Inside America's Deer-Industrial Complex

Welcome to Deerlandia, where we kill deer and they kill us. Too bad it's not a spoof.

A white tailed deer     Photo: Scott Bauer/Wikimedia

You don't have to be a wildlife manager to know that deer, specifically whitetail deer, are overabundant in many parts of the country. We've created this problem ourselves, and we're suffering the consequences: Car collisions make deer the most deadly animal in the United States; these sweet ungulates are also vectors for diseases—chiefly Lyme's disease; and voracious eaters, deer throw ecosystems severely out of whack, if left unchecked.

You also don't need to be in wildlife management to enjoy Deerland: America's Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness. The book, written by journalist and "adult-onset hunter" Al Cambronne, focuses on how Americans' emotions and attitudes toward deer often thwart rational decision-making in regard to their management and ethical treatment. This takes place in the background of what he calls the Deer Industrial Complex, which he says generates billions and billions of dollars every year.

Hunters account for only six percent of the population, but in 2011 they spent $34 billion on equipment, licenses and other things related to hunting. Working off a conservative estimate that deer hunters only made up 50 percent of all hunters, the industry annually brings in 17 billion dollars in revenue, placing it "154 in the most recent Fortune 500 listing—just behind JCPenney, but ahead of Colgate-Palmolive, Medtronic, and Southwest Airlines," he writes. If one assumes deer hunting accounts for around 85 percent of the hunting industry, Cambronne told me, it would rank around 102 on the list.

That figure does not include real estate value—as land is often sold or purchased expressly for hunting.

In fact, hunting is an industry that, in some ways, is even invisible to hunters, if the relatively low membership in organizations such as Whitetail Unlimited is any indication. These member groups spend much of their resources on studying deer population and helping localities keep populations healthy but in check—although a "balanced" population, the reader soon learns, is a rather subjective term.

Outside of advocacy groups, hunters are mostly exposed to the drama of hunting shows on sportsmen channels, and glossy images of big bucks. What they don't see, if they don't look for it, is the intense, complex and political theater that takes place in the background and which is designed so that there's a good chance hunters will find a deer. (What they also might not know is that many of those gorgeous bucks on magazine covers where raised inside private hunting preserves.)

Deerland is essentially a travelogue through the Deer Industrial Complex. Cambronne visits an archery club in Minnesota to learn about "North American bowhunting's twentieth-century reboot." He visits Buffalo County, Wisconsin, where the soil produces bucks with such prominent antlers, trophy hunting drove real estate values up fivefold during a five-year period. He visits Hursh Meat Processing in Poplar, Wisconsin, where, on the closing day of deer season, he watches hunters bringing in their bounty until the harvest becomes "wagonloads of deer, hundreds of frozen, neatly stacked deer carcasses silhouetted against the sunset."

Cambronne also delves into the many aspects of deer and deer management that have nothing to do with either the sport or the nutrition that deer hunting entails. Much ink has been spilled covering deer overpopulation in Washington, D.C.'s, Rock Creek Park, and the sharpshooters employed to cull the herd, but did you know that local bowhunters annually cull six hundred deer from backyards and other green spaces in Duluth, Minnesota?

During their (unsuccessful) attempt to take a deer not three blocks from downtown Duluth one night (with a permit, of course), Brian Borkholder, a member of the local Arrowhead Bowhunter's Alliance, tells Cambronne "Shooting deer in Duluth is like going down to Lake Superior and scooping out a cupful of water. More water will fill that hole. It's the same with deer."

That has much (if not everything) to do with deer feeding, which is highly regulated or banned in many parts of the country but which both hunters and anti-hunters do anyway, and often with abandon. Many people, including those who are opposed to hunting, put corn or other feed in their yards, just to attract deer because they want to look at them. But deer are voracious, and once they're done with the feed, they'll start in on the landscaping, or nearby crops, until they become too populated for the landscape to support. By then, car collisions (and possible human fatalities) will escalate, along with disease from parasites.

Hunters are often as complicit in artificially driving up deer population. Some use high-octane attractant that Cambronne describes: "If corn is Doritos for deer, these products are more like meth or cocaine." One of these products even comes in a white powder. "Although instructions on the bag suggest cutting it with water, most hunters just pour out a line on the ground. The next day it will be done, and deer will be back looking for another fix."

Deerland is neither an indictment of poor hunting practices nor a screed against backyard deer feeders. It's more of a backstory on how we've enabled deer to alter landscapes—for example, when their numbers grow, they mow trees with such veracity that caterpillars decline, and then so do the birds that prey on them and help keep insects in check.

What makes Deerland really compelling is Cambronne's frank, fair and even-handed tone, as well as his dogged reporting. The future of the Deer Industrial Complex, and its deer drugs and trail cameras and high-tech rifles, is unclear. Despite a recent uptick in hunting participation, says Cambronne, "The long-term trends don't look so good."

One thing that does seem clear is that hunting's demographics are changing. More women are hunting, as are more advocates of local food, sourced directly. Many of these hunters are inspired by Michael Pollan, author of An Omnivore's Dilemma, who writes about his adventures in tracking wild boar in Northern California.

"He's probably done more for hunting and its image and bringing more new hunters in that he ever would have imagined," Cambronne says of Pollan.

In the end, Deerland raises as many questions as it answers. What is the best path toward humane deer management? Should contraceptives such as GonaCon be used more, despite the great risk they pose to those who administer them? (A small exposure to GonaCon can render a woman infertile, Cambronne writes.) Will humans begin to see the links between their backyard deer feeding and car collisions or the growing threat of Lyme disease?

The only obviously bad choice is to do nothing. Cambronne writes:

"Left unchecked, populations increase rapidly until deer have dramatically degraded their habitat. Then they slowly starve. A few years later their population rebounds and the cycle begins anew. Standing back to watch is not a good option, and doing nothing is not a kindness."

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