I was fourteen when I shot my first deer. I was standing next to a large gray tree, shivering, early on a cold November morning. I had been left alone there on my “stand” by my father two hours ago, in the darkness just before dawn. I was lonely and a little scared, the gun uncomfortably heavy in my arms. Every sound I heard could be, to my excited imagination, an approaching deer. After two hours I was a nervous wreck. Then, suddenly, one of the sounds WAS a deer, with horns, running through the trees not very far in front of me.
I raised the gun and fired once, very fast. There was no aiming involved, just nervous reaction. That was one unlucky deer. The bullet, unaimed, found its way right to the deer’s heart. I put down the gun and walked over to the body of the deer I had killed. His eyes were still open, his fur warm. I have never, and will never, pick up a hunting gun again.
In the absence of my hunting, the national deer population has exploded. What were a few million deer when I was a boy has grown to 25 to 30 million today. That’s a lot of deer. A New York State forester named Bruce Robinson has smashed his pickup into five deer this year — there were 63,000 deer-vehicle collisions in that state in 1999 alone.
Much of the growth in the national deer population has occurred in the last few decades, much of it near urban areas. Deer have adapted well to encroaching suburbia, for two reasons:
1. Growth of suburbs. Paradoxically, land development tends to improve deer food supplies. Because the reproduction and survival of deer depend directly upon the quality of the food available to them, the improved food has led to more deer. Deer browse on leaves, and require large quantities of new growth with high nutritional content to maintain normal reproduction. Deer populations forty years ago rarely grew large for the simple reason that most of the trees in an undisturbed forest are old, and only the undergrowth provides suitable food. It is because land development usually involves clearing land that urban development leads to increased deer food supplies. There are far fewer trees, but the trees are new growth, and very munchable. So are garden shrubs. Deer eat very, very well in surburbia.
2. Restriction of hunting. Nobody wants someone shooting at deer near their kids. Not surprising, then, much of the area in which deer populations are growing most rapidly have been declared off limits to hunters. Removing their only significant predator — hunters — allows deer populations to grow unchecked.
Anyone who lives in the western parts of Saint Louis County, or anywhere else in the suburbs surrounding St. Louis, knows the result of providing ample food and no hunting: lots of deer. “A deer in the backyard is wonderful,” says wildlife biologist William Porter. “Twenty five deer in the backyard is a problem.” Nancy Hoffstetter of Town and Country agrees. “I consider them long-legged rats.”
What should we do to respond to this plague of deer? You can’t just “remove” the deer to some forest far from St. Louis, like they are trying to do in Town and Country at a cost of $360 per deer. Why doesn’t this humane approach work? Other St. Louis deer from surrounding areas just take their place! Imagine trying to empty people from a prime section of Busch Stadium by physically removing individuals one at a time. You would never get anywhere, because other people would just crowd in. For every deer removed from Town and Country, there are two eager to get in and have a good meal. Nevertheless, Town and Country is set to begin a third year of its deer relocation plan in November.
There are only two real options: decrease the birth rate or increase the death rate.
Decreasing the birth rate is certainly the most ethically palatable approach. However, deer birth control has proven impractical. Every female deer must be captured for the first dose, and redarted for each subsequent booster shot. Only in very small isolated populations is this practical. Nor is there any effective oral contraceptive for deer.
This leaves increasing the death rate. On more remote forest land, we should extend the hunting season, increase the bag limit, and encourage the shooting of antlerless females. In the suburbs, the only realistic approach is to thin out the local herds with professional sharpshooters. I would bet money that Reverend Larry Rice or another worthy charity would put the meat to good use feeding the poor. No one wants to kill Bambi, but Bambi starving to death is every bit as unpleasant an option, and if the St. Louis deer herd continues to grow, that is what is going to happen. A lot more deer will die, a lot more miserably.
So, as deer hunting season approaches, I find to my surprise that the same ethical pain that caused me to abandon hunting as a teenager now compels me to urge the shooting of more deer today. It is not an easy choice, but I think it is the right one. © Txtwriter Inc.