The Deer Hunter

What’s a nice environmentalist doing in a place like this?

by Erik Ness

There is a moment in the building dawn, two thirds on to sunrise, when all of a sudden the eyes can see color. It usually happens while your eyes are closed: … blink … shades of grey … blink … blaze orange.

At least that is the color I first see on the morning of November 1. I am hunkered down in a ground blind in a small grove of trees jutting into an impenetrable slop of reeds, marsh grass and muck. The blind is a tough weave of industrial plastic, wrapped to waste height around three trees. I watch the clearings to the south and west, while Jim Helms looks east, across the marsh towards an island of trees. We are at the crossroads.

Several deer trails conjoin within 75 yards of here. That is, within rifle shot. I’ve chosen this spot because I know the deer have been here, and in all probability will return. The problem is, I don’t know when.

The dawn is chill, with a light mist dusting our faces. By the looks of it, we will not see the sun today. The hunt begins at 6:15 AM., but it is at least half an hour before we hear a gun echo across the marsh. Seven o’clock comes. And goes. Eight o’clock. The gunfire is still sporadic, and Jim notes it’s unusually quiet. The deer must be holed up against the weather. Nine o’clock, and I am restless, cold, and wishing I’d worn my wool pants. A few minutes later I get up to stretch and decant some of the coffee that’s percolated to my bladder.

On the fourth step out of the blind I see her, the elegant line of a musky brown back sweeping through the long golden grass, head down. She moves quickly, but not so fast as to make a spectacle of herself. Not that it would have mattered, as our backs are to her trail. “There you are!” I exclaim, and whisper pointedly to Jim. He doesn’t see her, and I try to point her out, to no avail. He pauses a queer moment.

“Want to get your gun?” he finally asks. I move before he even finishes the question, but before I can get her in my sights she is gone, vanished into a thicket of slash and brush.

I’m not a hunter. Yet.

This expedition could not have been foretold 10 years ago, when I was a vegetarian and strident of tongue. I held all known derogatory viewpoints about hunters, and was convinced of the moral superiority of renouncing my inner carnivore.

And now here I am, pressing a bolt-action rifle to my shoulder, spotting cat tails at 200 paces through the high-power scope. Should a deer appear at the other end, I will, in all probability, attempt to end its life. It has committed no crime, and I have never seen it before. In a court of law, this is known as pre-meditated murder.

What am I doing here?

Partly I am chasing Aldo Leopold, adopted son of Wisconsin and one of the most influential environmental thinkers in our time. Many of Leopold’s profound insights about the role of humans in the landscape arose as he grappled with game management. In an age short of heroes, Leopold is mine, and as I hunt I seek insight not only into nature, but into his mind:

“We reached the old wolf just in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” he wrote after shooting a wolf. “I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes–something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunter’s paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

I also feel a related, if difficult to define, sense of ecological duty. Humans, through omnipresence and delusional omnipotence, have nearly wiped the landscape clean of predators. The food web is out of whack, lacking in height, depth, and character.

This is also a philosophical test. In my militant, meatless days I was insistent that those who ate meat must also have the fortitude and conscience to make the kill themselves. Well, now I eat meat again, and it is high time to prove my mettle. As I am eager to continue eating meat, I am eager to become worthy.

Despite these fine and wholly adequate explanations, I can’t quite trace the moment at which I decided that this year I would hunt deer. Is it just another thrill ride in our culture of consumption, another marketing triumph? Or has something deeper been triggered, an atavistic longing to join my ancestors in the kill? A thousand stories of the hunt died with my forbears. But if our memories have failed, what about our instincts? Can I learn to celebrate life by taking it? Can I pull the trigger?

Jim Helms is here to answer every question except that last one.

Jim has been hunting for more than three decades, and he is my chaperone for the day. We met for the first time in October at Sandhill Wildlife Refuge, just southwest of Wisconsin Rapids. Here the Department of Natural Resources runs a research station and the Outdoor Skills Center, and hosts its deer hunting workshops. Mostly the program is for kids, but one workshop a year is for beginning adult hunters.

The course is a full day of instruction in compass work, target practice, deer biology and management, and, the grand finale, gutting a deer. Every hunter has a chaperone, who will be there on the day of the hunt in a few weeks. This is Jim’s third season as a chaperone, and after guiding his teenage daughter and a 12 year-old boy, he’s happy for the company of an adult.

The DNR program is a boon for people like me, with minimal cultural or familial ties to the hunt. Most people learn at an early age, absorbing the complex elements as skills and as values: the gun, the hunt, the kill. In addition to my complete lack of experience with weapons, I have my own ideas about life and death in the woods. Grafting the skills and sensibilities of a deer hunter onto those perceptions promises to be a tricky task. I am glad for Jim’s presence. I have taught myself many skills, but I do not wish to learn to kill alone.

If infamy is any guide, the Sandhill Wildlife Refuge is a strange place to go looking for wildlife. In 1899, in neighboring Babcock, the last wild passenger pigeon met a hail of buckshot and the once prolific bird fell from the sky for the final time. Extinction is no great harbinger of nature’s bounty.

Sandhill–once stripped of timber, drained for farming, and essentially devoid of deer–is now a patchwork of lowland marsh and forest. Its 9,460 fenced acres are a natural laboratory, and a refuge for deer and bison, sandhill cranes and eagles, a lone wolf, and a pack of coyotes.

In theory at least, we hunters have a scientific edge. We know there are deer here, more than 400 on the reserve, 346 counted by helicopter in February, and the fawns born last summer. But then, we wouldn’t have to look far to find them outside the reserve, either. “We have more deer today than we’ve ever had in this state before,” says DNR deer ecologist Bill Mytton, who puts the state-wide herd at about 1.17 million.

In the north, the herd is smaller than the historic highs that followed the cutting of the northern forest. Now that the forest is maturing again, it can’t support as many deer as it once did. The south, meanwhile, has exploded. In the 1920s and 1930s deer were absent from entire counties. Now the patchwork of woodlands and fields is ideal for white-tail deer: the woods aren’t too deep, and crops provide a virtually unlimited source of food.

“In southern Wisconsin we can have many, many more deer, but there is a social carrying capacity: car deer accidents, agricultural impacts, urban impacts to ornamentals,” says Mytton. “People will only tolerate so many animals, and we manage more for that social tolerance in this part of the state.” But even as numbers rise, more farmers are closing their land to hunters, and the gradual suburbanization of the rural landscape chips away at hunting’s land base. “[Deer] are going to continue to do real well down here, and we’re going to have a more difficult time managing them,” he concludes.

The Sandhill workshop demystified the hunt and put me in a predatory frame of mind. Most surprising, I was competent with a rifle. It had been 20 years since I held a firearm of any caliber, and I told myself that the hunt was off unless I could shoot straight. At the target range I shot well. I missed twice, hitting low, but took down the “deer” with the other eight shots. I wanted to go hunting.

Then I visited the office of Alliance for Animals to pick up some information, and read a poem on the door: “The Death of a Deer.” It was a surprisingly good poem, told from the doe’s perspective as she takes an arrow and leaves her fawn to fend the winter, alone.

For a while I am shaken in my resolve. Learning the politics of deer hunting is perhaps not the best way to prepare for the hunt. Hunters say that you must be relaxed–certainly not conflicted about the death. Waver and you may pull the shot, missing altogether, or worse, wounding the deer just enough that she escapes you, only to wander, crippled, starving, in pain, until she’s finally devoured by coyotes. And this is precisely where Lu Kummerow and Tina Kaske of the Alliance for Animals begin, with the specter of maimed deer, struggling through the woods in mortal pain.

Kummerow argues that the overabundance of deer is manufactured by the DNR. By killing nearly half of the deer herd every autumn, every spring the animals find themselves in a boom scenario: with food and space aplenty, they reproduce at a high rate. The hunt is both the cause and the result of high deer populations. (Mytton, to his credit, says this is partly true.)

“They take nature and stand it on its head, and they use it for their own purposes,” says Kummerow. We could end hunting in the north now, she says, with no consequences. The south might take a little longer, with the population skewed by the hunters’ preference for bucks. But she believes that in 10 years the hunt could be stopped, and that the deer would settle into a natural rhythm with the ecosystem, at levels tolerable to humans.

Kaske cares more for ethos than ecos: “It’s morally wrong to kill for sport,” she says. Especially sentient beings. “Man has a choice. Man has the intelligence to rise above the dog-eat-dog, cutthroat survival instincts.”

Besides the blunt-force morality play, there’s the environmental logic of it all. “We’ve already messed up the earth so badly by eating animals,” she points out. I agree. “It’s a trendy thing to say ‘I’ve got venison in the freezer,’” she spits out. I cringe. “We’re a very consumptive society. If we’re going to preserve the beauty of the world we should be more responsible, and not look at animals as resources.”

“Evolve with us,” she pleads with good humor as I make my way to the door. “Evolve.”

I am not offended, as I do believe that humans must adjust their moral framework to make way for other species. And I applaud the animal rights activists for their forthright efforts. But I also believe there is a way to be a righteous carnivore. Animals, after all, eat each other. Predator and prey share one of the oldest ecological relationships in the universe. We evolved from those relationships, from animals. And I’m not so sure I want to put even more evolutionary distance between us and the rest of the animal world.

Richard Nelson wrote recently in Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America:

“What can I learn by keeping constantly in mind the fundamental, encompassing fact that I am an animal? And by remembering that I share with every other creature on earth the need to sustain my life by eating other organisms? This biological need reveals that I am not just one of the earth’s living creatures, but also one with them. At the deepest level all forms of life are interchangeable: animals eat plants, and plants are nourished in turn by animals. There is only one kind of life, shared equally, identically, and universally among the earth’s organisms.”

Don Waller, professor of botany at UW-Madison, has spent nearly 10 years warning about deer overabundance in Wisconsin forests. But while the DNR computes crop loss and car-deer accidents, Waller worries about the forest itself. He and his colleagues have discovered that current deer overabundance could alter the forests decades, even centuries, into the future.

Waller calls white-tailed deer keystone herbivores. Like the keystone that caps a stone arch, a keystone animal profoundly shapes its habitat. Deer food choices affect the distribution and abundance of plants, thus defining the very structure of a forest. Research shows that regeneration of eastern hemlock and northern white cedar are hindered by deer pressure in the north, while Canada yew has already been extirpated from most of its previous range.

And Waller sees disaster if hunting stops. “I think there are real risks of worsening the current overpopulation,” he says. “We have eliminated many of the natural predators, we’ve created habitat conditions where deer thrive. To walk away from the issue and say ‘Okay, we’re not even going to let human predators take the place of the original predators that were here,’ would, in the short term, make the problem worse, and in the long run probably lead to greater animal suffering in terms of massive starvation of the herd.”

Deer would essentially over-run the forest understory, severely limiting or eliminating habitat for dozens of other insects, birds, and animals and causing widespread destruction of rare lilies and orchids. “If you get deer densities up to 50 and 60 per square mile the way they have it down in the forest preserves around Chicago, you see the elimination of all wildflowers,” he explains. “You see the elimination of all tree regeneration. It’s not a subtle problem anymore; it becomes a very conspicuous one.”

Ideally, says Waller, the DNR should be trying to decrease deer density in the north even further to protect native and endangered species–including lilies and orchids–and forest health overall.

Paring down the deer population by any means, says Mytton, will not be a popular move among the general public. “How could you tell a hunter he should be happier seeing 10 deer versus 20?” he asks. Drastically reduced deer herds leaves both wildlife viewer and hunter disappointed, even angry. “Politically you will lose the battle,” he says.

We’ve all seen the signature of the slob hunter: road signs riddled with bullet holes. Fear of the slob hunter keeps us at home during hunting season. I know they’re out there–I’ve met them before–but this time out I have seen very few. Slob hunters are the rotten apples that spoil the barrel, taking impossible shots that can only wound a deer, and mixing drinking with hunting. Sometimes their irresponsible actions result in land being closed to hunting. They definitely make the job of anti-hunting activists easier.

Nobody knows how prevalent the slob hunter really is. “This is the kind of thing that agencies really don’t like to study,” says Tom Heberlein, professor of rural sociology at UW-Madison. Heberlein was raised a hunter, and now studies it. Slob hunting, he says, may be kind of like aggressive driving: many people disapprove of it, but many people are also guilty of it at one time or another.

Some hunters may just be cutting corners. “Hunting take a lot of planning and practice and getting ready,” says Heberlein. “In a society where we are all working too much, and increasing the amount we work, and the amount of leisure time is decreasing, people don’t spend the up-front time.”

The question of slob hunting begs the question of ethics. “Hunting is a special privilege and ought not to be done without taking that responsibility quite seriously,” says Heberlein. And while he believes a majority of Wisconsin hunters take it very seriously, he also supports significant mandatory hunter education. An example: In Sweden, a moose hunter must take an extensive course and demonstrate their marksmanship before being awarded a license.

“I believe we would be better off with fewer hunters who were well trained and who have a deep respect and understanding of the wildlife that they pursue. Being in the forest as a predator species is different than wandering around in the forest as an observer. That’s an experience you can only get if you’re a predator. You can’t play pretend predator. You’ve got to be real predator. I think that’s a powerful human experience that ought not to be lost. But I don’t think it needs to be given that easily.”

I never even fired a shot that weekend. We only saw one other deer, 10 minutes after the cease-fire on the first day. She bounded within 20 yards of us, then ran off into the woods. The gun was unloaded, slung on my back, and Jim and I just enjoyed the contact. In my memory, she is close enough to touch.

In some ways, not killing a deer may have been the best possible outcome of my first hunt. A kill would have made the hunt complete, and given me a better education, but I am not sure that it would have made me “happy.” I doubt words will suffice for the sensation that is killing. I hope they won’t.

To hunt meaningfully, I must learn much more about the landscape and its inhabitants. I know a lot already, but hunting is a much more intimate relationship, deserving of more than fumbling about in the dark with rough hands and rougher knowledge. I need to find a place where I could return year after year, learning its nooks and crannies, and the ways and wiles of its inhabitants.

For watching, more than anything, seems to be what hunting is about. It is a heightened state of awareness, filled with anticipation, and relentless in its search for change upon the landscape. No movement goes unnoticed. You note the shapes of single blades of grass bent by the wind, 150 yards away. You can’t miss the eagle or the raven, or the skeins of sandhill cranes crossing the sky.

I have always enjoyed sitting in a single spot in the woods or in a meadow and just watching. After a time the disturbance you left in your wake drifts away, and life returns fully to the business at hand. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve been less able to find the peace necessary to sit. Something always intrudes: A little voice telling me I should be elsewhere, or at least moving, getting some exercise. Hunting gives me a reason to be still. What better way to lose the present than to present the primal past?

From that stillness, that perfect awareness, perhaps I can justify the kill. In a world out of balance, will my bullet jiggle the scales? I doubt it; I don’t even know if I can pull the trigger. But I do have a sense of what I would find on the other end of the bullet:

“The land is one organism,” wrote Leopold. “Its parts, like our own parts, compete with each other and cooperate with each other. The competitions are as much a part of the inner workings as the cooperations. You can regulate them–cautiously–but not abolish them.”

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Copyright 2005 by Erik Ness

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