Hundreds of ‘zombie’ deer with CWD killed on Texas’ RW Trophy Ranch


Wildlife officials in Texas shot and killed nearly 250 white-tailed deer, most of which had so-called “zombie deer disease”, following a years-long battle with a rancher.

Officials with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department told USA TODAY state agents used rifles and pistols Thursday to eradicate the animals infected with chronic wasting disease (CWD), a contagious and fatal degenerate deer-specific infection.

The depopulation took place at the 1,500-acre RW Trophy Ranch in Terrell, a city about 33 miles east of Dallas, to stop what state officials called the largest known (CWD) outbreak the state of Texas “has ever seen.”

The ranch, in Hunt County, is owned by Robert Williams, a more than 35-year veteran rancher, along with his daughter, Maree Lou Williams.

The killings began in daylight, Lerrin Johnson, a state wildlife press officer, said Monday, and after the sun set, the carcasses were taken to a biohazard waste dump in Waco, more than 100 miles away.

“This is a task we never take lightly and that is always a last resort, but that has proven the most prudent and standard practice for managing prion diseases in wildlife,” TPWD released in a statement to USA TODAY.

In early 2022, Williams sued the state in an attempt to prevent the eradication of the animals he had a permit to breed, records show. He lost the case in court earlier this year.

Under Texas law, people can obtain a deer-breeder permit for white tailed deer, but they are wild animals and cannot be legally owned.

USA TODAY has reached out to Williams.

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What is chronic wasting disease?

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a highly contagious disease specific to deer, moose, reindeer and elk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is fatal and there is no vaccine.

First identified in a captive deer at a Colorado research facility in 1967, the first wild deer case emerged in 1981.

As of early May, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, it had been detected in deer in 34 states and five Canadian provinces.

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Can humans contract chronic wasting disease?

There have been no cases of chronic wasting disease in people to date, the CDC says. But it is still investigating the potential risks and advises people not to eat meat from animals that test positive for the disease.

Since 2012, the wildlife agency has reported 795 case of CWD, the most recent in a white-tailed deer on May 16.

“If CWD is not contained and controlled, the implications of the disease for Texas and its multi-billion-dollar ranching, hunting, wildlife management, and real estate economies could be significant,” TPWD said.

A years-long legal battle to save his herd

According to TPWD, in early 2021, one of the deer on Williams’ ranch contracted CWD.

Soon more deer tested positive for the disease and the state initiated a kill-order for the deer which, court papers show, Williams rejected.

In January 2022, the rancher − who had a permit to breed deer − filled suit against the TPWD and Texas Animal Health Commission in an effort to fight the depopulation order.

The state’s attorneys argued the case should be tossed because, under Texas law, the public owns all white-tailed deer in the state including those held by private breeders.

The lawsuit made its way to the Texas Supreme Court after the Houston 14th Court of Appeals upheld the state’s decision earlier this year. The high court ruled, eradicating the deer did not violate Williams’ property rights.

RW Trophy Ranch numbers as reported by the state:

When CWD was first detected in March 2021, state officials reported, RW Trophy Ranch reported 637 deer in its herd inventory. Of the 352 deer that had died in the facility and been tested for CWD since the initial detection, officials said 254 tested positive with a prevalence rate of 72 percent by May 28th.

“Nearly 90 percent of samples collected this year tested positive or suspect positive,” Johnson said Monday. “RW Trophy Ranch was losing an average 2 percent of its deer herd each week. In addition,12 deer also tested positive on release sites either near or associated with RW Trophy Ranch.”

Samples from the depopulation were still being processed at the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostics Laboratory on Monday, and state officials said, results were not expected for several weeks.

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What are symptoms of chronic wasting disease?

Chronic wasting disease in animals is termed the “zombie deer disease” as it leads to the following symptoms:

  • Lack of coordination
  • Weight loss
  • Listlessness
  • Drooling
  • Stumbling
  • Lack of fear of people

Natalie Neysa Alund is a senior reporter for USA TODAY. Reach her at [email protected] and follow her on X @nataliealund.


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