One of my early memories of growing up in Michigan comes from the 1950s. It is of my father returning from a deer hunt with a big buck strapped to the roof of his old Ford coupe. The whole neighborhood turned out to congratulate him.
When he butchered the deer, he gave venison to a number of friends. Sharing the bounty of the wild: That’s a tradition hunters have honored for thousands of years, and one reason why hunters, historically, have been cultural heroes.
Around the turn of the century, there were less than 50,000 deer in the entire state of Michigan. By the l950s, when my father returned from the hunt I remember, there were close to a million deer in the state, but most were in the upper peninsula and the northern lower peninsula. You had to travel a long way to hunt, often during wintry weather. The limit was one buck per year. Bagging your deer was something to be proud of.
Today there are at least two million deer in Michigan. Many have moved into southern Michigan–close to people, farms, and highways–causing a lot of trouble. Michigan’s annual deer kill is 500,000 or more–but it should be higher.
All across the nation, whitetail deer numbers have skyrocketed. Prior to Christopher Columbus, the deer population was kept in check by predators–wolves, cougars, bobcats, bears, coyotes, and Indians. Uncontrolled commercial hunting and loss of habitat to uncontrolled logging and massive wildfires drastically reduced deer numbers. By 1900 the national whitetail herd was about half a million.
But deer have made a comeback, thanks to restraints on development and hunting and the decline of natural predators. The national whitetail herd now exceeds 30 million. Whereas 50 years ago a good hunter got a deer every year or two, the average hunter in Alabama today kills almost three per year. Many people in the deer-rich states of the midwest, the northeast, and the south kill half a dozen or more every year. And deer herds keep growing.
Deer are enjoyable to watch, but mushrooming herds are becoming a wildlife-management nightmare. Lyme disease, carried by deer-borne ticks, has been reported in 43 states. Deer can also carry tuberculosis, as well as chronic-wasting disease, the mysterious brain-eating illness that belongs to the same family of illnesses as mad-cow disease and Creutzfield-Jacob disease.
Insurance companies report over 500,000 deer-car collisions annually, resulting in about a hundred human deaths. (Let us not forget that more people are hurt and killed by deer than by any other species of North American wild game.) Several studies place the total number of deer hit by cars at four to six times the number reported. The average insurance claim for a deer-car collision is $2,000. Deer damage to agriculture crops and landscaping costs more than $1 billion a year.
Hunting is the most economical and effective way to limit the size of herds and control the problems that their explosive growth has caused. But most hunters believe it is wrong to kill game that will not be eaten. To waste a game animal like a deer is to sin. We need to shoot more deer, but what to do with all the venison?
FEEDING THE NEEDY
The USDA estimates that in 2000, 10.5 million U.S. households (or approximately one in ten) were food-insecure–i.e., they didn’t reliably have enough food to meet their basic needs. About 33 million people lived in these households. About 22 percent of all children were living in poverty, and many seniors were also food-insecure.
Churches, food banks, and various social-service organizations feed the needy. But they always seem to be short of food, despite the fact that 96 billion pounds of food is thrown away each year by the food-service industry.
Several organizations have already hit upon a commonsense way to begin solving this problem: They channel surplus venison and other game meat to the needy.
One such group is Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry, which was founded in Maryland but is now nationwide. FHFH is a Christian faith-based organization that sees itself as an “outreach ministry.” During the last seven years, national FHFH programs have coordinated and paid for the processing and distribution of over 1,400 tons (12 million servings) of venison.
One constraint on getting venison from the field to the table is the price of doing so. On average, it costs $65 to butcher, wrap, freeze, and store a deer. One of FHFH’s goals is therefore to have each state include on its hunting application an optional $1 donation to pay for the processing of surplus dear.
Hunters for the Hungry is another group of venison-donation charters across the U.S. HFTH has collected and donated over 1.5 million pounds of venison since l991. Some of its notable affiliates include Hunters for the Hungry in Texas, which has donated over 500,000 pounds of venison in the last decade; Hunters Helping the Hungry in New Jersey, which donated over 30,000 pounds of venison last year; Alaskan Hunters Fighting Hunger, which provides deer, bear, caribou, and moose meat to local food banks; and Michigan Sportsmen Against Hunger, which coordinates donations from several different groups throughout Michigan. This last group also holds raffles to raise cash for meat-processing fees; one of the prizes is a chance to hunt with good ol’ Blood Brother Ted Nugent.)
Still another wild-game-donation program, Sportsmen Against Hunger, is run by Safari Club International, which focuses on both national and international big-game hunting. SCI estimates that its wild-game meat and other donations help feed some 230 million people a year. (An elephant can feed an entire village.)
Deer-hunting season is fast approaching. If you want to hunt but don’t know what you’ll do with your venison, know that there are plenty of organizations that will put it to good use. And if you have considered taking up hunting but haven’t done so, there’s still time to take a hunter-education course, which all 50 states require of people who seek a hunting license. With that license, you will not only be able to go out and nourish your soul, but you’ll also be able to continue a very old tradition of sharing wild game with those who need it.