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Now that Pennsylvania and New York’s Whitetail deer seasons are in full swing, hunting has become a hot-button topic for many. Platforms on the issue typically range from an ethical respect for living things to the necessity of providing naturally sourced meat to families. From the right to bear arms, to managing the deer population, to a deer’s right to life in their native habitat, all arguments seem to circle around that famous line from Shakespeare, “To be, or not to be…” This question is no longer about whether or not we should live, but rather whether or not the deer should live. What does that question mean for us as stewards of the land, and for the living things that inhabit it?
Deer populate at a rate of two to three fawns per doe per year, with the local doe-to-buck ratio currently just over 2:1. This ratio varies based on specific location, how well harvest reports are submitted and the accuracy of conservation data. Given this rate of reproduction, deer can quickly overwhelm an area with limited forestation. When deer populate an area too heavily, they consume more than can be sustained. Forests become sparse and can even die, leading deer and other animals to become malnourished. Issues including erosion, soil pH, human encounters, spread of disease and overall ecological sustainability become forefront. To read more about these statistics in Pennsylvania, see the Pennsylvania Game Commission report on its website at tinyurl.com/yaumhds3.
What the PA Game Commission defines as “human encounter” tends to cause people the most tangible distress. This category includes car accidents due to collision with a deer or swerving to avoid a deer. Data collected by State Farm places Pennsylvania as the state with the highest number of deer-vehicle collisions, causing an estimated $400 million in damage annually. Across the U.S., deer account for more than $1 billion in damage annually. To look at the data on deer-vehicle collisions, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Association’s website.
For many families, the pursuit of food outweighs all other motivations to hunt. It’s illegal to purchase venison harvested from the wild, as it can only be bought from certified and tested facilities. However, these facilities are far and few between, and venison is considered an exotic specialty meat, which means the price for that meat isn’t as low as the price of beef or even pork. The current price-per-pound of beef is about $3.70. The average price-per-pound of farmed venison is about $12.75. Compared with the relatively low cost of purchasing a hunting license, the decision becomes simple. Plus, hunting and fishing licenses account for a majority of revenue that goes toward conservation and state land management budgets in New York and Pennsylvania.
So, to let deer be or not to let them be? What we know is that if we want to continue having whitetail deer around, then we have to manage their population. If not through hunting, then how would they be managed? Do we defile their biology by mass sterilization, while keeping our fingers crossed that it is done in such a way that negates ecological repercussions? (tinyurl.com/y8ffs9nd). That didn’t work well for the New York City Parks Department in 2018 (tinyurl.com/yc6dfdyv). Do we raise taxes to fund statewide culling, which in turn destroys the animals and leaves thousands of residents with a deficit of hundreds of pounds of anticipated protein to feed their families? Do we let the deer destroy themselves and drag the environment and other resources down with them, while simultaneously promoting bacterial and viral illnesses to spring up as one of many results?
While empathy for the animals is important, so too is our responsibility to take action. Even those who do not hunt play a part in the balance of this ecosystem. If everyone hunted, there would be too heavy a predation on whitetail deer. Respect for the cycle of life—from hunters and non-hunters alike—remains the path to a healthy balance. Shaming those who hunt fails to serve this balance. So does shaming non-hunters. We all enjoy the earth we live on and these hills and rivers we call home. Understanding the necessity of managing the land and the deer that live here is key to sustaining this quality of life.