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About 60 yards away, a fat doe is trying to hide in a cluster of scrub oaks. I can see her through the scope, but with all the leaves in the way, I can't quite put the crosshairs on the thick of her neck.
Scrunching down on the passenger side of the pickup truck, I steady the rifle, a Ruger Swift .220, on the outside mirror. The deer turns broadside and freezes, a perfect target. I fire one shot, and she drops on the spot. She's already dead when we reach her; the bullet hole is centered right where I aimed it, in the middle of her neck.
My buddy, Chef, and I field-gut the carcass and throw it in the back of the truck. Always the gourmet, he asks if I want to save the liver to make pâté. Chef's the cook on this South Texas ranch, and he invited me down for the doe season. He asked only that I not use his real name, because the ranch owners wouldn't appreciate the publicity. Ranchers make big money selling hunting leases. They don't like to talk about the problems deer overpopulation is causing everybody else.
But the deer have become a plague. Wildlife experts across the country tell us that the overpopulation of native white-tailed deer is not only a hazard to the public health, it's a threat to the environment.
The health facts are staggering. Ticks carried by deer will transmit Lyme disease to more than 10,000 people this year, and overpopulation is speeding the spread of new deer diseases such as chronic wasting disease (CWD), a brain disorder related to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or "mad cow disease." (Luckily, no cases have yet been reported in Texas.) In addition, an estimated 130 Americans will die in car wrecks caused by deer this year. The 500,000 motor vehicle-deer collisions also will cause 29,000 human injuries and more than $1 billion in insurance claims.
Deer overpopulation is taking its toll on the environment, too. Pushed by competition to find new areas to forage, the deer are eating everything they can chew, destroying their own habitat. And their destruction of plants will cost farmers, timber companies and suburban landscapers more than $1 billion this year alone.
It's harder to put a dollar value on wild ecosystems. One of the most deer-devastated ecosystems in the country is the Edwards Plateau of Central Texas. There, and across the rest of the Hill Country, hungry deer are rapidly depleting the white oak forest and creating a vast cedar thicket. In East Texas, deer are devouring the habitat of ground-nesting birds, rabbits and other wildlife, which are in turn disappearing from the ecosystem.
That's why, as deer season gets under way, enlightened environmentalists are cleaning their deer rifles and swapping venison recipes.
The idea that a hunter might actually know something about the environment comes as a shock to most city folk. To them, I highly recommend Steve Chapple's Confessions of an Eco-Redneck. The book challenges the myth perpetrated by Subaru commercials -- that where nature is concerned, it's the enlightened, nonhunting yuppies who "get it." Chapple takes on the animal lovers and shows their concern about wildlife for what it really is: uninformed sentimentalism. Those who oppose hunting for moral or ethical reasons demonstrate a dim understanding of wildlife-management realities. "The animal rights folks have got it wrong," Chapple told me on the phone. "White-tailed deer are eating us out of house and home all across America."
To control the deer population in Texas, wildlife management authorities help cooperating ranchers determine how many deer need to be "harvested" from their land each year. Every deer killed is tallied on a quota sheet and reported. Hunters who pay for high-dollar deer leases will gladly shoot the full quota of bucks, whose antlers make impressive trophies. But at the ranch where I'm hunting, the herd also needs to be thinned by more than 100 does. These will be shot by folks like Chef and me, who hunt because it's good for the environment -- and because we like the meat.
Historically, we're in good company. Venison (from the Latin venari, which means "to hunt") is one of the oldest foods known to man. European settlers of the United States dispensed with the ritualized hunts of the Old World and followed the example of the Native Americans.
The early colonists relied heavily on the native white-tailed deer as a food source -- so heavily that by 1696, Massachusetts had to restrict deer hunting. By the end of the 19th century, the American deer population had been decimated by uncontrolled market hunting, which allowed butchers to buy deer directly from hunters.
Market hunting was effectively abolished in 1900; at the same time, the states began passing game laws that prohibited the hunting of does. Modern anti-hunting sentiments, which began to surface at the turn of the last century, were shaped by that era's dwindling wildlife population.
And, of course, there's the fact that large, dewy-eyed mammals -- especially their cartoon incarnations -- are cute. How, ask the anti-hunting people, could anyone shoot Bambi's mom?
But even Bambi isn't what most people think. The novel Bambi, published in 1924 by Hungarian author Felix Salten, is actually a dark allegory about the cruelty of nature and the evils of militarism. (Salten, a Hungarian, had been chased out of Germany by the Nazis.) The wilderness depicted in the book is hardly the bucolic playland of the Disney movie: