If you love deer, you've got to love hunting

I have never shot an animal. I don’t own a firearm or archery equipment. I fish, and I’ve considered deer hunting, but I’ve never cleared the early hurdles: the expense of buying the gear and the time required to hone the necessary skills. It’s a daunting prospect for a beginner, especially one like me, who’s never had anyone to show him the ropes.

Recently, a friend has offered to do just that. He’s a Navy SEAL who has served as a sniper and as a combat medic; that strikes me as a perfect combination of talents for the person willing both to train me and help me survive antler-impalement. Indeed, if I’m hesitating now, it’s because I’m wary of ruining my friend’s hunting experience with my ineptitude. He’s accustomed to working with highly-trained special operatives who can move in stealth and communicate paragraphs with a few hand signals. I tend to barrel through the woods with the grace of a rhinoceros and have a 5-year-old’s knack for asking annoying questions at the worst moments.

That said, I have no hesitation about deer hunting in principle. This is a statement that has surprised some closest to me, who know me as an animal lover, wildlife enthusiast and photographer, occasional nature writer and idealistic conservationist.

Many of my friends are vehemently anti-hunting, and while I share their values and some of their views — especially concerning mere trophy hunting, which I do oppose — I often question the logic of their conclusions about deer. To me the reality is plain enough: If you love the wildlife and nature of our region, and if you want to save human lives, then you must support deer management.

Why? Well, it’s not, as folks often say, because there are “too many deer.” That’s a ludicrous argument that gives us people a pass we don’t deserve. Deer haven’t overpopulated; we have. Since European settlement and the dispossession of American natives, we’ve dominated habitats, eradicated natural predators and altered the landscape. Deer have figured out how to live on the margins of our ecologically unbalanced world, and that’s in spite of our disorganized efforts to make it fatally inhospitable to them.

The reason to support deer hunting is because, regrettably, this human-caused problem requires a human solution. Assuming we are not going to reintroduce large carnivores or dramatically reduce or displace human populations, then we must clean up our own mess with what may seem like brutal violence. For what it’s worth, this needn’t be an argument about guns: Archery is an effective and increasingly popular means of hunting — also one that might make it more plausible to introduce managed hunts into suburban neighborhoods where such action is especially needed.

The urgency of the deer problem is obvious enough: In America every year sees something like 1.5 million auto strikes of deer, about 150 of which are fatal to the people involved. We won’t eliminate this problem without eliminating deer — and no one wants to do that — but we can certainly minimize it. The recent emergence of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in deer intensifies the concern. The jury is still out as to whether and how this mad-cow-like degenerative brain disorder might transmit to livestock and/or humans, but an informed and managed hunt can help to curtail it, as well as other deer-related ills such as Lyme Disease.

I’m guessing the deer would prefer that we level our homes, move away and let nature reclaim itself. On the scale of species-think — whatever might be the fears of any individual animal — they’d also welcome the return of their four-legged predators, who usually kill with more mercy than the four-wheeled ones. But if you’re not going to embrace such changes, and if you care about our deer and our drivers, then you ought to accept hunting as a means of restoring health and scale to a population that is ill and outsized for its diminished habitat.

If you’re opposed to hunting, I hope you’ll consider this argument. And if you’re already planning to be out there, please be careful and responsible — and when you hear a heavy rustling in the leaves, look before you shoot. The life you save could be mine.

Noah Comet is a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, a conservationist, wildlife photographer and avid hiker. His email is comet@usna.edu.

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