Shooting Bambi's Mom
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:
It was silent in the woods, but something horrible happened every day. Once the crows fell upon Friend Hare's small son who was lying sick and killed him in a cruel way. He could be heard moaning pitifully for a long while Another day a fox tore to pieces the strong and handsome pheasant.
It took Walt Disney to turn this into a cartoon. Disney had been horrified by hunting since he was a small child, when his brother shot a rabbit for the family dinner table. In Disney's 1942 movie, Bambi became a frolicking youngster, and the mother deer had huge eyes and a voice that sounded like somebody's mommy's. Gone was Salten's version of nature, bloody in tooth and claw. Disney replaced it with giggly rabbits and songs about raindrops. The only killers in the movie are human hunters.
The movie has been called the best anti-hunting propaganda ever produced. It served the admirable purpose of rallying the public to protect disappearing wildlife at a crucial time in our history.
But that time has passed, and we are left with what wildlife biologists call the Bambi syndrome: the tendency to think of wild animals as people in bunny suits, hopping around in the forest. The anti-hunting movement continued to gain strength in the last half of the 20th century, and deer hunting has declined. Which is too bad, in the view of many biologists, because what we need now are more deer hunters.
Over the past century, the deer population has grown, slowly at first, and then exponentially. Now, there are now some four million deer in Texas and 30 million in the United States -- more than when Columbus landed, and more than at any time in our history. I called Dr. Jerry Cooke, a wildlife biologist at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, to help me understand this astonishing fact.
"Between 43 and 63 million bison once maintained an enormous grassland in the middle of our continent," Cooke explained. "When the bison disappeared, the landscape changed. We think of animals adapting to their habitats, but in fact, habitats also adapt to their inhabitants." Without the soil disturbance caused by the huge herds of bison and the naturally occurring fires that once kept woody vegetation in check, the grassland savannas of the Great Plains disappeared. In the farmlands and ranches that have replaced them, white-tailed deer have proliferated.
Contrary to popular belief, the white-tailed deer is not an animal of mature woods. It does best in a habitat where open land is bordered by brush or timber, like in the ranchlands and farming areas. Though they can eat a wide variety of foods, white-tailed deer have an uncanny ability to select the most nutritious ones available. To the chagrin of farmers, they will ignore browse in favor of cultivated crops.
The growth of the deer population was further aided by the disappearance of their natural predators. Wolves and bears are now rare in Texas, and so is a tiny insect that once held the deer population in check even after those predators became scarce.
The screwworm fly (Cochliomyia hominivorax) lays its eggs in open sores and the umbilicus of newborn animals, causing sickness and death in livestock and wildlife. After a federal program eradicated the screwworm fly in the 1950s and 1960s, the Texas cattle industry boomed -- and so did the deer population.
Wolves, bears, the screwworm fly and human hunters were once the four major predators of deer. Now only hunters are left.
To see the havoc that deer can wreak on an ecological system, just visit the Texas Hill Country. There, native deer are eating themselves out of a habitat, devouring acorns and oak seedlings so fast that the oak forest is failing to produce new trees. The Spanish oaks eventually will be replaced by prickly pears and cedar thickets.
"When population increases beyond the carrying capacity of the habitat, mortalities should increase," says Cooke. "But the acorns in the Spanish oak forests provide a huge nutritional boom right before the reproduction season." As a result, the deer continue to increase as the ecology continues to collapse.
Upscale Hill Country resort communities such as Horseshoe Bay and Lakeway consider their deer a plague. Parks and Wildlife officials recommend a population density of about one deer per ten to 12 acres. It's not uncommon to find five to ten times that many deer in Hill Country subdivisions.
"Three years ago we had 3,000 deer on 6,000 acres here at Horseshoe Bay," says Tom Engler, manager of the Horseshoe Bay Property Owners Association. "It's not just that the deer are eating everybody's landscaping and tearing up the golf courses -- which they are," he says, "but we also had over 300 car accidents caused by deer here in 2000." Insurance officials estimate the average cost of each deer-motor vehicle collision at $3,000.
Parks and Wildlife has helped Horseshoe Bay, Lakeway and other subdivisions where hunting is impossible to thin their deer herds by relocation. The "Triple T" (trap, transport and transplant) program allows permit holders to trap deer and ship them to areas where they are wanted, such as Mexico.
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.
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."
The biggest doe I've seen all day is bobbing her head up and down in a patch of tall yellow grass by a barbed-wire fence. She's a good 80 yards away and doesn't seem to notice us. I've been watching her in my scope for nearly five minutes. But there are already two carcasses in the back of the truck, so I'm in no hurry.
Since I haven't shot any other deer this season, my Texas hunting license would allow me to shoot five does today. But Chef and I have already decided that one more will be enough. We do the butchering ourselves, and it's a time-consuming job.
Most hunters take their deer to processors who give them little frozen packages of backstrap (fillet), a couple of roasts and some venison "hamburger." But Chef and I have our own deer-processing technique. He likes to hang his deer for a week or more to improve the flavor. I have to get back to Houston, so I can't leave the deer hanging. Instead, I'll divide the carcasses into shoulder and haunch quarters and "wet age" them for a week in a cooler iced down to 35 degrees. The difference in flavor between this aged meat and the venison turned out by a typical commercial processor is remarkable. Instead of throwing away the bones, I'll make venison demi-glace. And rather than grinding the scrap into hamburger, I'll use it to make several varieties of homemade sausage.
The big doe raises her head and turns sideways. I take my shot and down she goes. Three clean kills before noon -- not a bad day. We drive back to camp in a merry mood, eager to show off our kills. Lots of people call themselves deer hunters. But only the few, the proud, the gourmet environmentalists, will shoot Bambi's mom.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.