Deer: It's what's not on the menu

It's a darn shame, but I've noticed a lot of wasted food in this world, where hunger and malnutrition are such problems.

The food I'm talking about in this case is contained in the many deer carcasses I see on the sides of roadways. In my lifetime, deer have gone from being rarities to nuisances in most of Maryland. When I was a kid, seeing a deer was a rare thing, and finding hoof prints in the woods was a subject that could fuel a sustained conversation in certain crowds.

Heck, when I was a kid learning to fish on Deer Creek back in 1973, I remember asking the adults around me why it was called Deer Creek, as there were so few deer around. The reply was that once in the far off past, the stream's valley was probably teeming with deer. Moreover, in those days, the valley was one of the few places in Maryland where a deer sighting was even remotely likely.

Thanks in large part to successful game management programs, paid for to a large degree by folks who bought hunting licenses even when there was little prospect of actually getting to take a shot at a deer, the creatures have made a remarkable comeback in the last two decades.

Those hunters who, when I was a kid, might have several seasons without getting a shot at a deer, could these days stock a garage full of freezers with upward of a dozen animals.

The problem for deer managers these days isn't keeping the breeding stock from becoming genetically too small, as it was way back when, but figuring out how to better thin the deer population.

In a setting where people aren't involved, deer in these parts would have been kept in check by timber wolves, bears and cougars.

The closest things deer have to natural predators around here these days are hunters and cars, and cars are particularly ineffective and generally unintentional predators.

On top of that, a lot of the territories that deer would call home if they could talk are well outside the environs where hunters can practice their sport. Heck, the day of this writing, I was out along the walking path that runs along Route 24 in Forest Hill and happened across deer prints in the soft ground. You really couldn't have people hunting there.

And there's the whole matter of deer having such an easy time feeding themselves in suburban areas because there is so much tender grass and shrubbery that just didn't exist in the vast pre-Columbian eastern deciduous forests.

So we have a new kind of deer, the suburban variety that faces few predators and has access to grass and gardens.

All in all, the problem with deer these days is that there are just too many of them. It seems strange in Maryland that this would be the problem with a traditional game creature. Duck populations have been at precarious levels for decades in these parts. Rockfish have rebounded in recent years, but remain viable for commercial and sport fishing only thanks to vigorous management. Blue crabs have been up and down, though it appears the latest management regimens have helped them rebound in recent years.

Oysters? They were once Maryland's signature seafood; now the Chesapeake Bay is home to what could best be described as a remnant population.

The thing about rockfish, oysters and crabs, though, is that there are active programs to keep their wild stocks at thriving levels (or, in the case of oysters, return them to thriving levels) even as they continue to be captured and sold commercially.

I'm sure there will be trepidation in some minds at the next statement, but maybe a good way to bring the local deer population down to a more balanced level would be to open up some sort of commercial deer market.

Venison is a wonderful, lean meat. It's so lean, that a key problem that needs to be addressed by those who eat it is figuring out a way to make it tender. There are cooking and preparation techniques to deal with this, just like with any meat that isn't beef, chicken or pork.

There was a time in this country when it was possible to go to a market and purchase a variety of game creatures, including deer. These, however, were in the pre-wildlife management days and the unfortunate result was what is euphemistically referred to as over-harvest of certain creatures. No doubt the practice contributed to the demise of deer in the early 1900s and it also resulted in the extinction of creatures such as the passenger pigeon, not to mention the decline of many a duck population.

As a result, it's now all but taboo to talk of making wild game commercially available. Even so, no one thinks twice about ordering a crab cake at a restaurant, and crabs aren't farm raised anywhere around here. And anyone who is looking for a large rockfish filet just won't be able to find such a thing at a fish farm; the big fish are wild fish.

Somewhere in the human condition is the ability to figure out the difference between wholesale slaughter for profit of a wild stock and reasonable exploitation to satisfy a market demand. We appear to be able to strike this balance with rockfish and crabs, even as we struggle with it on many other fronts where wild populations of fish hang in the balance. It certainly seems reasonable, therefore, to try to find a way to make it work in the other direction with a creature that's become a bit too plentiful in recent years.

If making it possible to order a deer steak in a fancy restaurant with a side of sweet potatoes makes it less likely there will be so many deer on the side of the road, I'm fork in hand and all for it.

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