A deer-smuggling case is shedding light on the high-dollar white-tailed deer industry. According to a story appearing at twincities.com
"Two years ago, Brian Becker drove 1,008 miles from Madelia, Minn., to the small East Texas town of Bedias, unaware that federal authorities had him under surveillance after being tipped off that his gooseneck trailer carried contraband - trophy deer.
His smuggling operation, which reaped $300,000 from a single customer in four years, exposes a dark underside to Texas' $73 million deer-hunting industry, which has provided jobs and other economic benefits to many rural areas of the state.
On Nov. 24, Becker, 38, already on probation for smuggling deer to Oklahoma in 2005, was sentenced by a federal court in Plano, Texas, to 33 months in prison.
The buyer, Robert L. Eichenour, 51, a wealthy Houston businessman and owner of a posh hunting ranch in Bedias, received an 18-month term and was ordered to pay a $50,000 fine. Both had pleaded guilty and did not dispute the charges.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Mike Merida, a Fort Worth-based special agent with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, referring to interstate deer trafficking, which he said threatens herds with bovine tuberculosis and chronic wasting disease, a devastating condition likened to mad-cow disease but spread among deer, elk and moose.
Authorities disclosed that the tip-off came from within the game industry and pinpointed Becker's destination and shipment dates. During interrogations, the Minnesotan also claimed to have been dealing with a hunting ranch in North Texas and an investigation is ongoing, they said, declining to provide further details.
"From my perspective, there's a lot of movement of black-market deer, whether it's wild deer 'laundered' into a high-fence operation or 'put and take' hunting," said Capt. Greg Williford of Texas Parks & Wildlife, who says smuggling is an open secret in the industry. "We're out to try to prove it."
When breeding bucks with the right genetics can fetch as much as $500,000 at auction, "you always have some trying to go around corners," said John Meng, marketing director of the Texas Deer Association.
Eichenour was not a member of the industry association and, therefore, not subject to the group's code of ethics, Meng said.
Others cautioned against exaggerating the scope of wildlife trafficking, noting the Becker case was only the third in the state in recent years.
"I would think it is extremely rare with all the restrictions and everything we must follow," said Johnny Hudman, game-ranch manager at the Stasney Cook Ranch in Albany, Texas.
Becker, who was seen napping at truck stops, was to have been arrested crossing the Oklahoma-Texas state line, but authorities missed him, as they did on an earlier run.
He was finally nabbed hours later by Merida and Texas Parks and Wildlife personnel when his pickup and gooseneck trailer fell into a ditch outside Eichenour's 2,000-acre property, a high-fenced hunting ranch called Circle E. Eichenour was arrested when he came out to accept delivery of eight "shooter" bucks, Merida said."
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