An earlier version of this column was illustrated with a photograph of a different species of deer than white-tailed. This version has been updated.
But I do plan to be an armed vigilante. I will be wielding my gun against a brutal foe — one that destroys our forests, kills our wildflowers, sickens humans and threatens the very survival of birds, mammals, insects and amphibians.
I am becoming a deer hunter.
Wait! Don’t shoot! Before you turn me in to the PETA police, please hear me out.
I love deer. My views on hunters come primarily from watching “Bambi.” When I was a kid, my family put out a salt lick to attract deer. My heart still leaps when I see a spotted fawn. I’ve never seriously considered owning a gun.
Alas, peaceful coexistence with the white-tailed deer is no longer an option. Deer are no longer an adorable nuisance, munching our shrubs and flowers but otherwise minding their own business. They are causing an ecological disaster.
“The entire food web is unraveling,” Bernd Blossey, a professor of natural resources at Cornell University, tells me. “I call deer ‘ecological bullies,’” he adds — Bambi, a bully! — “taking house and home and the ability to live away from other organisms, whether they’re birds, other mammals, insects or plants.”
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The Nature Conservancy several years ago argued that deer might be “a bigger threat to Eastern forests than climate change.” And things have only worsened. Doug Tallamy, an entomologist and wildlife ecologist at the University of Delaware, tells me that white-tailed deer in the East are now “about 14 times over the carrying capacity,” meaning the ability of the ecosystem to sustain the species.
In the part of the Virginia Piedmont where I have a home, there are between 40 and 50 deer per square mile — compared to only 27 people per square mile. To get things back into ecological balance, Blossey estimates, we would need to get the deer population down below 10 per square mile.
I became aware of the great white-tailed menace when researching the threat that invasive plant species pose to the survival of our forests. Deer gobble up native flora so fast that the plants are disappearing, leaving a vacuum for invasive species (that deer don’t enjoy) to fill.
Walk into the forest here, past the edge between field and woods where invasive vines now dominate, and you will find a manicured scene: all mature trees and no understory — none of the seedlings, saplings, flowers and shrubs that once covered the forest floor. The insatiable deer have eaten it all. They eat 3 percent to 5 percent of their body weight in leafy greens every day, Virginia state wildlife biologist David Kocka tells me.
This has set off cascading troubles throughout the forest.
Understory birds — ovenbirds, worm-eating warblers, wood thrushes, Kentucky warblers and others that make their nests on the forest floor — are now being decimated by predators because the deer have eaten the brush that once concealed their nests. “Most of the forest migratory birds are in trouble,” reports Bill McShea, a wildlife ecologist at Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal.
Disappearing too are native orchids, trillium, ginseng and a range of wildflowers. With the loss of these and other plants, we lose bees, butterflies, beetles and other insects that feed on them — in turn depriving birds, amphibians and other forest animals of their food.
Perhaps most ominously, the deer overpopulation prevents the growth of new trees, especially oaks, because they eat seedlings and saplings before the trees can mature. When old trees die, there are none to replace them. That means fewer acorns — the staple that allows bears, turkeys, woodpeckers, squirrels, chipmunks, mice and many other species to survive the winter. “The acorns coming out of those oaks make the world go around,” says McShea, and “there ain’t no oaks coming up.”
On top of that, research shows a direct connection between the deer overpopulation and the threat to humans of Lyme disease, spread by ticks that feed on deer and white-footed mice. Also, more than 1 million American motorists hit deer on roads every year.
None of this is the deer’s fault. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do. It’s our fault for removing their predators, leaving them free to multiply to unnatural levels. And now it’s our responsibility to fix the mess we’ve created.
So what do we do? Here are some suggestions from the aforementioned People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals: “Starvation and disease are unfortunate,” its website says, “but they are nature’s way of ensuring that the strong survive.” It goes on to say that, instead of hunting, we should “take steps to reduce the animals’ fertility” and also “preserve wolves, mountain lions, coyotes and other natural predators.”
Starvation? By the time the deer starve themselves into lower numbers, they will have already caused the disappearance of the various trees, plants, insects, birds, mammals and amphibians they are now threatening.
Reducing deer fertility — essentially putting the does on birth control — has been tried and studied, and shown decisively not to work except in isolated, island populations.
Reintroducing wolves and mountain lions to Virginia makes some ecological sense. Mountain lions are gradually making their way east without our help. But it probably wouldn’t go over well when residents of, say, Fairfax County found that wolves ate Fido and Fifi. More to the point, Blossey says the deer population is now so huge that reintroducing predators, even if politically possible, would have only a marginal impact.
That leaves hunting. A dirty little secret is that even though gun sales are booming (more than 16 million in 2022), precious few of the purchases are for hunters. The number of hunters — the vaunted “sportsmen” the gun lobby always claims to represent — has been dropping nationwide for years. “We’re losing about 3 to 4 percent a year over the last 20 years here in Virginia,” Katie Martin, the head deer biologist for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, tells me.
There are now about 185,000 licensed deer hunters in Virginia, and they’re bringing in a similar number of deer each year — only about 15 percent of the deer population. “We’re severely outnumbered,” Martin reports. To compensate for the dwindling number of hunters, Virginia has lengthened hunting seasons (from two weeks to several months in some places), and there are essentially no limits on the number of does a hunter can kill.
Yet still it’s not enough. Suburban areas are allowing archery hunting to cull their deer population. Some cities are hiring sharpshooters, at a cost of hundreds of dollars per deer.
This is why I got a gun.
The process is maddeningly easy. Under the state’s lax gun laws, my family and I can hunt on our land without getting hunting licenses — or any form of training or gun safety education. Lest I shoot my neighbor’s cows, or worse, I decided to take the state’s online “Hunter Ed” class anyway.
I learned many helpful things from the class, including, “Refrain from taking graphic photographs of the kill” and “never threaten an anti-hunter with your firearm.” The class also taught me about how to start a fire and build a camp if I get stranded in the wilderness, an unlikely outcome given that I’ll be hunting within earshot of my house. Of more relevance, I learned how to distinguish the stock from the barrel, and how to carry a loaded rifle without dispatching my companions.
Still not quite confident in my abilities, I went to a local gun range for some lessons. It’s not a place I typically find myself. The shop’s bumper stickers demand “Crime control, not gun control.” Inside, an exhibit of Civil War munitions features a Confederate flag and pictures of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, along with a U.S. flag and Union general’s photo.
My riflery lesson did not go well. The marksmanship itself wasn’t a problem. In fact, firing a .308 rifle, I hit the target at 50 yards on my first two shots and a bull’s eye on the third — even though a guy two bays down was firing an AR-15-style assault rifle that he said he bought online for $150. But midway through my lesson, a particularly loud “pop” sounded next to me, and I really felt it in my chest. Looking down, I noticed a small spot of blood on my T-shirt.
Had I been shot in the chest? If so, how was I still standing? And why didn’t it hurt more?
It turned out the guy firing a .270 rifle immediately next to me was using homemade ammo, and the cartridge had exploded in his gun. The shrapnel cut him on the head, and me on the chest. I cleaned the wound and, trembling a bit, returned to my rifle. For some reason, my accuracy suffered.
I tried several guns, in various calibers, but in the end I bought a Spanish-made Bergara B-14 bolt-action rifle in a .30-06 caliber (pronounced “thirty aught six”). I bought it used on the advice of Ryan Busse, a former firearms executive now consulting for Giffords, the anti-gun-violence group. He argued that while one manufacturer is as bad as the next, buying a used gun meant not directly funding NRA-type causes.
So now I’ve got my gun. I’ve got my deer stand, 13 feet up in a tree. All I have to do before deer season opens in the fall is learn how to shoot — and, of course, buy a lot of camo gear.
I can’t pretend that my hunting will make a dent in the deer population. Experts such as Cornell’s Blossey and Smithsonian’s McShea say the real solution is regulated market hunting — allowing hunters to sell the meat to processors or restaurants. Market hunting worked so well in the 19th century that it nearly drove the white-tailed deer into extinction.
In the meantime, I’ll be donating what I don’t eat (for “locavores,” there’s no food more local than a deer consumed on the very land where it lived) to Hunters for the Hungry, a nonprofit that processes and donates venison.
Still, I know many won’t agree with my desperate descent into blood sport. I asked McShea, whose other work includes giant panda preservation, what I should tell friends put off by my eco-vigilantism. “Tell them you’re managing that land, and you’re managing it for all the wildlife and all of the biodiversity, and not just the deer,” he said. There is no other option if we’re to reverse this man-made ecological disaster. “Mother Nature got out of this game a long time ago,” he said. “We’re running this world and we have to take ownership of it.”
The conservationist reassured me: “You’re doing the right thing.”
I will try to remember that every time I think of Bambi.