You Can’t Get a Buck for Buck

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I was at a German restaurant in Ulster County many years ago. On the menu was jaeger schnitzel. Apparently, in German, “jaeger schnitzel” translates into “hunter’s cutlets” traditionally made from either venison (deer meat) or boar. Today, jaeger schnitzel normally includes beef or sometimes even chicken. On the Specials Menu was written “New Zealand Venison Jaeger Schnitzel.” Coincidentally, I had spent lots of time that morning butchering up a deer hunted near that restaurant’s location. Too bad I couldn’t sell him some local deer meat and rewrite the menu as “NYS Venison Jaeger Schnitzel.”

The reason I couldn’t sell my German friend some “hunter’s cutlets” is because the sale of wild game is illegal in the United States. While deer taken from a “farm” and inspected by the USDA can be sold, not one steak can be from your backyard buck or doe. In other words, the “farm to table” or “forest to table” has been breached or cut off in the United States. How did this happen?

Market hunting or habitat destruction?

There is a theory out there – and it’s accepted by most – that wildlife populations were mostly killed off by market hunting. Perhaps you’ve heard about the wholesale killing of passenger pigeons for city markets. However, markets for wild animals had been firmly established since the 17th century in North America. Some places, like Sweden, still have markets for wild game to this day but we’ll cover that later. Try a google search of “market hunting” and you’ll find a plethora of men standing over dead animals signaling the fall of game species in the late 19th century United States. However, lurking in the background of many of these photos – if you look very closely – is something that is perhaps more significant than “market hunting” in this wildlife extirpation extravaganza. I’ll give you a hint. If you google search “Delaware County dairy 1800s” you’ll find a similarity. The lack of trees and forests in the background.

My point is that market hunting was shared by Native Americans, settlers and later American citizens for hundreds of years, and this did have an impact on wildlife populations. However, perhaps much more significant than this was the peak in land clearing that was achieved throughout the US in the late 19th century. Simultaneously, wildlife populations reached their alltime lows. After the Great Depression in the 1930s, farm abandonment spread like wildfire throughout the US, and forests quickly regenerated. Taking advantage of this young growth, were first the little bunnies that many of our grandfathers hunted. As the forest continued to grow, more cover and browse became adequate for housing deer that many of our father’s have hunted. Today’s forest is much taller and older and continues to fill in our greatgrandfather’s fields. For many game animals, a step-ladder is needed to access the buds, berries, and nuts and for this, a bear’s claws have found their home. Perhaps your son (or daughter) will be a bear hunter.

My point is that it was habitat that was probably more significant in bringing back wildlife populations than the demise of market hunting. I question whether the few Game Wardens in the early part of the 19th Century could have a real impact on enforcing the few game laws that existed over such a plentifully rural population of humans. Instead, I believe that market hunting may have rather “finished off” the dwindling wildlife populations that no longer had adequate food and cover to escape the well-established market hunting industry. But, this is just my opinion. We do know that wildlife, such as deer did not even come back to parts of the Hudson Valley until the latter part of the 20th century regardless of well-established game laws. It needed habitat first.

Conservation comeback or presently a pest?

Today, hunting is merely for recreation. In fact, many Americans regard some of these sacred game species (deer, bear, turkey) as pests and no longer a symbol of “conservation.” Instead, state wildlife managers are no longer challenged in bringing back populations, but on how to reduce numbers. For example, in suburban areas, deer numbers have skyrocketed, probably due to the fact that conditions in suburban areas mimic the same conditions that occurred decades before when farms were abandoned wholesale. Each house and roadway offers young growth for food and cover. As written about before in this column, deer can wreak havoc on forest health and significantly impact forest composition and wildlife habitat quality. In the past, managers could rely upon recreational hunting as biological tools to control populations.

However, hunters are aging out across the US. In New York State, the average hunter is over 51 and apparently the age at when most quit is in their mid-60s, which is getting closer each year. In order to lure hunters into taking more deer, many incentive programs have been created through the issuing of more tags. However, despite these programs, most hunters bag one deer. In a Wisconsin study, 63 percent of hunters killed one deer, 25 percent shot two, 8 percent shot three and 4 percent shot four or more. No matter how many tags you give a hunter, it is unlikely this statistic will change. There simply is an established “harvest threshold.” If you hunt, then you know why such a “harvest threshold” exists. It’s a lot of work, time and money to hunt deer and process them yourself. According to Cornell University’s Paul Curtis, the average hunter spends more than 40 hours hunting one deer to its fruition.

Market incentive or destruction awakened?

So, what do to? You know where I’m going with this right? I don’t believe market hunting was the big bad wolf it was portrayed to be in the first place, especially as a forester who reads past conditions based upon the composition of trees present today. Many hunters fear that market hunters could displace their monopoly on their sport and increase poaching. I disagree. Rather, I believe it might draw us closer to wildlife. I agree with University of Wisconsin’s Tom Heberlein who spoke on From the Forest on WIOX ROXBURY 91.3 FM. In Sweden, an individual can purchase moose or roe deer from a hunter or buy it from the grocery market. In this way, hunters can be compensated for their efforts, while landowners can be compensated by hunters for managing deer and habitat. Instead of alienating the Swedish population from hunters and hunting, most have been drawn closer than in the US. Of non-hunting Swedes, 70 percent consume wild game while only 42 percent of non-hunters in the US do. Mr. Heberlein also claimed that Swedish hunters were far more accurate with their shots since losing a moose was not only embarrassing and possibly inhumane, but extremely wasteful. A moose backstrap is $61/lb. I don’t like everything about the Swedish program, but this seems like a far more efficient incentive program.

Despite market hunting in Sweden, populations seem healthy. Although it might be true that landowners are more responsible for game management in Sweden, government biologists still set the quota numbers of game species. Is something like this possible in the US? David Drake of the University of Wisconsin broke with the Wildlife Society priesthood when he co-wrote his paper : “Regulated Commercial Harvest to Manage Overabundant White-tailed Deer: An Idea to Consider?” The idea is that your state DNR or DEC could administer commercial harvest tags to holders that have passed a criterion of educational courses, etc. in suburban areas with excessive deer. It’s an incentive perhaps worth trying, but as Tom Heberlein says about American wildlife conservation, “It’s locked in the 1800s.” Can’t we do better today?

The commercial harvesting of timber hasn’t removed our forests. Beavers can be sold for their pelts, and even a black bear’s gall bladder for medicine in the Asian market. None of these factors have exhausted their populations. I would argue that deer hunting is already highly “commercialized” in many ways. There are about a hundred different scents out there to make yourself smell like a doe in estrous or a diversity of range-finders for calling in artillery via a variety of snazzy broadheads and bolts. Shoot, some of these hunters have more capable UTV’s than my truck, but that’s what makes the world go around.

Deer, are for sure, the sacred cow of the woods, and seem to ignite far more politics than any other forested animal. Until then, I guess the local restaurant will have to import its jaeger schnitzel from New Zealand. Now, maybe I can convince them to get rid of the agave and buy some NYS maple syrup. To make matters worse on the forest front, I hear some bundled firewood in New Jersey comes from Estonia.

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