Back before beef, and back before fake beef, America ran on venison.
Well that’s not entirely accurate. Black bear meat was actually once more common and popular table fair than deer meat, but that’s a story for another day.
Simply put though, Americans aren’t eating enough deer meat anymore.
A recent article from the Wall Street Journal recently posed a simple question quickly followed by the subsequent answer.
How to Solve America’s Wild Deer Problem? Eat them.
Deer numbers in the U.S. continue to boom, and high deer densities have the capability of causing damage to forests, fields, and suburban gardens alike.
Prior to European settlement of the U.S., there were an estimated 30 million deer in America. By 1900 deer were almost extinct due to unregulated market hunting. Thanks to targeted conservation efforts, funded almost entirely by revenue generated through the sale of hunting licenses and excise taxes on associated firearms and ammunition through the American System of Conservation Funding, their populations have rebounded to be on par with pre-colonization levels.
While cherished as a symbol of America’s wild spirit throughout most of the country, in other areas homeowners consider deer to be garden raiding pests. Factor in the 1.5 million car collisions with deer annually, and it’s easy to see why some folks consider deer to be a nuisance.
It may seem counterintuitive, but suburban sprawl actually provides better deer habitat than an untouched expanse of dense forest. Gardens and yards cultivated by humans, in addition to agricultural operations provide better food sources than what deer may find in the wild and an adult deer is capable of consuming up 7-pounds of plant matter a day. And while deer thrive in the suburbs, those areas are typically devoid of predators which allows their populations to grow unchecked in many developed areas, which in turn turns up the volume on the damage deer can do to yards and gardens.
It’s not just suburban areas being hit hard by hungry deer though. The WSJ article also cites a 2013 study by the Nature Conservancy that proclaimed no other threat to forested habitats is greater at this point in time… not lack of prescribed fire, not habitat conversion, not climate change. The main take away of the project is that deer numbers grow at the expense of birds, native plants, farmers, and anyone who drives a car.
The problem is not so much the overall number of deer on the landscape, but more so their uneven distribution that skews towards developed areas.
In the pre-settlement era, it’s estimated that deer densities in the eastern U.S. was somewhere around 6 -12 animals per square mile. Research shows that the deleterious environmental impact that deer can have begins to set it in once densities exceed 24 deer per square kilometer. In some developed areas of the U.S. today, deer densities exceed 150 animals per square miles.
Professional deer cullers have been contracted in some of those areas, but that’s an expensive endeavor that costs around $300 per deer. Attempts at using birth control to limit deer populations have been wildly ineffective and absurdly expensive as well.
Hunting seems like it should be an obvious solution to the problem, but current trends show that there are twice as many deer now as in the 1950s but half as many hunters as back then.
With a decline in recreational hunting participation, the WSJ proposes that the U.S. should create a commercial market for deer meat to address the population booms in suburban areas.
In 2011, a group of researchers published an idea in the Wildlife Society Bulletin that proposed developing a process and set of regulations that would allow a limited number of state-certified hunters to sell venison to restaurants and at farmers’ markets. The researchers contend that venison could be marketed as a high-protein, low-fat and beneficially cholesterol-balanced food that is readily available across much of the eastern and midwestern United States.
Similar systems for bringing wild game to the market are common in other countries. If you’ve ever eaten boar in Italy, moose in Sweden or kangaroo in Australia, you’ve enjoyed the legal harvest of native wild animals by private hunters who comply with regulations based on safety and conservation.
The idea received a considerable amount of pushback in 2011, as it was broadly viewed as a direct contradiction to one of the foundational pieces of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, which is the prohibition of selling wild game meat commercially. After all, the commercial hunting of deer for the market is precisely what almost wiped them off the continent at the turn of the 19th century.
While the ideas has grown in popularity since then, other deer management experts are still utterly opposed to the idea for a variety of good reasons.
Stricter regulations could prevent market hunting from decimating the species again, but those regulations would also void the very management principles that once brought deer back from the brink of extinction.
The situation laid out by the WSJ has no easy solution, and it’s not likely that a commercial market for deer meat will be implemented in the foreseeable future.
So for the time being, maybe the only answer is more suburban bow hunting.
In recent years the popularity of suburban hunting has grown and while there are obvious limitations, increasing suburban hunting opportunities could help lessen the impact that exploding deer populations have in those areas.
No body exhibits the burgeoning culture of suburban bow hunting more than Taylor Chamberlain.
“He spends 150 days a year bowhunting whitetails in the backyards and cul de sacs of the Washington, DC Metro area. With permission on more than a hundred properties, some as small as half an acre, Taylor pursues deer from swing sets, tree forts and a modified arborist saddle.
He receives no compensations for his significant contributions to the management of a suburban deer herd that creates a wide range of social, ecological and human health issues. Burgeoning metro whitetail populations mow down native tree seedlings, destroy expensive landscaping, endanger motorists and have lead to the near-epidemic spread of Lyme disease.
“In City Limits” follows Taylor’s unique lifestyle, pursuing deer year-round while balancing his passion with a successful career and growing family.”