Monday, February 20, 2012

Records: A single buck from Pa. with huge rack can fetch as much as $1M in Texas

But the ring's kingpin was not interested in drugs or rare gems.

The man at the center of it, Billy Powell, 78, was more interested in tapping Pennsylvania's lucrative deer farming industry to genetically engineer white-tailed deer with monster antlers that fetch thousands of dollars from trophy-hungry sportsmen.

"A lot of our hunters are turning into antler collectors," said biologist Bob Zaiglin of the Texas Deer Association, which represents breeders. "I call it 'bio ego' activity. It's very little (about) biology and lots (about) egos. People want big antlers, and it's going to tempt a lot of (breeders) because there is value."

Investigators said Powell smuggled more than 40 farm-raised deer into Texas from Pennsylvania and other northern states to breed animals with chandelier-like antlers at his sprawling 5 P ranch in New Summerfield, about 130 miles from Dallas.

Deer farming is legal throughout the United States, and Powell did not violate Pennsylvania laws, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Noble said. But Texas closed its borders to deer importation six years ago to protect against chronic wasting disease, a neurological disorder infiltrating deer herds in 19 states but not Texas or Pennsylvania, which regulates deer imports, said Dr. Craig Shultz of Pennsylvania's Department of Agriculture.

Even though there's no shortage of deer in the Lone Star State — about 3.5 million in the wild and 100,000 in captivity — some antler-crazed hunters paid more than $10,000 to roam breeders' fenced-in farms to bag a goliath deer, records show.

Powell paid about $800,000 for his smuggled deer, but in the nation's $650 million deer breeding industry, a single buck with a mammoth rack can sell for up to $1 million, records indicate.

For his crime, Powell was fined $1.5 million, placed under house arrest for six months and barred from breeding deer for three years. Powell tersely said he "didn't do it for the economic benefit," and that he was just "trying to raise big deer."

Citing an investigation, Noble would not say where Powell purchased the deer in Pennsylvania, where a 1,000-farm deer farming industry generates $103 million a year.

Breeding bigger bucks

Investigators say Pennsylvania and other northern states are hot spots for breeders looking to produce the next generation of big bucks. In part, big antlers are linked to genetics, but the North's colder climate fosters deer with larger bodies and equally enormous racks, Zaiglin said. Often, deer raised in the wild have smaller racks than those raised by farmers using special breeding and feeding techniques, he said.

"We've taken years to breed those deer. We get a little smarter every year on the feed," said Andy Foor of The Wilderness deer farm in Bedford County.

The Boone and Crockett Club, a Montana-based conservation and hunting organization founded in 1887 by Teddy Roosevelt and named for Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, scores antlers based on length and circumference. The club does not recognize deer raised in captivity.

Foor said about 80 of his 325-deer herd rate 180 or higher on the club's scale and would sell for about $4,500 each. The smallest, which rates 105, would sell for about $1,250.
White-tailed deer in Texas typically score about 160, but biologists say genetic engineering created deer with ratings topping 200. Officials said one of Powell's smuggled deer scored 440, well above the 3337/8 official Boone and Crockett record set in 1981.
Jack Reneau, the club's director of big game records, declined to comment on the Powell case.

Super-sized progeny

Among breeders, the biggest bucks attain star status, easily recognized by nicknames and ornate antlers that can span 4 feet.

Timber, a buck with a score of 212, became such a celebrity in South Connellsville that owner Mark Delara believes a jealous hunter tried to assassinate his beloved pet. Delara purchased him five years ago for $1,000 and has refused all offers for Timber, including one for $15,000.

Once, Delara found an arrow in Timber's 7-acre pen. "I'll kill 'em," Delara warned anyone who gets too close to Timber. Timber produced supersized progeny, with three selling for about $5,000 each.

The distinct appearance of two of Powell's smuggled deer became his downfall.
A tipster noticed Powell's photo of a deer named Barry in an industry magazine ad to sell Barry's semen and told authorities that the animal closely resembled a legendary Pennsylvania deer known as Fat Boy. Another of Powell's advertised deer, called Hitman, was recognized as a deer named Silver Storm from Indiana, records show.

Barry and Hitman died of natural causes, but all 334 deer in Powell's herd were ordered to be euthanized to test for disease.

'Natural resources at risk'

Mitch Lockwood of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department sharply criticized Powell and defended honest breeders. "The deer population in Texas is doing quite well, so it's not worth taking a risk," Lockwood said. "It really does confuse me as to why someone would try to ruin a good thing by importing deer."

He said Powell angered many in Texas, including some of the 1,200 breeders.
"People are frustrated, some disgusted, that anyone would put natural resources at risk," Lockwood said.

Pennsylvania, with the nation's second-largest deer farming industry, does not require farmers to track where sold deer are headed, but Foor does it anyway. He said it would be difficult to enforce a law making such tracking mandatory.

"How do you regulate something like that? There's a black market for everything. It's something they can't stop," Foor said. "It's (all about) the craving for the big buck."
Powell said he won't return to breeding.

"I had 15 years of breeding. I'm too old to start all over again," he said.
He was devastated by an order to relinquish his 1,200 vials of deer semen, valued at $961,500.

Importing frozen semen to Texas is legal, and some breeders pay as much as $20,000 for one vial from a record-setting animal.

Law enforcement will push ahead with its work, said Mike Merida, senior special agent for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, who led the Powell investigation, the largest deer smuggling operation in the country. "Sometimes we get flak from the deer breeding industry," Merida said. "As long as everything is done legally, I have no problem with it. It's these people that get greedy and think they can circumvent the law; we're going to prosecute those cases."

Other cases

Billy Powell, 78, of New Summerfield, Texas, was convicted of illegally importing deer from Pennsylvania to Texas. Other Texans convicted of violating deer importing laws:

>> Brothers James Bobby Butler Jr., 43, and Marlin Jackson Butler, 37, agreed to a plea deal in 2011 for operating a hunting camp in Kansas guiding hunters without permits and then illegally transporting dead deer to Texas for taxidermy work. James was sentenced to 41 months in prison, and he must pay a $25,000 fine and $25,000 in restitution. Marlin was sentenced to 27 months in prison, and he must pay a $10,000 fine and $10,000 in restitution.

>> Father and son James Dwayne Anderton, 52, and Jimmie Wallace Anderton, 28, pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2010 for smuggling 25 live white-tailed deer from Arkansas to Texas. James was sentenced to 30 months in prison, and Jimmie, 27 months; each must pay $180,952 in restitution.

>> Lance Clawson, 58, and Roy Dale Leifester, 52, pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2009 for smuggling eight white-tailed deer from Oklahoma to Texas. Clawson was sentenced to three years of probation, a $15,000 fine and $7,250 in restitution. Leifester was sentenced to three years of probation and fined $15,000.

>> Robert Lawrence Eichenour, 54, was sentenced to 18 months in prison and three years of probation after pleading guilty in 2008 to federal charges of smuggling 14 white-tailed deer from Minnesota to Texas.

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