BOOKS: Deerland: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance & the Essence of Wilderness
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2013: (Actually published on November 20, 2013.)
Deerland: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance & the Essence of Wilderness by Al Cambronne • Lyons Press (246 Goose Lane, Guilford, CT 06437), 2013. 263 pages, paperback. $18.95.
Opens Al Cambronne, “We live in Deerland. The U.S. now has over 30 million deer, a hundred times more than a century ago. They routinely disrupt entire ecosystems. They ravage our gardens and suburban landscaping, and every year they kill and injure hundreds of us on our highways…Still, deer are magical. Their mere existence makes the woods feel wilder. They signify far more to us than just meat, antlers, or a graceful, mysterious creature slipping through the shadows…We commute farther and borrow more so that we can live beside them. If money remains, we buy vacation homes where we’ll see even more of them. A few of us happily spend two or three years’ salary for a small piece of untillable land on which we can hunt them…Regardless of how you may feel about hunting, in many parts of America we now have a very real problem with too many deer. In some of those places, hunting is a big part of the solution. It’s also, some would argue, a big part of the problem.” That, in 12 sentences, is Deerland. The rest of the book fills in the details. The first half may be the most informative to non-hunters, exploring what Cambronne calls the “Deer-Industrial Complex,” the competition among hunters to kill deer with ever-larger antlers, and hunters’ feeding and baiting strategies. Along the way, Cambronne describes an ongoing transition he perceives in the culture of deer hunting, from the pretense that it’s all about getting meat to near disinterest in venison among many hunters, who focus instead on shooting a spectacular trophy. In areas easily accessible from big cities and known for producing deer with big antlers, such as Buffalo County, Wisconsin, hunting as part of a rural lifestyle has given way to hunting as a pursuit of affluent urbanites. Hunters today are older, richer, more politically organized, and more influential than ever before, but hunters are also less numerous. From being a pastime of average rural Americans a generation ago, hunting has evolved toward the European model, as a pursuit of a landed gentry [hereditary in Europe, merely wealthy in the U.S.], their guides, and their gamekeepers. Cambronne details the transition in Buffalo County at considerable length, noting similar trends in many other parts of the U.S. The second half of Deerland is less expository and more contentious. Cambronne would probably rather be called a nature writer than a hunting writer, but he is chiefly a hook-and-bullet writer, whose arguments tend to be less about deer than about what would be most likely to boost hunting participation. Central to Cambronne’s case is the idea that we currently have “too many” deer. Indeed, we have more deer than ever before, including large herds in some highly problematic places. Almost a century of “buck laws,” which encouraged hunters to shoot bucks but spare does, manufactured unprecedented deer abundance to the point that many states now aggressively promote doe hunting instead. Yet, unlike in the mid-20th century, when the U.S. had less than half as many deer but had frequent mass losses to starvation, mass starvations in recent decades have been vanishingly few. Factors from maturation of the suburban tree canopy (now providing more browse and acorns) to the effects of climate change appear to have significantly increased the carrying capacity of the habitat. Indeed, deer in much of North America have depleted the forest understory that is the breeding habitat for many neotropical migratory bird species. But that same understory can fuel wildfires, which also deplete breeding habitat. Whether the net effect of deer on birds is positive or negative is accordingly unclear. Abundant deer have meanwhile facilitated the recovery of pumas in the western half of the U.S., and of wolves in the upper Midwest and Maine, and have helped the recovery of alligators in the Deep South. Claims about deer overpopulation, usually voiced as arguments for more hunting or culling, tend to be about the population levels that the public will tolerate, called “cultural carrying capacity” in wildlife management jargon––rather than about the actual needs of nature.
If as a society we decide we want fewer deer, we have six options, which are not mutually exclusive. We can let the situation take care of itself, through disease, predation, and the effects of vehicular collisions; we can amend our own habitat preferences to make our yards and urban green spaces less attractive to deer; we can let our dogs habitually run at large to harass deer, as was customary until under 40 years ago; we can accept the use of contraceptives for deer; we can hire shooters to cull deer, already widely practiced in Northeastern and Midwestern cities where recreational hunting is impractical; or we can revitalize recreational deer hunting, now primarily practiced mostly by men over the age of 50. The latter option, favored by Cambronne, includes encouraging more bowhunting, using pulley-drawn bows and perhaps crossbows rather than the recurve bows of a generation ago. While arrows shot from recurve bows kill deer outright barely half the time, bowhunters using current weapons have a killing rate comparable to that of firearms, Cambronne argues. Another possibility, discussed by Cambronne and favored by Jim Sterba in his 2012 opus Nature Wars, would be to allow hunters to sell venison, thereby encouraging them to kill deer in greater numbers. Alternatively, we can develop increased tolerance of deer. We can learn roadkill avoidance, for example, learning to look for a second deer after seeing one deer cross a road. Accepting that we live in “Deerland” and behaving appropriately could go a long way toward mitigating deer/human conflicts. For much of the public to accept the presence of deer predators in suburban neighborhoods might, however, be a tall order. Pumas, wolves, and alligators passing quietly through in the wee hours of the morning may be ignored, but those same animals feasting on a deer carcass within sight of a school bus stop are another matter. We cannot pretend that deer populations will regulate themselves in absence of predators. Deer do regulate their numbers to some extent in harsh winters, when starvation causes some does to reabsorb their fetuses, bearing only one fawn in the spring, or none, after having conceived two. But that does not happen often in most North American deer habitat, and will happen less as climate change makes winters milder. Neither can we pretend that denying the grievances of people who believe we have too many deer will make those grievances disappear. Landscapers in new suburbs may be able to plant trees and shrubbery that deer don’t like, but people whose trees and shrubbery are already decades old will mostly not find that an attractive option, while orchardists need to be able to grow the trees that bear fruit. Market gardeners and floralists likewise have valid reasons for wanting to minimize deer depredation while growing what they want to grow. Deerland spotlights the problems associated with what Cambronne calls the “hunt for ecological balance and the essence of wilderness.” Deerland does not offer perfect solutions, certainly not from a humane perspective. But perfect solutions, at present, do not yet exist, and maybe never will. For now, we can only seek the approaches to deer management that do the least harm.