In a new book, Wisconsin writer and hunter Al Cambronne investigates the complicated relationship between Americans and a massive population of whitetail deer.
There are many ways to fail at deer hunting. Of the more than 400,000 hunters who will take to woods and fields when Minnesota’s firearms deer season opens on Nov. 9, about 280,000 will not kill a deer before the season ends. Many will simply be unlucky. Others will put themselves in poor locations or will shoot badly. Quite a few will pass up opportunities to take a doe or a smaller-antlered deer while waiting for a monster buck to show up — and go home with nothing to show for their choosiness.
One thing that won’t factor into hunter failure is a scarcity of deer. There are plenty of deer.
“It’s the single most impressive thing about the North American whitetail,” says Wisconsin writer Al Cambronne. “There are just so many of them.
This wasn’t always the case, says Cambronne, whose new book, “Deerland” (Lyons Press) is an expansive and penetrating exploration of the territory of the whitetail — both literally and philosophically. From a total population of only 300,000 a century ago, U.S. deer numbers have swollen to 30 million. “How many deer are too many?” says Cambronne. “That depends on who you ask.”
Originally from River Falls, Cambronne, 55, spent his early career studying Chinese and teaching English in Taiwan. For the past few decades, he’s worked in corporate training programs and logged his time in the Twin Cities. In 2003, Cambronne and his wife moved to Solon Springs, Wis., where he became an “adult-onset hunter.” He started out walking the woods for grouse and within a year began learning to hunt deer. Cambronne was immediately hooked. “The whole experience is great,” he says, “but what I really love is venison.”
Cambronne says he understands why many hunters are obsessed with trophy bucks — but says he isn’t. He’s more interested in what’s in his freezer than what might go up on the wall. Besides, shooting does is essential.
“Hunting is our best tool for keeping deer numbers in check,” says Cambronne, “but only if hunters are willing to harvest does, not just bucks. Some hunters still believe shooting does is wrong. But it’s a tradition that has outlived its usefulness.”
“Deerland,” though it has plenty to say about deer hunting, is not only for deer hunters. Exhaustively researched, it’s a thoughtful and engaging hunt for a different kind of quarry: balance in a natural world that we are perpetually unbalancing. Cambronne’s investigation of our relationship with an animal that has always symbolized wilderness and that now thrives in the midst of human civilization takes him into every corner of what he calls “the deer-industrial complex,” an enterprise so vast, writes Cambronne, that if deer hunting were a single corporation it would be larger than the majority of companies listed on the Fortune 500. Hunters spend more than $30 billion annually on gear and licenses, and most of them are deer hunters.
Cambronne says this means that, in a sense, what’s good for deer is good for America — though he qualifies that with “mostly.”
Nature, says Cambronne, isn’t always kind to deer. Deer habitat has a finite “biological carrying capacity.” The land can only sustain a certain number of deer, and when the deer herd exceeds that capacity the situation become self-correcting — a nice way of saying the extra deer will starve. But letting nature take its course, says Cambronne, “is not always the best option for the deer or for the habitat. The more deer you have, the less you have of everything else.” Hunting — especially by hunters willing to shoot does — takes the edge off nature’s harshness and helps keep habitat and deer numbers in better harmony.
Cambronne believes that there is also a “sociological carrying capacity” for deer, and here is where “Deerland” ventures more deeply into the sometimes difficult relationship between humans and deer. The growth of the suburbs, where hunting and predation are limited but food is plentiful, has been one of the main drivers behind swelling deer populations.
Suburban deer numbers are sure to continue to grow, says Cambronne. But our tolerance for the havoc they wreak on our gardens and shrubbery may not. Everybody loves seeing deer in the yard — until they prune the arbor vitae or take out your carefully tended heirloom tomatoes. And as deer assaults on gardens increase, so does the incidence of deer-vectored illnesses such as Lyme disease.
These problems are minor, however, compared with the damage deer do when they attempt to cross the road. Cambronne writes that the whitetail deer is the “deadliest animal in North America,” more dangerous than bears, wolves, rattlesnakes or sharks. There are more than 1 million car-deer collisions every year. About 150 people are killed in these accidents annually, and thousands are injured. Annual insurance payouts approach $4 billion.
Cambronne says there isn’t much that can be done to prevent this mayhem. Slow down at dusk when deer are likely to be about — and if you do end up with a deer in your headlights, don’t swerve. Many injuries from car-deer accidents are actually the result of a driver dodging the deer and then colliding with another car or a tree.
Some of the most intriguing sections of “Deeerland” are concerned with the evolving nature of deer hunting in places beyond city and suburb, where the long-standing principles of “fair chase” are being redefined. In areas such as Wisconsin’s legendary Buffalo County, where guides can help you find huge deer on leased hunting property, hunter success rates are no better than anywhere else — partly because holding out for a trophy buck is an advantage to the deer.
Cambronne sees less fairness in hunting deer that have been raised and confined behind fences.
“There are places where you can spend $10,000 to shoot a trophy buck that’s been released into a 3-acre fenced lot,” says Cambronne. “That’s not fair chase. Shooting a specific deer you’ve selected in advance from a catalog is even worse. The bottom line is that if your hunting success is guaranteed, that’s not fair chase.”
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