Monday, November 4, 2013

Wild Deer From the Market for Thanksgiving?

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, author Jim Sterba notes that in the battle to control rising deer populations, we have left the obvious off the dinner table:

What explains the fact that we have a glut of white-tailed deer in this country, yet an estimated 85% of the venison sold in restaurants and at meat counters is imported from farms in New Zealand?

The Kiwis tout the high quality of their meat. But the main reason is that, unlike hunters in other countries, Americans are not allowed to sell their own wild game meat. The "wild game" on our restaurant menus isn't wild—it's farm-raised, or else the chef is breaking laws that ban such sales. The laws were passed as part of a campaign in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to end the devastation of wild populations by commercial hunters.

But times have changed. On Oct. 7, scientists at the Wildlife Society's annual meeting in Milwaukee broached the idea —  heretical to many — of allowing the limited sale of wild venison again as an incentive to reduce deer numbers and damage.

The white-tailed deer population of the U.S. is now estimated at somewhere between 30 million and 45 million. Proponents of allowing wild venison sales say the six million whitetails that licensed hunters will kill this season aren't nearly enough to contain, let alone to reduce, this population.

Inducements to increase the harvest—such as allowing more kills per hunter, setting up donation programs for the hungry and lengthening hunting seasons—have not worked well. This is especially true in our suburbs and growing exurbs, where deer increasingly concentrate. Hunting with guns is widely prohibited in these areas, and hunting with bows and arrows hasn't proven effective.

The new incentive would involve targeting overabundant whitetails in specific places — neighborhoods, parks, greenbelts, townships — for tightly controlled culls by specially qualified shooters. Hired sharpshooters already perform this task in many places, at taxpayer expense. The difference is that, instead of being donated to food pantries or sent to landfills, the venison and byproducts could be sold, perhaps as a locavore delicacy, to recoup some costs.

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