Bambi Must Die

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

Historically, this has been achieved mainly by two means: a relatively short season and an emphasis on a bucks-only harvest. By prohibiting the killing of does, the DNR effectively ensured that there would always be a large population of breeders--and plenty of attractive targets for hunters the next fall.

Over the past five years, as the implications of such an outsize deer herd have grown harder to ignore, the DNR has begun to liberalize hunting regulations. In some "intensive harvest" permit areas, hunters can take as many as five deer in a season. Doe permits, once issued exclusively by lottery, are relatively easy to get in many parts of the state. And yet the population keeps swelling; the loop is out of control.

Hunters, unlike their quarry, have been slow to adapt to the new conditions. Though more hunters today are willing to take a doe, the culture of the hunt remains fixated on the buck. If you check the covers of deer-hunting magazines, you will rarely see a doe pictured. The image, instead, is almost always a buck, usually with an enormous antler rack and a neck engorged from the hormonal rush of the rut.

Shooting a big buck may make the hunter feel more virile, but it does little to control the deer population, as a single surviving buck can breed with multiple does. From a population-management point of view, the most effective way to cut the numbers would be to require hunters to shoot at a doe before taking a buck. In Wisconsin, the DNR has experimented with a program along such lines called "Earn a Buck."

But while the Minnesota DNR considered such an option, says big game coordinator Lou Cornicelli, hunter resistance has kept the agency from embarking on the experiment.

Ecologically speaking, deciding that Minnesota needs to foster deer habitat is roughly akin to the mayor of Minneapolis declaring that the city needs to create more pigeon habitat. Yet that remains a central creed among deer hunters. The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association sponsors a program called "Hides for Habitat" that raises money through the sale of deer hides for habitat projects. Land-owning hunters plant special seed blends designed to appeal to deer: high-protein greens like clover, along with oats, wheat, and rye. And during harsh winters, many Minnesota hunters--worried that their quarry will starve--take to the woods to deliver bags of corn and hay. (These practices sometimes backfire, as the starving deer, like a starving man at the buffet, sometimes overeat and succumb to a fatal bloat.)

Season after season, hunters wield their considerable political influence to ensure that the DNR continues to manage the herd in a way that is most likely to put venison steaks in the freezer. Even the nonhunting public plays along. In the metro area, efforts to control the burgeoning suburban deer herd often meet howls of protest. When archers began thinning the herd at the Minneapolis Water Works in Columbia Heights, neighbors cried slaughter--never mind that the deer are so grossly overpopulated as to face the prospect of starvation.

 

When I killed that big doe with my car five years ago, I felt remorse and repulsion. It was not just the suffering of the animal that bothered me. It was the feeling that I was just another human tipping the scales against the animal kingdom, as is our way.

But I was foolish to mourn. At this moment in history, whitetails are pretty much everywhere. They have expanded their range to all of the lower 48 states, eight Canadian provinces, all of Central America, and much of the northern parts of South America. Transplanted whitetails have successfully established populations from Finland to Cuba to Bosnia. In New Zealand, 50 transplanted whitetails took to the range with such success that game managers there eventually did away with any hunting limits. Yet even in the face of regular hunting and natural predation, whitetails can double their populations in two years.

By any rational measure they are a "weedy" species--a creature that directly benefits from the ways we have altered and despoiled the land. As the writer David Quammen points out in "Planet of Weeds," a definitive eco-apocalyptic essay that appeared in Harper's magazine a few years back, the weedy species are taking over the world's ecosystems. We are living in a time of mass extinction, marching toward monoculture, entering a world of infinitely less variety and interest than the one we were all born into. The whitetail--in its current numbers and distribution--is a manifestation of that.

There is a feedback response in ecosystems. With the disappearance of each obscure little plant or rare bird, there is often a corollary effect known as co-extinction. The spotted owl vanishes as the old growth firs fall to the axe; a rare vine in Singapore goes extinct and the island's prettiest butterfly soon follows. And then, at some point, entire ecosystems begin to falter. We are left with the weeds.

What happens next is an open question. Perhaps some other opportunistic form of life--a disease or a blight--emerges and exploits the overpopulated species. As epidemiologists have long recognized, there is a clear relationship between population densities and infectious disease. That is why farmed animals such as cows, pigs, and chickens must be pumped full of antibiotics; it's why TB outbreaks among human beings tend to occur in cities and prisons.

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