Bambi Must Die

The case against Minnesota's 1.2 million forest-destroying, disease-spreading deer

A little over five years ago, I was driving back to Minneapolis with my friend Dick after a May fishing trip in north central Minnesota. As we headed south on Highway 64 through a pleasing mix of swamp, forest, and farmland, a white-tailed deer appeared in the middle of the highway. It just stood there, motionless in the dusky fog. With no chance to swerve or brake, we plowed squarely into the animal.

Neither Dick nor I was injured. The car--my grandmother's wheezy old Plymouth Horizon--was less fortunate. After climbing out to survey the damage, the first thing I noticed was the crumpled front end. The right headlight dangled from a single wire. Antifreeze gushed from the radiator, pooling in the road.

Of course, the deer was dead, sprawled out with long skinny legs akimbo and guts everywhere. It looked like someone had spilled a cafeteria tray full of sloppy joe. I could tell the deer was a doe; there were no antlers or antler buds that would indicate a buck. I took a closer look and there, in the fading light, I noticed the outline of a nearly full-term fawn, dislodged from its mother's womb by the violent collision.

There was yet another horror. Dick spotted it first: something small, making a flopping motion on the center line about 30 feet away. At first, I thought it was a severed limb, perhaps in some final, nervous spasm. I walked over to investigate, whereupon I found a spectacle as pathetic and macabre as anything I'd ever laid eyes on. The doe, it turned out, had been pregnant with twins. I had just located the other sibling.

Aside from its most gruesome aspects, there was really nothing unusual about my experience. In 2001--when the state's whitetail population was smaller than it is today--the Madison-based Deer-Vehicle Crash Information Clearinghouse estimated that there were approximately 19,000 such collisions in Minnesota. According to statistics from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, that is roughly the same number of accidents drunk drivers caused in Minnesota over the five-year period from 1998 to 2002.

And yet the majority of Minnesotans--hunters and nonhunters alike--still love the whitetail. After all, for most of us, they are the largest animals we have an opportunity to see in the wild. Accordingly, they are a staple of our calendar art, the subject of the nature paintings that hang on the walls of cafés up north and in our dens and garages back home. A few years ago, when the Department of Natural Resources decided to issue special license plates as a fundraiser, it selected the iconic image of a buck with a big rack for the inaugural plate. Below the buck were the words, "Protect Critical Habitat."

The implications of this credo were clear: Deer are a vital natural resource in Minnesota and they require active protection.

For a long time, even after I'd totaled two vehicles in collisions with deer, I continued to hold a similar view. I was impressed by the whitetail's grace and good looks. I loved to watch deer in the woods, to marvel at how they could be there one moment and, in a blink, disappear. More important, I considered deer a symbol of the wild. When I spotted a deer on a hike, I took it as a sort of assurance that not everything has been despoiled and that the natural order remains at least somewhat intact.

As it turns out, I was full of it. Fact is, the white-tailed deer is about as apt a symbol of wilderness as a rat or a pigeon--or if you're feeling more charitable, a grackle or a raccoon. Contrary to what most of us might think, whitetails don't thrive because we have been good stewards of the land; they thrive because we have been brutal to it. As is the case with rats and pigeons, whitetails prefer a landscape degraded by man, not untouched wilderness. They love the clear-cuts in the forests, the land subdivided by suburban developers, the crop fields farmers cultivate.

The deer love all these places. And in whatever way an animal with such a small, smooth-surfaced brain is capable, they probably love us. Or at least they should--especially the folks over at the Department of Natural Resources and the United States Forest Service. Along with countless private property owners, these wildlife managers have made collective decisions about hunting policies and land stewardship that have ensured that the herd continues to swell.

As a result of all this, and of several unusually warm winters, Minnesota's whitetail population now stands at a record 1.2 million head. That fact is all the more astounding when you consider that hunters killed 290,000 deer in Minnesota last fall, which was, it so happens, also a record.

When people complain about deer, they are likely to cite damage to their cars, gardens, or crops. So when game managers try to figure out the appropriate deer population for a specific area, they refer to the "social carrying capacity"--in other words, the amount of deer-related damage that the local citizenry will tolerate before they start demanding sharpshooters or expanded hunting seasons.

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