Give Winter-Stressed Deer a Little Personal Space

winter-stressed deer, copyright Al Cambronne

Today in the Duluth News-Tribune, I suggested that we give winter-stressed deer a little personal space—and maybe even skip a year of shed hunting.  Although our area is due for a big meltdown, at the moment we’re experiencing a temporary setback.  Today and tomorrow we’re expecting at least a foot of new snow.

In this photo from last Sunday, the deer is standing in a “tree well” under a spruce.  Everywhere around it, the ground was still covered by two to four feet of heavy, wet snow.  When frightened deer flounder through that kind of snow for even a short distance, they burn huge amounts of energy.  This time of year it’s energy they can’t afford to waste.

(In case you’re wondering why I don’t practice what I preach, I saw this deer when I was walking by on the road.  I snapped the photo from there, avoided making eye contact or any sudden movements, and was careful to not linger.  I did not strap on snowshoes and wade into the thickest woods I could find to look for deer or their shed antlers.  If you live in my neighborhood, maybe you shouldn’t, either. And if you’ve already been doing that every weekend for the past two months…)

Sure, the weather is getting better.  But for deer here in the North, April is the cruelest month. Even in a normal winter, many of them survive months of subzero temperatures, belly-deep powder, and plate-glass springtime crust, only to exhaust their final reserves just before the last snows melt and the first green shoots emerge.  But this has not been a normal winter.

Some deer haven’t lasted until now, and the survivors are already running on empty.  So please…  Give those deer some room.

© 2014 Al Cambronne


Posted in Deer, Ecology, Hunting | 2 Comments

A Deer Letter From Long Island: Before and After in Southold

 2001 Photo From Southold, NY

Before: Fewer Deer in 2001

After my “Can’t See the Forest for the Deer” op-ed appeared in last week’s Wall Street Journal, I received several e-mails from readers.  One was from Southold, New York—the same Southold out on Long Island where a suburban deer cull is currently underway.  My correspondent lives right next door to the Tall Pines Conservation Area mentioned in last week’s op-ed and blog post, and she’s unfortunately experienced the same level of deer damage on her own property.  She was kind enough to send me these before-and-after photos of the woods beside her cottage.

She wrote: “In 2001 we could not walk thru our woods- so filled with undergrowth, wild berries and plants, butterflies snakes salamanders frogs small animals all over and ground nesting birds. It is DEAD now – you can see thru 1000 feet . Nothing alive below 6 ft from the ground. We had a few deer in 2001. HERDS of them now…  We’ve both had Lyme disease and we drive 15 miles an hour- as many deer run across the road every time we go out- including daytime… People do not want to visit us on the East end due to the tick diseases.”

Soon after buying her four acres, she created a stitched-together panorama showing the entire 900 feet of frontage along the road.  (The photo above is one of many she used to build her panorama.)  Back then deer numbers were apparently at a lower, more ecologically sustainable level.  As you can see from the photo below, that’s no longer true.  Lately she hasn’t felt excited about taking regular photos showing the missing understory and midstory in her woods.  She did, however, find this 2013 Google street view of her property.

By now Google must have collected thousands of street views that document the impacts of overabundant deer in America’s cities, parks, and suburbs. Some streets must have been photographed repeatedly over the years.  I find that whole idea fascinating, and I hope someone of a more empirical, analytical bent will find in it the germ of a tremendous research project.  But for the reader whose woods are pictured below, that’s little consolation.

2013 Google Streetview Showing Deer Damage in Southold, NY

After: A 2013 Google Street View of the Same Address

© 2014 Al Cambronne


Posted in Deer, Ecology, Forests | 5 Comments

Deer Impacts on Long Island and Beyond

Mashomack Exclosure, Courtesy Thomas J. Rawinski

An Exclosure at Long Island’s Mashomack Reserve:
Deer on the Left, No Deer on the Right

From the Suffolk Times: “It is reported that wild deer are doing considerable damage on the Island.  Those who have suffered most wrote to the State Conservation Commission, who came to investigate.”  And the same paper’s headline, just a month later: To Save the Deer: Tremendous Opposition Prevents Slaughter on Shelter Island.  Those stories aren’t from last week.  They’re from 1916.

Of course, since then some things have changed on Long Island. Very few deer remain in Deer Park.  If you’d like to live among deer, head a little farther east. Or, head west to one of America’s dozens of other Deer Parks. There’s also Deer Ridge, Deer Hill, Deer Hollow, Deer Valley, Deer Meadow, and Deer Creek. Want more? An online search for “deer real estate” yields over 69,000,000 hits. Why so many suburbs, housing developments, and streets named after deer?  Because it sells.

For all of us, whether we hunt them, watch them, or just plain love knowing they’re out there in the shadows beyond the edge of our lawn, deer have become an archetypal symbol of wilderness, wildness, and a return to nature—or at least an escape to a gentrified country lifestyle.  Love is blind; for hunters and watchers alike, the term “overabundant deer” can seem a puzzling oxymoron. But all too often we’re choosing Bambi over biodiversity and whitetails over all other wildlife. Inevitably, these changes echo and reverberate through entire ecosystems. Higher deer numbers, for example, invariably lead to lower songbird numbers and less songbird diversity.

Most of us, even if we spend a fair amount of time out in the woods, have never once seen a forest that’s not shaped by deer. It’s not just that we don’t know what we’re seeing. It’s that we don’t know what we’re not seeing, because deer have already eaten it. We even seem hard-wired to prefer a forest missing its understory. That craving may have once kept us safer from predators, and today it explains our lawns, golf courses, cemeteries, and parks. The words we most often use to describe a forest with too many deer can sound like praise: “open and park-like.”

Meanwhile, deer densities per square mile in America’s suburbs and parks have at times reached 207 in Kansas City, 241 in Philadelphia, 300 in parts of New Jersey, and 400 in Washington, D.C. Obviously, the numbers didn’t stay that high for years on end. They couldn’t. Something had to give, and standing back to watch and “let nature take its course” isn’t always our best option—or our most humane.

There are no easy answers, and not everyone will agree on the best solution.  In fact many people, even though they see themselves as environmentalists, deny there’s even a problem in the first place.  “So deer are eating a few plants in the back corner of someone’s lawn,” they argue.  “What’s the big deal?”  But exploding deer populations are more than just a minor nuisance.  If we care about the entire ecosystem, and if we truly care about the deer themselves, then at times we may need to make difficult choices.

To help spread the word, I wrote this op-ed that appeared in today’s Wall Street Journal.  (Update: You can also click here to download a PDF. My op-ed is on the bottom half of the page.) There, we didn’t have room for photos.  Here, I’ve included two from U. S. Forest Service botanist Thomas J. Rawinski. Up above, an exclosure that tells a simple story: deer on the left, no deer on the right.  Below, a shot from Long Island’s Ruth Oliva Preserve.  As you can see, deer have totally eliminated the forest understory. It’s food for thought.

© 2014 Al Cambronne

Ruth Oliva Deer Impacts, Courtesy Thomas J. Rawinski


Posted in Deer, Ecology, Forests | 6 Comments

Twenty Pounds of Venison From a 170-Pound Deer

Venison Burger, copyright Al Cambronne

In DEERLAND I wrote about the major role of deer in the environment and in American culture. The ecological angle of the story was fascinating, but so was the cultural angle. Whether we’re hunters or watchers, we think about deer in surprising ways.  As I recently told a group of wildlife biologists, “do not expect people to think rationally about deer.  They are a magical beast—like unicorns, but with better horns.” (Technically antlers, I know. But you get the idea.)

So the other day I was delighted to spot an internet anti-hunter asserting with an air of complete, total certainty that “only about 20 pounds of meat is used from a 170-pound deer.”  That’s less than 12% of the animal’s total weight. If this turns out to be true, it will be a huge surprise and a major disappointment for wildlife biologists and deer hunters everywhere.  Now, deer are beautiful animals and I would never reduce their entire value to venison.  Still, this 20/170 claim bears closer examination.

Fortunately, the writer’s estimate isn’t quite accurate; more about the actual ratios in a moment. But more interesting than the statement itself is why the writer might have made it and what this calculation reveals about his world view. Although the writer could be a vegan, his not mentioning his eating habits in this particular context suggests that he probably is not. So does this mean he’s making similar assumptions about the cows, pigs, and chickens that anonymous strangers are killing for him?

If so, then he still believes that his own meat-eating is more morally defensible than a hunter’s—even though he consumes a similarly small proportion of the animal or bird’s carcass.  True, it can already be argued that feedlots and CAFOs are a rather inefficient way to produce protein for human consumption.  But our internet commenter guy will be glad to know that more than 12% of each animal or bird from the meat factory does indeed end up on his or someone else’s plate.

Or perhaps he believes deer are somehow less meaty than cows or pigs.  But since they live out in the woods and lead a less sedentary lifestyle, wouldn’t we expect the opposite to be true?  Or, could he believe that hunters purposely leave most of the meat on the deer they butcher? Do they only pretend to be interested in venison?  And how does that work if the pay someone else to butcher their deer? Maybe the writer has just never thought this through very carefully—and maybe he’d rather not.  Otherwise he’d have to also think through a couple other things more carefully, and a mind is a terrible thing to change.

In DEERLAND I cited a 2011 survey of Americans’ attitudes toward hunting. The latest numbers are probably very similar, and they could help explain the 170-pound deer that only contained 20 pounds of venison.  It turns out that how people feel about hunting depends a lot on how you ask the question: Although only 6% of Americans went hunting that year, 74% approved of hunting and 94% felt it’s “OK for other people to hunt if they do so legally and in accordance with hunting laws and regulations.” Only 4% of respondents wanted to strip citizens of the right to hunt.  Respondents’ approval, however, appeared to be contingent on hunters’ motivations. While only 28% approved of “hunting for a trophy,” 81% approved of “hunting as wildlife management” and 85% approved of “hunting for meat.”  Given those numbers, especially the last one, maybe it’s easier to hate hunters and hunting if you convince yourself that a 170-pound deer contains only 20 pounds of venison.

Most deer hunters love venison; as much as they might enjoy the hunting experience itself, deer meat does matter to them.  They enjoy the process and the product. True, many of them dine on venison whose true cost could be calculated at hundreds of dollars per pound. They’re not all subsistence hunters living on the margins.  But comfortable urban nonhunters should understand that in much of rural and small-town America, those days aren’t gone forever.

Very few of my neighbors travel halfway across the country to hunt, and most of them Hanging Venison, copyright Al Cambronnethink twice before traveling halfway across the county. Instead they hunt their own land, a neighbor’s land, or the county forest across the road. They don’t own a safe filled with rifles in different calibers to suit the day’s terrain and mood. They have one, which they refer to as simply “my deer rifle.”  They may have purchased it a decade or two back, or they may have even inherited it from a father or grandfather. Either way, it’s a rifle that paid for itself many, many deer ago.

Hunting, whatever its recreational value, can be hard work. It takes patience and persistence. It takes time, and time is money. But for those with more time than money, the math works differently. If you’re a welder or construction worker who’s just been laid off for the winter, you’ll understand the words of that old Greg Brown song: “Time ain’t money when all you got is time.” For many Americans like those neighbors of mine, putting a deer or two in the freezer every fall is a big deal.

So how many dinners can hunters expect from the average deer?  Before writing
DEERLAND, I co-authored a how-to book called Gut It. Cut It. Cook It.: The Deer Hunter’s Guide to Processing and Preparing Venison.  In the very first chapter, we answered this question with something of a reality check.

First, most deer aren’t nearly as large as hunters would like to believe.  After field-dressing, the average deer weighs between 75 and 125 pounds. You probably won’t want to eat the head, feet, hide, or bones. You’ll also want to trim off the fat. Bottom line:  On average, slightly less than half of a deer’s field-dressed weight will be lean, boneless meat.  For a 120-pound deer, figure about 55 pounds.  That number could be higher if a deer is especially lean, and it could also be lower if a poorly placed bullet has damaged more meat than usual.

But to keep all this in perspective, remember that venison is leaner and doesn’t cook down as much as most meats from the grocery store.  That means a pound of venison can be stretched much farther than a pound of beef or pork.  And today most deer are butchered with a technique that removes all bones and fat. In contrast, if you bring home a two-pound T-bone steak and trim away everything that’s not beef, you won’t be left with very many ounces.

By the way…  You may have noticed that our “just under 50%” calculation was for a deer that’s been field-dressed, which is what hunters call the process of removing the insides from the deer before they remove the deer from woods. Calculations based on live, whole-carcass weights are more problematic; they introduce variables like when a deer last ate, how much it ate, and how well hydrated it was.  But it’s safe to say that a 170-pound deer will probably yield around 50 to 60 pounds of lean, boneless venison.  If those numbers are disappointing for hunters, they must be even more disappointing for certain anti-hunters.  Because a mind is a terrible thing to change.

© 2014 Al Cambronne

Backstrap with Onions, copyright Al Cambronne

Posted in Cuisine, Deer, Gut It. Cut It. Cook It., Hunting, Venison | 2 Comments

A Measurably Severe Winter

Frosty window at minus 31, copyright Al Cambronne

This old house doesn’t yet have modern, triple-pane windows.  Lately some mornings we’ve discovered frost on the inside.  I took this photo the other day at sunrise when it was -31° F.  It was about the same temperature this morning.

Here in northern Wisconsin, this is going to be a tough winter for deer—and also for other wildlife.  For a rough measure of just how tough, wildlife biologists use something called a Winter Severity Index (WSI).  States use different formulas, but Wisconsin uses a simple one:  Every day with more than 18” of snow on the ground gets a point.  So does every day when the temperature dips below 0° F.  A day when both happens?  That means two points.  Then at the end of the winter, add them all up.

Obviously, this formula doesn’t tell the whole story.  A crusty 17” of snow, for example, is more of a hardship for wildlife than a fluffy 19”.  And a calm night when the temperature briefly dips to 0° F isn’t as bad as a windy night when it falls to -25° F and stays there.  And I have to wonder if we should maybe add one more point when the daytime high doesn’t get above 0° F. (That would mean today gets three points.)

Still, the WSI is a good way to make rough comparisons from one winter to the next.  A winter with a final total of under 50 points is considered “mild,” 50 to 79 points is “moderate,” 80 to 99 is “severe,” and anything over 100 is “very severe.”

At 43 official stations here in northern Wisconsin, plus a few more downstate, these readings are recorded from December 1 through April 30.  At the unofficial station in my front yard, we’ve been racking up two points a day pretty much every day such December 1.  By my highly unofficial calculations, we’re already most of the way through “moderate.”  We should be hitting “severe” in another week or two, and it’s a long time until May 1.

In winter a deer’s primary metabolic strategy is to find thermal cover under thick conifers, stay bedded down, and expend as little energy as possible.  They live on stored fat, and they eat very little.  This year some individual deer may not live to see May Day.  But as a species, they’ve survived around four million cold winters.  Deer are survivors.

© 2014 Al Cambronne


Posted in Deer, Ecology | 4 Comments

A Special Thanksgiving Post

Venison Roast, Copyright Al Cambronne

It’s time for a special Thanksgiving post.  Since I’ve been writing a lot about deer lately, I suppose this could have been a timely history lesson about how turkey wasn’t even on the menu at that first Thanksgiving.  The main course was in fact venison.  Which is true, and the “story behind that story” gives us fresh insights into American history.  But more about that another time.

Instead, here’s a post about being thankful.  First, of course, for deer—even though botanists, ecologists, and foresters have taught me and my readers a great deal about how too many of them in one place can be a mixed blessing.  Deer are wondrous creatures, and their mere presence makes the woods feel wilder.  They have also provided us with a few dinners, and writing about them has even paid a couple bills.

For turkeys, especially of the wild variety—a few of which occasionally wander through our neighborhood.  For being far to the north and far upstream of the “farms” where those other turkeys come from.  (Sorry.  This was supposed to be an unrelentingly positive post.  I’ll get back on track in a moment here.  Please continue enjoying your leftover turkey sandwich.)

For all the reviewers, columnists, and bloggers who read DEERLAND, enjoyed it, and helped to spread the word.  For the TV and radio hosts who patiently coached me through my earliest interviews—and then later, through the magic of editing, made me sound incredibly fluent and articulate.  Thank you.

For everyone else who read DEERLAND, enjoyed it, and is telling their friends about it.  And even for readers who didn’t enjoy DEERLAND—usually because it included new facts about deer that didn’t fit with their existing beliefs.  I heard from a few of those people, too.  (Interestingly, roughly half were hunters and half were anti-hunting vegans.  People of all sorts have strong feelings about deer.) You can’t please everyone, and those occasional pieces of genuine hate mail helped confirm I hadn’t written a bland book.  For that, and for all the footnotes and rock-solid science I made sure to include, I am hugely thankful.

For tremendously supportive fellow writers and bloggers.  For a great agent who has given me wise counsel, supportive guidance, and tough literary love when I needed it.  For the talented, hard-working editors, publicists, and salespeople I’ve had the privilege of working with at two different publishers.  For all these people, I am deeply thankful.

I should also remember all the non-literary reasons I have to be thankful this Thanksgiving. A loving wife who’s the best thing that ever happened to me.  Our health.  A roof over our heads, and a great place to live.  Wonderful friends and neighbors.  And more.

Although I can often be a real glass-half-empty kind of guy, sitting down to write this blog post has reminded me that I have a lot for which to be thankful.  Every now and then it’s good to pause and count one’s blessings. Glad I did that.  I highly recommend it.

So…  Here’s to the deer, and Happy Thanksgiving!

© 2013 Al Cambronne


Posted in Books, Cuisine, Deer, Ecology, Forests, Gut It. Cut It. Cook It., Venison | Leave a comment

How accurate, lethal, and humane is modern bowhunting gear?

arrows in target, copyright Al Cambronne

As I researched DEERLAND, I learned a lot about America’s deer-hunting subculture.  I was especially fascinated by how profoundly hunters’ gear, tactics, and values have shifted over the space of just a single generation.  It turned out the exploding popularity of bowhunting was a big part of that story.

In my last post, I described an even more recent development: how the rising popularity of crossbows has led to much controversy and discord among hunters.  Some bowhunters see crossbows as an unfair advantage, while others point out that a modern compound bow is already an extremely effective hunting tool that has a surprisingly short learning curve.

Meanwhile, many anti-hunters unfamiliar with modern archery equipment believe that bowhunters’ shot placement is utterly random.  Images like this one further reinforce these perceptions, and those who oppose bowhunting are certain the few arrows that do hit their mark create small, painful wounds that are rarely fatal—and even then, only after hours or days of unbearable suffering.  These people believe that bowhunting, more than any other kind of hunting, is unavoidably cruel, unusual, and evil.  They’re certain bowhunting is the sport of Satan.

To support this view, they often cite anecdotal evidence or questionable studies from thirty or forty years ago.  I won’t try to answer these claims one by one; others already have taken time to do that.  Instead, let’s start fresh.  Let’s look specifically at modern archery equipment, and let’s examine observable facts.  Only then can we begin to answer a question that many hunters might prefer no one raised in the first place:  Just how accurate, lethal, and humane is modern bowhunting equipment?

The question deserves rational, objective consideration, and it’s something I learned more about while researching DEERLAND.  In my chapter on suburban deer issues, for example, I tagged along with a couple of urban bowhunters.  One of their stands was in a three-acre patch of woods nestled behind a row of houses on a quiet cul-de-sac.  The other was at the edge of a half-acre lawn just three blocks from downtown.  Clearly, these hunters were confident in the knowledge that if they chose their shots carefully, deer wouldn’t go far before toppling over.

Modern enthusiasts have demonstrated that in the right hands, even an atlatl can be aAldo Leopold's Bow, Copyright Al Cambronne surprisingly effective hunting tool.  And for those willing to put in enough practice time, traditional archery gear can arguably be a challenging but still ethical alternative.  (As an aside, I suspect many DEERLAND readers have been surprised to learn that Aldo Leopold was an avid bowhunter who played a major role in the sport’s 20th Century renaissance.  His favorite bow is now on display at the Pope & Young Club Museum of Bowhunting.)

Modern bowhunting gear, however, is entirely different.  Let’s take a closer look.  If you’re a bowhunter, the next couple paragraphs will seem very basic.  Stick with me.  We want to get everyone else up to speed, too.

First, all those pulleys, cams, and cables provide an important mechanical advantage.  When a bow is fully drawn, it typically requires 20% of its full draw weight to keep it there.  If a bow requires 70 pounds of force to draw, only 14 pounds will be required to hold it at full draw.  This allows hunters to use a bow with more draw weight, and it also allows them to hold at full draw for much longer.  That’s good, because modern bowhunters need time to aim carefully; they no longer shoot instinctively the moment they reach full draw.

Instead, they carefully align a peep sight on the string with another sight on the bow.  (Earlier, they’ll have laboriously and methodically sighted in their bow so it shoots where they’re aiming—just as one would a rifle.)  They’re not pulling the string with their fingers, but with a “release aid” strapped around their wrist.  The release aid’s jaws grip the string, and are opened by pressing a button or pulling a trigger.  The most popular type works and feels just like the trigger on a rifle.

The group of arrows in the photo at the beginning of this post was shot at 20 yards by a relative beginner (me) who had first picked up a bow only a couple weeks earlier.  I already had some basic rifle skills, and they seemed to be fairly transferrable.

Admittedly, not all of my groups look like that.  Most of them don’t. But for skilled archers, groups like these are the norm at 30 yards, not 20.  Here, in the context of testing the importance of seven different equipment variables, are some examples from a recent Field & Stream article.  (My impression, by the way, is that most bowhunters understand the importance of practice better than do some rifle hunters.)

Modern arrows fly more accurately, at a higher velocity, and in a flatter trajectory that Rage-Titanium-Broadheadsrequires less precision in range estimation.  They’re tipped with more advanced broadheads, and many models expand upon impact with a scissor-like motion.  Some have a cutting diameter of up to two inches, and yet the arrow often passes completely through the animal.  (Apparently bowhunters call this a “pass-through.”)

Whether from a bullet or an arrow, the damage that makes an animal’s death quicker and more humane is not a fun thing to see.  But if you’re still unconvinced about the lethality of modern bowhunting equipment, feel free to search the internet for helpful images and videos, sometimes posted by broadhead companies with names like Rage or Killzone.  I shall provide no links.  Even though I’m a hunter, and even though I co-authored the #1 selling book on how to butcher one’s own deer, I find this sort of footage rather distasteful.  So it’s a bit awkward asking antihunting vegans who abhor bowhunting to hurry up and search for, say, “rage broadhead uncensored video blood.”  But there you go.

As an adult-onset hunter who thinks a little too much about these questions, I do feel less confident about hunting with a bow.  Even with modern bowhunting equipment, things can go wrong.  Just as with rifles, some hunters practice less than they should and take shots they shouldn’t.  And it could certainly be argued that all else equal, a high-powered rifle is a more reliably humane hunting tool.  Today it could also be argued, however, that a modern compound bow is itself a very humane hunting tool.

You’ll still hear anecdotes about deer being wounded by bowhunters and not recovered.  Lately, however, I’ve also been hearing more anecdotes about deer that barely flinched after an arrow pass completely through them.  They continued browsing for a few seconds, and then toppled over dead.  Arrows kill differently than bullets, and comparisons aren’t simple.

I’m not an archery expert, and so far I’ve mostly just been shooting at targets.  But on the basis of what I’ve learned so far, I’d say modern bowhunting equipment is potentially very accurate, lethal, and humane.

So how would you answer the question???

© 2013 Al Cambronne

Evolution of the Compound Bow, copyright Al Cambronne



Posted in Deer, Gut It. Cut It. Cook It., Hunting, Venison | Leave a comment