Studying Deer Impacts at New York’s Binghamton University

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Ever since DEERLAND hit the streets, readers have been sharing with me their stories and photos. Some are ordinary citizens, like the woman from Long Island who sent me before-and-after photos of what happens when exploding deer populations far exceed what their habitat can support.  Others are botanists and ecologists whose job it is to get out into the woods—or at least what’s left of them—and actually study the ecological impacts of overabundant deer.

One of those experts is Tom Rawinski, a botanist with the USDA Forest Service.  He’s just shared a trip report from his recent assessment of deer impacts at New York’s Binghamton University, and both the numbers and the images are astounding.

(Before I continue, I should mention that Binghamton has experts of its own who study deer impacts on the university’s 900-acre campus, over 600 acres of which is in an undeveloped natural state.  They include Drs. Richard Andrus and John Titus, plus Dylan Horvath, who’s responsible for managing the university’s nature preserve.  Most universities have botany professors who can help students better understand deer impacts.  But professors at Binghamton can actually show students these impacts right on their own campus—including the stark contrast visible at six different exclosures.)

Since Binghamton’s deer are totally habituated, and since there’s almost no understory where they could hide, they were especially easy to count.  In one 33-acre area, deer densities would extrapolate to 349 per square mile.  Over the entire 600-acre area, deer densities are currently at 145 per square mile, far above what’s sustainable.  In his report, Rawinski describes the clear ecological consequences: “At present, there are no trees, of any species, able to successfully regenerate in the B.U. forests.”

Rawinksi’s photos alone tell a story.  In the photo above, the forest understory is totally missing.  Below, the only green on the forest floor is from ferns and sedges that deer find unpalatable.

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Below, you can see an area that’s more visually appealing.  On these soils, a dense mat of sedge and grass dominates the understory.  It’s still, however, a sign of severe deer impacts.  This is not a healthy forest.

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The next photo shows an especially crisp, sharp browse line.  It almost looks like humans have been out there with hedge trimmers.  But no.  Just extremely hungry deer.

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Finally, one last photo of a forest that’s open enough to accommodate a fast-paced game of disc golf.

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© 2014 Al Cambronne.  All photos courtesy Thomas J. Rawinski.

Posted in Deer, Ecology, Forests | 6 Comments

Five Years of Gutting, Cutting, and Cooking

GICICI cover

Five years ago, on 09/09/09, Krause Media released Gut It. Cut It. Cook It.: The Deer Hunter’s Guide to Processing and Preparing Venison.  Since then, largely through word of mouth, it’s gone on to become the best-selling book on the topic—and a perennial top-seller among hunting books in general.

Every year my coauthor and I are helping more hunters learn to butcher their own deer, and that’s exciting.  Sure, they’ll save a few dollars.  But the biggest payoff is something less tangible.  It’s the same feeling of self-reliance you get from building your own deck or canning your own tomatoes—but somehow way more powerful and primal.

Eric Fromm, my coauthor, was definitely the expert on this project.  I, on the other hand, could totally empathize with the complete beginner.  That’s because as an adult-onset hunter, I was one myself.  In the end, however, it turned out that my beginner’s perspective was actually very helpful.  It meant I took nothing for granted, and I knew just which steps would seem especially challenging or intimidating.  And given my instructional design background (that’s been my day job for the last twenty years), I thought a lot about what learners really need to know so they’ll be successful at this task.  In the corporate world, I helped people learn the skills they need for their jobs.  Here, I helped hunters learn the skills they need for this job.

This book is different from anything else out there.  We’ve shown readers all the step-by-step details, with supportive tips and guidance at every step of the way.  We’ve been especially careful to zero in on the details that matter most.  Other books only devote a few pages to the practical details of field-dressing, skinning, and butchering.  But that’s where we spent nearly all our time.  That meant there just wasn’t room for recipes, hunting stories, advice on how to shoot the biggest buck of your life, and the history of deer hunting over the last 50,000 years.  But that’s OK.  There are already plenty books on those topics.

After all the butchering is done, and after the chapter on making deerburger, sausage, and jerky, we did include a brief chapter on cooking techniques.  Once you’ve gone to all that work, we’d hate to see you ruin your venison in the kitchen.  And it turns out that cooking venison is very different from cooking beef.  For now, if you remember just one thing, remember this: Don’t overcook it.

In the five years since Gut It. Cut It. Cook It. first appeared, more and more deer hunters are deciding this is a job they don’t want to delegate—and maybe you’re one of them.  Plus, more Americans are taking up hunting as adults, and more of us are thinking of ourselves as DIY locavores.  It’s not just about sustainability, and it’s not just about saving money.  It’s about the satisfaction of knowing you’ve done the job yourself—all the way from pulling the trigger to doing the dishes.  That means five years later, Gut It. Cut It. Cook It. is more relevant than ever.

Finally, a few words of encouragement:  You can do it.  If you’re a beginning deer hunter, or if you’re an experienced deer hunter who hopes to butcher your own deer this fall for the very first time…  Just relax.  This isn’t a delicate surgical procedure.  Your deer is already dead.  If some of your steaks from that first deer are a little lumpy, and if you inadvertently turn some of the very best cuts into ragged scraps and shreds, it’s OK.  They’ll be great for gourmet stir-fries and fajitas.  You can do this.  If you can clean your own fish, you can butcher your own deer.  So good luck, good hunting, and bon appétit!

And by the way…  You can find Gut It. Cut It Cook It. online at AmazonBarnes & Noble, Backwoods Home Magazine, Bass Pro Shops, Deer & Deer Hunting Magazine, Scheels, Target, Walmart,  and a number of other sources. You can also find it at bookstores, sporting goods stores, and outdoor retailers everywhere—not just Bass Pro Shops, Gander Mountain, and Scheel’s, but lots of smaller independent shops, too.  Same with bookstores.  But if you’re not near your favorite independent bookstore right now, click here to buy Gut It. Cut It. Cook It. at Indiebound.

© 2014 Al Cambronne

Posted in Books, Cuisine, Deer, Gut It. Cut It. Cook It., Hunting, Venison

Today’s DEERLAND PSA: How to Safely Release Your Dog From a Trap


It’s almost that time of year again.  Most states’ trapping seasons begin around mid-October, and Minnesota and Wisconsin have now joined Alaska and a couple of western states in legalizing wolf trapping.  Traps will soon be set, and a lot of non-trappers will also hitting the trail—many of them with curious dogs.  Some are just out for a pleasant autumn hike with their dogs, and some are using their dogs to hunt birds like grouse or pheasant.

Inevitably, a small number of those dogs will end up in traps meant for wolves and coyotes.  Although the risk is small, it’s worth being prepared.   I know someone whose dog stepped in a wolf trap last fall.  Fortunately, he knew exactly what to do.  His dog is just fine.

This isn’t a scare-mongering tirade against wolf-trapping, and it’s not an attack on hunting in general.  (After all, it’s often hunting dogs that are especially at risk.)  No matter how you feel about wolves, hunting, or trapping, those traps are generally out there legally. If you’re a non-trapper who has strong misgivings about the whole business, that’s OK.  Please set those feelings aside for the moment and get ready for a quick lesson about traps and trapping.  What you learn in the next few minutes could save your dog’s leg, and maybe even its life.

(I’m not a trapper myself, so this will be very basic.  If you finish reading this post and would like to offer deeper expertise, feel free to do so in the comments.)

Although a quick Google turns up plenty of hits on this topic, some resources are more useful than others.  Many contain information that’s incomplete or unintentionally misleading.  Some sensationalize the dangers, while others minimize the risk and downplay the trauma your dog could experience if it’s caught in a trap.  I’ll do neither.  Here’s a quick overview, plus links to the best information I’ve found so far.

Some internet experts advise that your dog will be safe as long as you just keep it on a leash.  But for both you and your dog, running free is part of the fun.  And obviously, hunting dogs can’t do much pointing or retrieving when they’re on a six-foot leash.  What’s more, keeping your dog on a leash, even a fairly short one, is no guarantee of safety.

That’s because many traps are set right at the edge of trails frequented by wolves and coyotes—and also by hunters and hikers.  The whole strategy is to arouse the curiousity of animals passing by on the trail.  These traps are carefully concealed, and you’ll walk right by them without ever seeing them.  Even another trapper would be unlikely to spot them.  They’re baited with scent-based attractants that arouse the curiousity of all canids.  These are the traps your dog is most likely to encounter.  This doesn’t mean you should freak out every time your dog sniffs at something along the edge of the trail.  But the risk, however small, is real.

Your dog is less likely to step in traps set for animals like mink, muskrat, raccoon, or beaver.  It happens, but far less often—mainly because these traps are set in wetland areas and in or near water.  They’re typically places too wet for hiking or hunting upland birds, but not quite wet enough for hunting ducks.  So I won’t say much about these traps, except to mention that a small percentage of them are body-grip traps.  (Conibear, a a brand name like Kleenex, is often used generically to describe all traps of this type.)  They squeeze the entire animal, often around its neck.  Although they’re intended to be more humane than other trap designs, it will be very bad for your dog if it’s caught in one of these traps—especially if the trap is a larger model meant for beaver or otter.  It will be very difficult to get your dog free, and yet you’d better not waste time.  Every second counts.

Snares are used more rarely.  If your dog is caught in one, you may be able to release it by pulling back, not forward, on the snare’s sliding metal tab.  If that doesn’t work, you’ll need to cut the cable.  Since you won’t be able to do that with an ordinary multitool or pliers, consider carrying a special tool like this one.

Most traps used for wolves and coyotes, however, are leg hold traps that come in one of newhouse 4two basic designs.  The first is a long-spring trap whose design hasn’t changed much in 150 years.  Some of these traps have two springs, one on each side.  You can release their jaws by simply stepping down on the spring(s).  If you’re not confident you’ll be able to do that, consider carrying a couple of ordinary C-clamps that you can use to compress the springs.

The other type is the coil spring trap.  These give you a much smaller tab to step on.  If youtrap_leghold_coil_spring.preview
hunt or hike with your dog in places where there’s a lot of trapping, you could buy inexpensive trap-setting tools like trappers themselves use.  They slip on over that small steel tab to provide extra leverage.  But because long-spring traps are easier for trappers themselves to handle, I’m guessing they’re more popular in most areas.

Either way, releasing these springs can be harder than you’d think—especially since your dog will be hurt, scared, and struggling to escape.  To minimize injuries, try to keep your dog from twisting or pulling on its leg.  Experts advise that you wrap your dog in your jacket and/or loop a leash around its nose as a makeshift muzzle.  That won’t be easy, either.  If you’re hunting or hiking alone, these situations can be especially challenging.

But here’s the good news: The kind of traps used for coyotes, and even for wolves, probably won’t crush your dog’s leg and do serious damage.  Depending on the size of your dog, the trap’s jaws may not even break its skin.  These traps are designed that way, often with a built-in gap or rubber cushions on their jaws.  In fact, when government trappers catch wolves for radio-collaring, they use the same trap they’d use for lethal control measures.  The only difference is in what happens next when they check their traps.  Most wolves can be safely released from these traps with no injuries whatsoever.  With luck, and with a little preparation and know-how, so can your dog.

For more details, here’s a pamphlet from Alaska DFG: trap_safety_for_pet_owners.  Better yet, follow the link in the next paragraph to see a great five-part video tutorial with Carter Niemeyer, author of Wolfer: A Memoir.  He’s a wolf advocate and retired USDA Wildlife Services trapper who really knows his stuff.  He’s spent a lifetime handling traps; notice how confidently he demonstrates the grip of a wolf trap by letting one close on his gloved hand.  (Kids, don’t try this at home.)  But note, too, how even someone with his skills and experience has trouble releasing the coil-spring and conibear traps.  And in these videos he’s not simultaneously dealing with a frightened, struggling dog.

If you hike or hunt with a dog in wolf country, these videos are well worth watching.  Click here to see Part One; as you watch each segment, you’ll see a link to the next one in the upper-right corner of your screen.

Stay safe out there.  And if your dog does step in a trap, don’t panic.  It will panic enough for both of you.  Be your dog’s calm, reassuring human, and things will probably turn out OK.

© 2014 Al Cambronne, top photo courtesy Wikipedia


Posted in Hunting, Wolves | 2 Comments

When We Talk Deer Impacts, Let’s Remember the Deer Themselves

CT doe with ticks, courtesy Tom Rawinski

Locally hyperabundant deer are not a trivial nuisance.  They have profound, long-lasting impacts on entire ecosystems.  These deer impacts affect every other plant, animal, and bird out there.  It’s an important, vastly under-reported story, one that’s unfolding right under our noses in America’s sprawling suburbs and exurbs.

In DEERLAND you met a few of the botanists, ecologists, and foresters who helped me trace these connections, and at times I’ve told a simpler version of the story here at my blog.  I’ve shown you forests with browse lines and a missing understory, and exclosures that tell a simple “deer on the right, no deer on the left” story.  I’ve explained how overabundant deer reduce songbird numbers and diversity in the forest canopy, and why all these effects are incredibly persistent.  Even when deer are weakened and starving, their numbers can remain high enough so their habitat never fully recovers.

But let’s not forget the deer themselves.  In their weakened state, they’re more vulnerable to disease—and also more likely to spread disease.  They tend to carry a much higher parasite load, which only weakens them further.  They host protozoan parasites that include toxoplasmosis, babesiosis, and theileriosis, and they’re often infested with some combination of liver flukes, lungworms, stomach worms, meningeal worms, arterial worms, abdominal worms, and tapeworms.  And then there are external parasites, like the ticks tormenting the deer in these two photos.

(The rather scrawny, tick-bitten doe was spotted in the suburbs of Connecticut, and the fawn in the photo below was found out on Long Island near Calverton, N.Y.  For earlier posts on Long Island deer, see here and here.  And here’s an op-ed on Long Island deer that I wrote for the Wall Street Journal.)

The moral of the story?  When deer populations skyrocket, standing by to “let nature take its course” is not always our best option—or our most humane.

Long Island fawn with ticks in eye calverton NY, courtesy Clifford Dayton

© 2014 Al Cambronne.  Photos courtesy Tom Rawinski and Clifford Dayton. For more of Cliff’s photos, visit his website.




Posted in Deer, Ecology, Forests

Pierre and Me


So the other day I did the vanity Google. Admit it.  You have, too.

I don’t get past my first name before Google offers auto-completes like Al Jazeera, Al Pacino, and of course…  Al Capone.  But then right after that, Al Cambronne pops up pretty quickly.  That’s me.

And if I simply search for “Cambronne?”  There’s apparently a restaurant supply company called Cambro, and as long as I can remember I’ve been seeing their name on the bottom of those cheap red plastic glasses at pizza parlors. But immediately thereafter, up pops my name—Cambronne, a surname I share on the internet with a distant relative at a Minneapolis law firm, a cousin who’s an artist working in metal, and various other relatives who mostly live here in the Midwestern U.S.

In Paris, however, there’s the Paris Eiffel Cambronne Hotel, the Best Western Hotel Eiffel Cambronne, the Ibis Tour Eiffel Cambronne, the Hotel Carladez Cambronne, and dozens more hotels and very classy French restaurants—and by “French” I mean the kind that are actually located in France.  They’re near the Cambronne Metro station at the Place Cambronne, and most are on the Rue Cambronne, one of my favorite streets in Paris. Theoretically, that is.  I’ve never actually been there.  But apparently there’s great pizza at a place on Rue Cambronne called Pizza Flora.

Nor have I been to Cambronne Street in New Orleans.  But when I search for Cambronne Street, I see many real estate ads. From the prices, Cambronne Street looks like a pretty OK neighborhood.  One ad describes a “large, gorgeous home” as being located on “mellow Cambronne street.”  Yeah.  That’s me.  Not Easy Street, but Mellow Cambronne Street.

All these places, it turns out, are named after Pierre Cambronne, a heroic general of Napoleon’s who may or may not be an ancestor of mine.  He fought and was wounded at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, and may or may not have said something quite noble, quite obscene, or both.  The Battle of Waterloo, of course, gave us the idiom “to meet one’s Waterloo,” and that’s where Pierre Cambronne met his.

According to one newspaper account, when asked to surrender he replied “The Guard dies.1280px-Cambronne_-_buste It does not surrender.” After his death, these words were carved into the base of his statue.  But since he surrendered at Waterloo, married the Scottish nurse who cared for him after his capture, retired to his home town of Nantes, and lived happily for 27 more years until dying there in 1842, more appropriate words might have been “The guard surrenders. It does not die.”

There is, however, another version of the story that’s gained much greater traction over the last two centuries.  Legend has it that when asked to surrender Cambronne replied with more colorful language that was not later carved into the base of his statue.  According to most sources, his defiant reply was brief and to the point: “Merde!”  (“Shit!”).  Even today, in polite company the French often use the euphemism “le mot de Cambronne” (the word of Cambronne).  Although this is the version of the story told by Victor Hugo in Les Miserables, I’ve also heard vague rumors that Cambronne may have used even stronger language at Waterloo.

At any rate, on the rare occasions when I introduce myself to anyone from France who stayed awake in history class, they are always delighted to learn of my last name.  I tell them I’m not sure, but yes, I might be related to Pierre.  Yes, probably.  I’m pretty sure.

The moral of the story: There’s nothing like a good story.

© 2014 Al Cambronne




Posted in Books, History

Update on Non-Abandoned Lawn Fawns

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In my previous post, originally written about this same time last year, I reminded readers to not “rescue” fawns that appear to be abandoned by their mothers. Later, go ahead and check out that post for more details.  But here’s the short version: If you spot a fawn that appears to abandoned and doomed, it probably isn’t. When fawns are very small it’s safest for them to remain behind while Mom is out foraging. She may be gone for hours at a time—or even all day.  But she’ll be back.

The fawn is neither abandoned nor doomed—but it probably is doomed if well-meaning humans decide to rescue it.  Every year about this time, animal shelters get a flood of phone calls—and even drop-ins—from people who had good intentions but should have left that non-abandoned fawn right where it was.

After all my preaching about this, I now have new empathy for people who are tempted to rescue “abandoned” fawns. Two days ago we spotted a days-old fawn at the edge our lawn, not fifty feet from where I’m writing this. It walked a few steps on very shaky legs, then settled down into some grass about six inches high. It was invisible. Even through binoculars, I could only see its ears.

Then yesterday morning I walked over to take a picture of the spot where it had bedded down. The grass was still flattened, and when I included my size 11 foot for scale, it was clear that the flattened area was very small indeed.

When I turned around and walked back toward the house, there it was—nestled right against the concrete slab under our deck. For the next twelve hours, it didn’t move more than a few inches.  Nearly every time I tiptoed to the edge of the deck and peered over, it was asleep. Or was it dying?  Was it starving?  Was it OK?  Maybe it really was abandoned.  Was its mother ever coming back?

This morning it was gone—but not abandoned.

© 2014 Al Cambronne

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Posted in Deer | 2 Comments

Encore Post: Please Don’t Rescue “Abandoned” Fawns


As a public service, I’d like to bump this post back up to the top. This information is so important, I may do the same next May…

Whether you live in the boonies or the ‘burbs, one thing is certain. Your new neighbors will be arriving soon.  They’ll have four legs, spots, an abundance of cuteness, and a vigilant mother who’s closer than you think.  So please…  don’t “rescue” them.

Every May and June, wildlife agencies and animal rehab centers all over America receive frantic calls from well-intentioned souls asking what they should do next with the whitetail fawn they’ve just rescued.  The answer: As quickly as you can, put it right back where you found it.  Better yet, don’t rescue abandoned fawns in the first place.  With rare exceptions, they’re not abandoned at all.

At birth, whitetail fawns weigh from 5 to 8 pounds. Their mothers immediately lick them clean and consume all traces of the amniotic fluid and afterbirth.  It’s part of the bonding process, and it also reduces the scent trail that would attract insects and predators.  A newborn fawn is almost totally scent-free, and its spots are more than just Disney decoration.  They’re perfect camouflage for a motionless fawn laying hidden in the sun-dappled shadows.

For the first weeks of its life, a fawn is safest if it stays right where it’s put.  Its mother leaves to browse on her own for hours at a time, returning only to nurse.  Although some visits last mere minutes, a doe’s high-protein, high-fat milk allows fawns to gain up to 10 percent of their body weight every day.

Later, they’ll tag along with mom and follow her wherever she goes.  For now, their instinct is to stay hidden and await her return.  Even when danger approaches, their best chance for survival is to stay hidden until it’s past.  The youngest fawns may even allow themselves to be picked up without a struggle.  This doesn’t mean they’re sick or injured, and it definitely doesn’t mean they’re abandoned.

The doe is probably nearby, and its fawn doesn’t need your help.  (Nor does it needs cow’s milk, which is less nutritious, poorly digested, and certain to give it debilitating diarrhea.)  Odds are, your “rescue”will be its death sentence.  Most fawns taken to animal rehab centers don’t survive.  To make a deer or any other wild animal a pet is illegal in most states, and it’s a bad idea for lots of other reasons.  The best mother for a baby deer is its own.

As tempting as it might be, just touching that fawn you’ve discovered could increase its risk of being detected by predators that include coyotes, bears, and your neighbor’s dog.  Even your close approach could create a scent trail that leads curious predators to a tasty meal of very tender venison.

(Most experts, however, don’t believe that does will reject their fawns because of human scent; their bond is way too strong.  And the advice to cleanse human scent from a fawn by rubbing it with a towel that’s first been rubbed in grass and leaves?  Probably not all that helpful, considering where else your towel has been—plus the scented detergents and fabric softeners in which you’ve washed it.  A deer’s nose has over 300 million scent receptors.  Bloodhounds have around 220 million, and humans fewer than 5 million.)

When you don’t see the fawn’s mother, that doesn’t mean she’s not there.  You may not see her, but she sees you.  And if you repeatedly observe the fawn in the same general area but haven’t glimpsed its mother for hours or even days, that still doesn’t mean the fawn is abandoned.  Leave it be.

The only possible exceptions?  If you discover a fawn that’s bleeding, has obviously broken limbs, or is crawling with flies or maggots.  Or, if you spot one that refuses to leave the side of a roadkill doe.  Otherwise, leave it where it is.

If you ever encounter a curious fawn that approaches you, the best way to ensure its survival is to help that wild animal stay wild.  If it approaches you without fear or wariness, clap your hands, yell obscenities—or, if you prefer, the word “venison”—at the top of your lungs, and chase it away.  Someday soon that lesson will be a valuable one.

For all the other newborn fawns you encounter, remember the words of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation: “If you care… Leave them there!”

© 2013 Al Cambronne

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Posted in Deer