Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) shot and killed 249 deer at the RW Trophy Ranch in Terrell, Texas, on May 28, after a three-year legal battle with the ranch’s owner, Robert Williams, over what state officials stated in legal filings is the largest outbreak of Chronic Wasting Disease that Texas has ever seen.

Routine testing first detected CWD in 2021 in Williams’ herd, which is held in approximately 70 acres of breeding pens on the 1,500-acre ranch an hour east of Dallas. After negotiations between Williams, 85, and TPWD failed to reach agreement on a disease management plan, the state agency issued a “depopulation” order calling for a complete culling of the herd. Williams sued, arguing the state had no right to kill his private herd, but the Texas Supreme Court ruled in January that the state is within its rights in ordering the cull. Under Texas law, the courts noted, even captive whitetail deer are considered wildlife.

The RW Trophy Ranch herd numbered 637 when CWD was first detected, USA Today reported. Testing of 352 deer that have died since then has produced 254 positives for the fatal disease, a prevalence rate of 72 percent. The 249 deer killed by TPWD officials was the remainder of Williams’ herd.

“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 said in a statement sent to the paper.

The Texas Deer Association, a professional organization for deer breeders, originally supported Williams’ fight, but it eventually sent a letter to TPWD—co-signed by the Texas Wildlife Association—supporting the agency’s decision. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that Kevin Williams, executive director of TDA, believed the disease was too far out of control at RW Trophy Ranch. “If we truly market ourselves as science-based and part of a long-term solution to CWD, then we also have to understand that some situations can be unsalvageable,” Davis told the paper.

The decision to depopulate, while drastic, is not unprecedented. In December 2023 the agency euthanized an entire whitetail herd at Kerr Wildlife Management Area, after testing revealed CWD in captive whitetail deer at a high-fence state research facility. In a press release, the department cited “an abundance of caution” for the decision and noted that post-mortem testing revealed no additional positive results for CWD.   

“TPWD staff are disappointed to abruptly end nearly 50 years of white-tailed deer research that has significantly influenced deer management in Texas and across the country” Wildlife Division Director John Silovsky said in the release. “Staff will continue to investigate opportunities to enhance the understanding of this insidious disease in both captive environments and free-ranging populations.”