Shooting Bambi's Mom

A gourmet environmentalist shares his favorite venison recipes

Wild game belongs to the people. You can hunt the deer for your personal use, but you can't sell it -- which has created an odd situation for chefs who want to serve wild game. Restaurants must buy their venison from ranchers who import non-native species. You can't buy a native white-tailed deer, but you can buy an axis deer (originally imported from India, now raised in Texas) just as you can buy a cow or a horse.

The Edwards Plateau, the very same region where white-tailed deer are running amok, is also home to some of the largest exotic game farms in the country. These ranches import and raise non-native species such as axis deer and nilgai antelope, and then they either charge sportsmen to hunt them or slaughter the animals under USDA supervision and sell the meat to restaurant suppliers. Most of the venison found in American restaurants comes from either non-native species raised on these game farms or deer imported from another country. There are currently an estimated 250,000 non-native animals of some 56 species being raised in Central Texas.

"It's too bad these game farms can't just harvest some of the native deer that's already swarming the region and sell native venison to restaurants," I mused to Dr. Cooke. He thought that was one of the dumbest things he had ever heard. It was market hunting that created the problem to begin with, he pointed out. To develop a commercial market for native venison would be an invitation to poaching, overhunting and other familiar disasters, he argued.

The only way to reduce the deer population on Texas  ranches is to shoot a large percentage of does.
Bill Carter
The only way to reduce the deer population on Texas ranches is to shoot a large percentage of does.

But other states, including New York, have experimented with the idea. There, the landowners build tall "deer-proof" fences to isolate the herd on their property, and then the state performs a wildlife census. The landowners reimburse the state and take title to the animals. After that, they are free to maintain the herd as they see fit. If they choose, they can shoot native white-tailed deer under the supervision of the USDA and sell the meat to restaurants.

Charles Shriner IV, the current proprietor of the YO Ranch in Kerrville, thinks that it's time for Texas to adopt such a program. But so far, the legislature hasn't seen fit to address the issue of deer overpopulation. Their ranching constituents fear that reducing the deer population might cut into their profits.

But, in fact, reducing the deer population is the key to a more enlightened approach to land management. And it's practiced by the most thoughtful land managers in Texas. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department attempts to promote sound management practices by showcasing them on a 6,500-acre tract in the Edwards Plateau called the Kerr Wildlife Management Area. Over the phone, assistant project manager Bill Armstrong outlined the history of the program.

In the 1800s, the region where the Kerr WMA is located was part of a huge grassland savanna that covered much of the state and was the southern range of the bison. European settlement in the 1900s brought overgrazing by sheep, goats and cattle, which slowly turned the prairie into a brushland dominated by cedar. Competing for scarce browse, deer were reduced in size and became sickly, and die-offs due to starvation became frequent.

The Parks and Wildlife Department took over the area in 1954 and converted it to a land management demonstration area. First the area was cleared of 4,000 to 5,000 acres of cedar (evergreen juniper) trees. Then through public hunting, 300 to 400 deer a year were harvested, until the population was reduced to one deer for every ten to 12 acres. Deer-proof fences were erected to keep more deer out. A herd of cattle was introduced and rotated through 33 small pastures in a short-duration grazing system that allowed them four to five days in each pasture. Finally, since 1979, one-fifth of the area has been subjected to controlled burning each year, so that all parts of the area are burned in five-year intervals.

In the early 1960s, only 60 plant species were left in the area. Today, between 90 and 100 species thrive there, and the overall volume of plant life has tripled. Prairie grasses are reappearing, as well as long-absent species such as the velvet bundleflower and the Indian mallow. The black-capped vireo, an endangered bird, went from a population of zero in the 1960s, to 27 in 1986, to 408 in 2000.

"We are re-creating the ecology of the bison," Armstrong says. "The cattle harvest the grass and tear up the soil, the deer follow and eat the weeds, and the fires keep the woody vegetation down." To see the scraggly brushland and cedar thicket of the current landscape transformed into the sea of prairie grass our forefathers encountered is to witness a miracle.

Armstrong conducts between 60 and 80 tours of the Kerr Wildlife Management Area every year for interested ranchers and landowners. Some have tried to put those lessons into practice, but getting rid of deer is always the hardest part. You can't reduce a deer population without shooting a large percentage of does. And while it's easy enough to get sportsmen to shoot bucks, most find the idea of shooting does repugnant.

Some people equate shooting a doe with shooting a cow, observes Cooke. "When they get a doe in their sights, they find it hard to pull the trigger," agrees Armstong. "It's hard to overcome the Bambi mentality, even for hunters."

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