As children growing up in rural Chatham County, my sister and I competed to spot deer while our car sped along the ribbon of back-country roads. Most nights we pulled into our driveway disappointed. But occasionally the headlights would illuminate a bright pair of white eyes lingering on the forest edge and our mom would slow down so we might admire the sight, like tourists on African safari.
Driving along those same roads out to the Duke Campus Farm, it is nearly unthinkable to make it without seeing at least one herd of deer. Recent studies have shown that this change is not merely anecdotal. White-tail deer populations are ballooning and their numbers pose an environmental, moral and human health crisis.
Unfortunately, there are no silver bullets that will solve overpopulation. But there are bullets. It is time to reconsider our regional approach to the management of deer populations, including loosening restrictions on hunting and legalizing the sale of wild venison.
Calls for more hunting inevitably evoke the rancor of those who wish Bambi’s mom had returned home safely. Yet opponents of deer hunting would do well to remember that hunting associations saved the white-tail deer after farmers had driven them to the brink of eradication.
In 1930 there were fewer than 300,000 deer east of the Mississippi River. Today, there are about two million in North Carolina alone, and as many as 80 deer per square mile in parts of the Triangle, about five times the sustainable number.
Deer overpopulations wreak havoc on forest ecosystems, especially the young pine forests so common in these parts. They eat shrubs, small plants and tree seedlings so voraciously that the Duke Forest has labeled them a major threat to local biodiversity.
In the absence of population control, deer will eat themselves into starvation. On a recent visit to the Duke Campus Farm, on the edge of the Duke Forest, I stumbled on a herd of seventeen deer. They were not the full-bellied, vigorous deer of my childhood memories. Having picked clean the forest floor, the emaciated deer had ventured onto the farm in search of food (explaining the 7.5 foot deer fence that protects our fragile acre).
Animal rights advocates are not doing the deer any favors in their blind opposition to hunting. Hunting restrictions have exacerbated the boom and bust cycles that lead to mass starvations. Meanwhile, population pressures have driven more deer out of the forest and into the crosshairs of unwary drivers.
A 2009 study out of UNC Chapel Hill estimates that deer are involved in over 17,000 automobile accidents each year in our state, or about 10% of all accidents. This represents a 25% increase since 2004.
Deer-vehicle collisions impose significant economic costs estimated at $127 million annually in NC. Worse still, no good comes of deer carcasses rotting in the grass or littering the shoulder of the highway. Moral outrage should not demand that deer are never killed. We should demand that deer are killed humanely and not wasted.
Several local programs are working to bring sensibility back to deer population management. In a highly controversial program, The Duke Forest has allowed bow hunters to take as many as 200 deer a year since 2006.
In years past hunters shared half of this venison with local food shelters. Last year, in another ominous sign that populations are wildly out of control, many deer taken during the annual hunt in the Duke Forest were too sickly to be eaten.
That’s why we need an enlightened public policy that allows enough hunting to create a perennial equilibrium where deer can thrive without exploding in sheer number. Smaller populations will be healthier, happier and less destructive to habitat and automobiles.
Legalizing the sale of wild venison is an important first step. Venison is a tasty, sustainable and local source of meat. We served both venison stew and venison tacos at our Fall Farm Festival last October (to mostly rave reviews). Creating a market for local venison would promote a less wasteful approach to hunting and would allow officials to regulate safety and quality standards.
As a community, we need to summon the courage to embrace hunting as a responsible and necessary approach to deer control. It is time to swallow our medicine and allow hunters to bring deer populations back into a healthy equilibrium. If we’re lucky, we might get to swallow some fresh venison, too.