On the plus side, a big deer herd equals big money. The Wisconsin DNR rolls in $20 million plus alone in licenses and permits each year. Wisconsin businesses benefit as well with some estimates in excess of a billion in yearly revenue when you factor in the peripherals required by nearly ¾ of a million hunters: Weapons, fuel, lodging, food, alcohol. Chili. From an economic impact standpoint our deer crop kicks cranberries to the curb!
Hunting is a deeply ingrained tradition. Jeff Daniel's Escanaba in Da Moonlight captures it perfectly.
A tradition I HATED during my first quarter century on this planet. I judged all hunters as barbaric Elmer Fudds. I cheered on hunting protesters from my dorm room window as they drove around with orange-clad dummy hunters strapped to the tops of their cars. Yeah- take that hunters!! How futile.
But, my blinders wore thin the more educated I became in the field of native restoration. Ironic that my master’s degree came from Madison’s Department of Wildlife Ecology, with strong roots in game management under Aldo Leopold’s historic influence as chair. I still didn’t understand much of the faculty’s passion for the hunt, typically leaving the lunch room when the stories started.
The blinders dropped completely when I became a land owner. Every spring I excitedly watched pasque flowers emerge, but sadly never to see them flower, never to spread. I found the characteristic palm shaped fronds of prairie coreopsis, but scant few sunny yellow blooms. Deer time their browsing perfectly, indulging their flower lust just as the petals unfold. For the first time, I felt anger towards the local herd.
The reintroduction of wolves gave me hope…Go rewilding!!….but deep down, I knew they would never be welcome. Our culture can’t seem to kick its misunderstanding and sometimes raw hate of top predators.
Aldo Leopold questioned his motives and ultimately changed his view of predators as the enemy. Watching the green fire die in the eyes of a wolf that he had shot on a whim inspired his revelationary work, Thinking Like a Mountain.
Why can’t we all get-there-already like Aldo Leopold did?
So, for ecological reasons alone, I embraced my role as top predator. I learned to hunt. I chose the bow as my weapon, as I couldn’t seem to get past the shock of a rifle discharge. My husband, an expert with the bow, instructed me well. No hunting allowed until I was accurate at 20 yards, to minimize the risk of wounding a deer and increasing its suffering. My practice paid off; my first bow-kill dead on.
With the help of my also expert-tracker husband, we found the animal in its final resting place among a sea of oak leaves on the ridge. The anger that motivated my hunt, that I was doing the right thing for the woods, immediately dissolved as I touched its fur. Feeling the stirrings of a forgotten connection between a predator and its prey, I felt relief that the animal hadn’t suffered, but a crushing sadness for the death of this beautiful animal by my own hand.
It’s not the deer’s fault that we’ve created the ultimate habitat for them. It’s not the deer’s fault that they love pasque flowers and prairie coreopsis. Why should I feel anger towards them?
I hunt every year now, but approach the season with bittersweet anticipation, not anger. Although helping to restore the balance within the oak and pine woodlands spread over the hills is still one of the main reasons, it’s trumped by treating the hunt as a harvest. As long as I continue with carnivory, I’ll harvest the crop that thrives because of the habitat that we created.
Despite the negativity associated with their “overpopulation” label, my emotions as a hunter have transitioned from the disconnect of treating them as mere targets to that of connection, empathy, and respect. These emotions, I believe, are the cornerstones of our evolution as hunters if we so chose to hunt.