthy hunters willing to spend thousands of dollars to bag a trophy buck and has spawned a market for deer semen and fawns for breeding stock.

About 460 deer breeders are registered in the state, up from 107 three years ago, said Bryan Richards, head of the Parks & Wildlife breeding program.

About 20,000 whitetail are being kept in Texas breeding pens, a mere .005 percent of the state's population of some 4 million. But in the past two years, the number of penned deer has increased by about 25 percent annually.

The financial size of the breeding industry is a matter of guesswork, though it feeds on hopes raised by the state's booming $2 billion-a-year deer-hunting industry.

Deer breeding has stimulated the wildlife biologist's trade, the market for specialty feeds, the manufacture and sale of veterinary supplies, and ultimately, the market for rural real estate. Ranches with handsome whitetail herds are more valuable than those with no deer.

It has drawn the ire of animal-rights supporters and of some hunters, who object to treating deer as a commodity, breeding and nourishing them simply to produce large antlers.

But the prices commanded by monster bucks continue to fuel the industry's growth. Even after Paco died last year, "straws," or samples, of his frozen semen sold for $500 each at the first Antlers International deer auction in Texas.

"Paco was what we call our 'lottery ticket,'" Moczygemba said. "We never knew that we could make so much money from what started as a hobby."

The family members' efforts and those of the breeders to whom they sold, he estimates, have left a legacy of 5,000 Paco descendants.

"His bloodline has changed the state of Texas," he said.

Trophies and guides

Nobody knows how many of the 590,000 deer hunters in Texas are the type of trophy hunters who would pay to shoot a bred buck, not even Jerry Johnston of San Antonio, who has made a career out of assisting them.

Johnston, a scientific breeder, is the publisher of the Journal of the Texas Trophy Hunters. He also is the founder of the Texas Trophy Hunters Association and a closely allied group, the Texas Deer Association.

Johnston, 57, began his career as a spokesman for trophy hunters by founding the journal in 1975. Its present circulation, mostly to members of the group, is about 60,000 — four times its size in 1990.

For Johnston and most hunting professionals, breeding for big-rack deer simply is not an issue.

"There are two things here, wild deer and scientific breeding," he said. "Wild whitetail are the property of the people of Texas. Breeding whitetail are the personal property of scientific breeders. In America, what you do with your property is your own business."

In efforts to outshine one another, trophy hunters in 1950 adopted a system for evaluating whitetail antlers through the Boone and Crockett big-game hunters' club, founded by Theodore Roosevelt.

The system produces numerical values, called "B&C points" or "inches" as an objective way to rate antlers. Even though the Boone and Crockett club won't register scores from live animals or deer that are killed on high-fenced ranches, B&C points have become the currency of the whitetail industry.

A 2000 survey of South Texas whitetail herds by the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute in Kingsville placed the average B&C score for wild deer at 130 points, and the Texas Big Game Awards program's net minimum score in South Texas is 140.

"When Paco turned 5 years old and measured more than 200 Boone and Crockett points, that's when it turned into something more than a hobby for us," Gery Moczygemba said.

Trophy hunting has probably led to an increase in guided hunts. On such outings, one of the guide's usual tasks is showing his client where deer are to be found — quite often, near feeders — and another is estimating B&C points at a glance, to signal animals whose scores fall within the range for which the hunter has paid.

"There are places where guides are needed, in Canada and places like that, but in Texas, a real hunter goes out and finds his own animal," said Henry Chappell of Plano, author of "At Home on the Range With a Texas Hunter."

But while some purists scorn guided hunts, others tout them as beneficial to the herd.

Debbie Slator Gillan, who with her husband, Bart, operates a ranch near Llano that offers packaged hunts — but not guides — argues that guides can be not only useful, but ecologically wise.

"With a guided hunt," she said, "you won't have immature bucks taken by mistake."

With or without guides, trophy hunting can be expensive.

"Everybody makes his own deal, but, generally speaking, people are paying $1,500 for a weekend hunt, and about $100 per inch for every inch above 100 on the B&C scale," Moczygemba said.

By those terms, Paco at age 5 would have been worth some $17,500 to a hunter. But as Moczygemba points out, "the genetics that a deer throws are worth more than putting a bullet in him."

That's why, patriarch Lucian Moczygemba notes, "There's never been a deer off of this place that's been shot." Nor is it likely that any will meet a hunter's bullet anytime soon, because the family is pioneering what might be called the field of whitetail futures: At prices of $2,000 and upward, it already has sold unborn Paco fawns through the year 2004.

Animal rights concerns

Animal rights activists and even animal health authorities look askance at breeding practices.

"We ought to leave wild animals alone insofar as we can," said Don Barnes of the San Antonio organization Voice for Animals.

The Texas Animal Health Commission, a state agency, last month banned the importation of whitetails because chronic wasting disease, an ailment similar to mad cow disease, has been discovered in some out-of-state deer herds, and authorities fear it could spread rapidly in environments where deer are confined.

Captive deer die other unnatural deaths, in addition to those brought on by disease. Coyotes dig into pens and kill fawns, and poachers sometimes shoot captive bucks. Animals suddenly expire after being darted for vaccination or tagging, and all too often, spooked deer charge the fences that surround them, sometimes breaking their necks when they do.

Earlier this year, wildlife enthusiasts in Texas were shocked when they received pictures over the Internet of a big-antlered buck attached to a life-support system. His neck was broken, but his misery was being prolonged, the story went, in order to allow his owners to extract the buck's semen.

Despite dangers in the pen, Parks & Wildlife figures and estimates from wildlife experts show that penned deer live longer than those in the wild. Though about 10 percent of breeder deer die each year, mortality rates are more than twice as high in the wild, even when hunting — which removes about 11 percent of the population — is excluded from calculations.

Though breeding has in small ways revitalized old Texas controversies over high-fenced ranches and guided hunting, it does not seem to have given animal-welfare advocates any decisive new influence.

The most strident critics of breeding admit that, in Texas anyway, they don't stand a chance of halting the practice.

"Ninety-five percent of the land in Texas is privately owned, and there's nothing you can do about it." Barnes said. "The landowners will do what they please, especially if they can make money out of it."

Trappings of a lifestyle

Few people in the deer-breeding business have been as fortunate as the Moczygembas, and an increasing number of them don't entertain financial aims. For some breeders, whitetail have become adornments of a rustic lifestyle.

One of these is Jeff Soele, 43, a San Antonio real estate broker who specializes in high-dollar recreational ranches, especially those with creeks and springs.

"I sell running water for a living," Soele said.

The Cinco Cañones Ranch, in the hills just south of Kerrville, is a 500-acre high-fenced spread that Soele bought — perhaps for sale, perhaps for his own use; he hasn't decided yet.

About 75 acres of the ranch is divided into 20 roomy pens, stocked with creatures from around the globe: scimitar horned oryx, gemsbock, wildebeests, black buck antelope, bison, waterbuck and barasinga deer — a virtual zoo. Several longhorn roam the place, as does T-Bone, a castrated and very domesticated feral hog.

Also on the property — roaming free — are fallow and axis deer. These are "exotics," or non-native species that, under Texas law, are classified as livestock.

Several pens hold whitetail deer. In one of them, near the ranch foreman's quarters, stands Bart, who, Soele said, "likes beer and Big Red and peanut butter and crackers." So accustomed is Bart to his master that the buck will eat from Soele's hands.

Bart is a 3-year-old who has produced descending or "drop" tines on antlers, prized among some trophy hunters whose preference is for antlers that fall into the Boone & Crockett "nontypical" category.

His owner may have come to regard Bart as a pet instead of a breeding machine. Bart is penned with only one doe, Muffy, 4: most breeding bucks are given harems of 10 to 30 does.

"I'm a busy man," Soele said with a shrug. "I've got other things to do."

"For right now," he said, the ranch and the breeding operation are "a place where I show people what can be done with a ranch."

His breeding operation serves partly as a model, and partly as a means of stocking the property with the kind of whitetail that a buyer might desire. For now, free-roaming exotics stand in the role that, if Soele's breeding schemes work out, whitetail one day will play on the ranch.

Emus and longhorns

If breeding follows the pattern set in past public disputes over whitetail, it is likely to rise and fall, not on moral or ecological arguments, but on its merits as a business.

Some wildlife biologists and experts at Texas Parks & Wildlife think breeding won't live up to its promise to increase the antler size of deer in the wild. According to the view of skeptics, breeding will prove to be just a flash in the pan — though the flash, everyone acknowledges, now is red-hot, thanks to the prices commanded by deer such as Paco's offspring.

Dr. James Kroll of Stephen F. Austin University, the state's leading authority on whitetails, said the faith breeders place on genetics probably is not justified.

Nutrition, he maintains, is more important to antler size than genetic factors. Since nutrition can be controlled in breeding pens, the deer are more likely to grow larger antlers. But, he said, making a dent in the gene pools of wild herds is a formidable undertaking.

"If a buck is lucky, in the wild he may contribute six or eight fawn a year (compared with 40 to 60 in captivity), and of those, only half will survive to reproduce," Kroll said.

The rapid rise of breeding and the eye-catching value of its stock remind some other observers of the emu and ostrich crazes of the early '90s, when ranchers were stocking their spreads with birds that promised to supply a new market for meat — a market that never materialized.

"Breeding right now shares a lot of characteristics with emus," TPW's Richards said. "Emus were valuable until no one wanted them anymore. Right now, the vast majority of sales by deer breeders go to new breeders in the same industry, and prices are at tremendous levels."

But deer breeding has a built-in financial safety factor, breeder Terry Retzloff of Jourdanton points out.

"There was no value to shooting an emu," he said. "There's always a value for a whitetail because there's so many people who want to come from urban areas and hunt."


Lucian Moczygemba displays antlers from Pipes, an offspring of Paco, a famed whitetail whose bloodline has grossed more than $1 million.
Bob Owen/Staff

dreavis@express-news.net
 


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