Saturday, September 09, 2006

Some thoughts on hunting and development

Often throughout my teens, if someone asked me about hunting I would give the impression that I was against it. To an extent this was true. Though I think as time has passed, to say that I am against hunting would not be entirely accurate. The truth of the matter is that some hunting is essential. With virtually all of their natural predators extinct, deer populations have skyrocketed. This reality has often been given disservice by representatives that stress only the troubles that this causes for humans, such as the raiding of crops and increase in car accidents. The fact that deer can cause car accidents when crossing roads is certainly a serious issue, but too often those that stress this refer to expenses for damage to vehicles, let alone that they can sometimes result in fatalities for humans. This focus leaves some animal lovers saying, "what about the deer?" which is often followed up with a brief soapbox on how they have more right to be here than we do.

So what about the deer? Well for starters, those car accidents often kill a lot more deer than humans, and all too often it is not as quick and painless a death as a well-aimed bullet can deliver. But the bigger issue here for anyone genuinely concerned about the well-being of deer are the problems that overpopulation bring to the deer themselves. Deer are coming closer and closer to peoples’ homes as a result of natural food shortages. Though tomatoes and other veggies are certainly more tempting then their normal diet, deer normally tend to avoid human residences when they can. As the population continues to grow, many of the deer have no choice but to venture deeper into denser residential areas. To make matters worse, we encourage this by developing subdivisions further into the county. Deer are by nature edge dwellers. Their natural habitat is at the edge of forests near fields and streams. The more we develop in the counties, cutting down trees for subdivisions and chain stores, the more we encourage the deer to dwell closer to highly trafficked areas. The collision is nearly unavoidable, with the only checks and balances being hunters, vehicular collisions, and ultimately starvation. Of the three, which seems the cruelest?

Obviously the poor developing strategies of Charlottesville and Albemarle County need to change. As it stands, instead of really developing the land more densely and practically like that of the city, across the bridge to Pantops shopping center and all down 250 East we’ve simply dropped one big shopping center after another. As a result older centers like Pantops, which the community have come to recognize as a part of the area, have started to dwindle from their former state against bigger competitors. For example, Video Club’s new release shelf is now often speckled with soft porn, finding the only way to compete with Blockbuster is to exploit their no NC-17 policy. Now, I don’t have a general problem with a video store having an adult section, but this upfront presentation of it deters a more diverse patronage.

Another fun feature of this developing is the deterioration of convenience. People like my family, that come into town by way of 20 North now have to go a little extra ways through traffic to reach the new pharmacy across from the recent Giant shopping center. Overall it seems we have to do much more driving up and down 250 now, and can expect to do much more as smaller shopping centers like Pantops are beaten out. When you consider gas prices, this is a little annoying. The same has been happening for years up along 29 North, and in both cases as commercial chains spread sporadically further out along these main roads, the sub-divisions are right behind them when not already ahead, developing deeper into the woods of the rural county, where deer await the new forest edges they will produce.

Though even if we do come around to better managing development, what has already been down is bad enough. With no predators and abundant edge land, the population is and will continue to grow out of control unless hunters thin the herds. This is what largely brought me around to accepting hunting in this area. It is something that is simply necessary under our current circumstances. I’ve also never really opposed hunting for survival/meat. After all, when you consider both how much meat a single healthy deer has and the numerous problems that arise from industrial livestock, hunting can be a very health and ecologically smart thing to do. Plus... I really do like venison.

Many of the things that turned me off to hunting so much during my teens have not really gone away though. Like most children of the 90s I grew up influenced by the cultural backlash against ideas of machismo. The idea that boys grow up to shoot guns, play football, and womanize away at the same college their daddy and their daddy’s daddy went to. Hunting simply didn’t have a good image. It went hand in hand with the idea that every member of the NRA had a bomb shelter for WWIII. And though this has died down quite a bit, the root of these exaggerations is still very present: hunting for sport. The idea that killing an animal that has very few means of defense with a high power rifle somehow makes you a man. This right of passage simply doesn’t work in modern times the way it did in tribal societies. A deer is not a heard of buffalo and a rifle is not a spear. Shooting a deer to prove one’s manliness is right up their with sports car compensation. There simply is nothing I can respect about modern killing for sport. I can respect marksmanship. I can respect the skill of a good hunter, but not this thrill of the kill, the strange pride of posing with a disemboweled carcass. It seems lacking of respect for the creature, and it certainly didn’t come with much real danger to the hunter to accomplish. Furthermore, hunting for sport is thus a blood sport, which I am wholly against all forms of, even if when done by professionals hunting would have to be the least cruel blood sport.

The other issue I have with hunting is not so ideological, but simply practical. I have found nothing more annoying about hunters than their frequent complaints at the shrinking of deer. Time and time again I’ve heard hunters talk about how deer in Vermont used to be huge, but now might as well be called pygmy deer. The same has now happened in Virginia. Looking outside my window I can see three to seven deer in the back yard most days; the adults are so small that they probably only come up to my waist! (I’m 6’2 for anyone trying to estimate their height.)

The problem is very simple. Hunters not only act as population control, but they also serve as eugenic control. In a natural predator-prey relationship, the predators pick off the weaker and sickly members of the herd, making the gene pool better with each generation. Hunters do the exact opposite. They always go after the big bucks and thus the gene pool has less of them each generation. If hunters would simply go for the frailer bucks and leave the big boys to do their thing, hunters would find that after a few generations, the overall population would be much healthier, with “small deer” being closer to what is currently considered a prize buck. It simply makes sense to do this. Though smaller deer become more compatible with their growing numbers, the overpopulation is not something that even pygmy deer can get around.

We need hunters. Their reputation with newer generations has the potential to get better, and if some mindsets are slightly altered with respect to approach with present and future generations, they could easily become not only more effective but respected as the necessity that they are.

For additional reading on the effects of subdivisions colliding with the rural county and hunting, see Jackson Landers’ article (and his update) on Jim Camblos and his proposed law to prevent people from discharging firearms within 200 yards of a building.


Blogger Cory Capron said...

One other thing I couldn't think of where to put. I feel any good hunter worth their salt should have a background in tracking. All hunters should aspire to make each kill clean and instant, but when accidents occur they should be able to take the responsiblity to track the animal down and put it out of its misery. All hunters should learn how to track.

7:08 PM  

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