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Big bucks are big business in state

| Sunday, Aug. 22, 2004

Goliath rests in a field of knee-high timothy and orchard grass as his owner, Rodney Miller, uses a bucket of apples to coax him to stand so visitors can get the full measure of Pennsylvania's biggest buck.

The reclusive deer is camouflaged by thick vegetation at Miller's Wild Bunch Ranch near Knox, Clarion County. Like a pampered celebrity, he won't budge. Finally, Miller kneels and hand-feeds Goliath, who bites the fruit but refuses to move.

Who can blame the big guy after what he's been through?

Goliath -- then at 260 pounds with a 28-point rack -- was sedated and stolen early one morning in the fall of 1999. He was recovered last year on a deer farm in Jefferson County and returned to Miller and his wife, Dianne.

Jeffrey Spence, of Reynoldsville, was charged last week with theft, receiving stolen property and criminal conspiracy in connection with the buck's disappearance. Although Spence's lawyer, Ralph Montana, said his client obtained the buck legally, authorities allege Spence was trying to sell Goliath -- renamed Hercules -- for $150,000.

There's big bucks in raising big bucks in Pennsylvania.

The state has about 726 deer farms, as well as about 100 hunting preserves that cater to hunters in search of trophy-size deer, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The state Department of Agriculture estimates there are 1,200 farm-bred deer in Pennsylvania.

"The Pennsylvania Deer Farmers Association is doing a poll right now on the size of the industry," Miller said. "The figures aren't completed yet, but the figures will be quite staggering."

Phyllis Menden, executive director of the North American Deer Farmers Association, in Appleton, Wis., said there are 10,000 deer farms in the nation.

"There are patches of revenue, and what it brings to each state is in the billions," Menden said. "It's a wonderful endeavor."

Some bucks are sold to hunting preserves.

"People who love to hunt but don't have the time are willing to pay to have a trophy on their wall," Rodney Miller said.

Bruce Aaron, of West Newton, who raises 32 deer on his 7th Son Whitetail Deer Ranch, said the industry has grown since he began 14 years ago. He was one of 200 deer farmers.

"It's becoming more widespread," said Tim Grenoble, chief of technical services for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. "We've got everything from the guy who has two or three deer in his back yard to full-blown ranching-type operations."

Grenoble said the industry could be even larger because many people raise deer for their own enjoyment. They are not required to have a permit.

"You can have a 100-deer herd without needing a permit so long as you don't get into what is known as transfer of possession," he continued. "That's when the permit kicks in, when you're giving them away, selling them, selling the venison, whatever."

Deer are valued for their antlers and meat. There is also a growing market for other products.

Deer urine is used to manufacture scent for hunting. Semen is sold for breeding. There also are markets for deer milk, bones, skins and hides. And in Asia, there is a demand for the velvet from the antlers for use in alternative medicines.

Many breeders, Menden said, are interested in the challenge of raising a genetically perfect animal.

"Some breeders can really grow good genetics," Menden added. "People want to own these types of deer. They're just beautiful. There's a comfort, a joy and a passion. That's why they're farming."

Joe McMullen, of Tyrone, Blair County, said people are willing to pay for the right animal.

A buck with a rack that might score 140 points, according to trophy standards, might sell for $15 per inch of antler, he explained. A buck that scores 180 or more might bring $25 per inch, and deer with non-typical racks -- with antler points sticking out at odd angles -- sell for even higher prices because there are more inches of antler.

"I've known people to spend $50,000 on a deer at auction because it has the right genetics to grow big antlers," McMullen said.

Breeding can be lucrative

Menden said some bucks have fetched $500,000 because of their blood lines. Although Rodney Miller won't say what Goliath is worth, he allows it's far more than the $150,000 quoted in published reports.

"But he's not for sale," Dianne Miller added.

"I just wanted to raise a big deer," Rodney Miller said. "This was a hobby that turned into a business."

At one time, Goliath's rack measured 66 points. His weight has fluctuated -- once to 460 pounds -- because of changes in his feeding and environment. Goliath's current weight is about 375 pounds.

The giant buck has fathered a number of fawns. Currently, two grandsons -- both sporting giant racks -- roam in a nearby pen.

Farm-bred deer are more valuable than deer in the wild because they are in better health and much larger in terms of weight and antler size, the Millers explained.

Raising deer a tough job

The Millers spend 16 to 18 hours a day tending their 100-animal herd. This summer, they have 34 fawns that, until recently, required bottle feeding four times a day.

Deer farmers need a state permit, a legal source of deer and a 10-foot high fence to keep out wild deer and prevent them from breeding with the domesticated deer. Each year, breeders must file a report detailing how many deer they started the year with and how many they had at the end. They also must report the number of deer bought, sold and butchered, as well as how many died from illness.

Farms also are subject to annual game commission inspections.

"A farm's got to have shelter, it's got to have shade, it's got to have room to move around," Grenoble said.

The Millers started breeding deer in 1989. They live on a 36-acre farm outside Knox, known unofficially as the "horse thief capital of the world," where the 43rd Annual Horsethief Days festival began Saturday.

Goliath's saga began when someone cut the fence at the farm, tranquilized him and fled.

In July 2003, several members of the Pennsylvania Deer Farmers Association stopped by Spence's farm in Reynoldsville and recognized the massive buck, whose name had been changed to Hercules. Miller identified Goliath from photographs and state police later obtained DNA samples and readings from an implanted microchip to confirm his identity.

Records show Spence has been in trouble with the Pennsylvania Game Commission before.

In May, the Commonwealth Court upheld a commission decision revoking Spence's breeding permits because of poor recordkeeping. In March 2003, the commission found that Spence failed to keep records of the births, deaths, purchases and disposal of deer.

The Millers said after Goliath was located, the buck was tranquilized once for medical treatment and then again so investigators could take the DNA sample and microchip reading. He was sedated a third time for the return trip home.

"We got him back in good health now but this had taken its toll," Dianne Miller said. "When we brought him back, he would spook. He couldn't run for more than 30 yards. But he's stronger this year."

Goliath already is back doing what he does best -- making babies.

"He's in demand," she said.

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