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The changing world of whitetails

Whitetails look and act the same as they did years ago, but the world they live in and the activities that involve and surround them have changed dramatically in recent years. Some of those changes are serious, while other impacts are just plain crazy.

Take "eating venison" as an example. For years hunters have taken the practice of eating venison for granted. Shoot the deer, haul it home, butcher it and eat it. We've always done that, and we still do because we know that venison is healthy, safe and delicious. The fact that many of us butcher our own deer doesn't change a thing. We have no concerns about sharing our venison with family and friends, and we also share tons of venison with the less fortunate. Yes, "hunters helping the hungry" programs go on in every whitetail state, and we take that for granted. Giving meat to the less fortunate is just something that hundreds of thousands of hunters do. At times like these, with homelessness on the rise, providing healthy venison is more important than ever. Enter the government.

In late February, the Louisiana Department of Health ordered a soup kitchen in Shreveport to throw 1,600 pounds of venison into the garbage. Apparently a patron of that kitchen questioned eating venison, and that triggered the Department of Health to rush in and destroy the meat. An e-mail sent from the Department of Health to Fox News stated that "Deer meat is not allowed to be served in a shelter, restaurant, or any other public eating establishment in Louisiana." No mention of the fact that such activity has been going on in Louisiana for years. Anyway, the Department of Health official went on to say, "while we applaud the good intentions of the hunters who donated the meat, we must protect the people who eat at Rescue Mission, and we cannot allow a potentially serious health threat to endanger the public."

Thank you, dear government, for saving us from ourselves. And who will protect the millions of hunters, family, and friends who consume that dangerous venison three times a week in their own homes and have been doing so for many years?

This craziness went even further. The soup kitchen meat was not returned to the hunters who donated it. Instead, the packages were split open in the dumpsters where it had been placed, and bleach was poured on it to ensure that no animals or another human could consume it. Thank goodness for that. We can't have dogs or homeless citizens foraging in dumpsters for food and getting sick from eating venison.

How will this incident be resolved? First, the Department of Health will wish they had never gotten involved in this fiasco. Politicians are infuriated with this waste of food for the homeless, and they will remember at budget time. They also will find a legal remedy that will allow the continued meat donations to take place. It might take a while, but be sure that most everyone in Louisiana understands that this action was way over the top — and it will get solved.

Soup kitchens are already having a rough time getting venison donations because of the bad economy. Virginia, Georgia, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa are some of the states reporting reduced venison donations. Some states reported reductions of more than 50 percent for 2012. All blame the economy and the unemployment rate. The millions of hunters that are out of work need the meat for their families. Though the economy is the big culprit, regulations are also part of the problem. For example, Minnesota has a regulation stating that all donated meat must be X-rayed for lead bullet fragments. No mention of a major study done that showed that hunters who eat deer meat do not have elevated blood levels of lead. Thankfully, lawmakers there are looking to eliminate that problem, so future meat donations can increase. Also, Massachusetts states that all donated venison must be butchered in a state approved facility.

At a time when people need food more than ever, some common sense would help in states that don't seem to understand that millions of pounds of wild game is eaten safely every year in America, without the help of government.

The Spread of CWD

The world of whitetails and whitetail hunting has also been changed because of chronic wasting disease. I wrote about this in our April issue, but there are new developments coming out of Pennsylvania. One of the things we do know is that the prions causing CWD are found in urine and blood — so wear plastic gloves when you field-dress your animals. Since it is found in urine, one of the proposed ways in which CWD might be passed from one deer to another is via urine. The suggested way this would happen is that the urine is deposited at scrapes, which are then visited by other deer. We know that once on the ground, these prions remain viable for years. The thought is that if another deer licks that urine and if that urine came from a CWD positive deer, this second deer might get the disease.

I understand the concern, but from my experience deer don't lick scrapes, or the ground, very often if at all, so the reality of such spread is rather iffy. And research to support this scenario is far from conclusive. For example, in one study, saliva and urine from CWD deer was injected into mice. Almost all mice given the saliva got CWD. Only a few of those given urine got CWD.

However, the situation in Pennsylvania adds a new wrinkle to all of this. The Pennsylvania Game Commission veterinarian, Dr. Walt Cottrell, is a very experienced vet, and he is very knowledgeable about CWD. For several years, Dr. Cottrell supported the elimination of the sale of deer urine in Pennsylvania. A recent finding accentuates his concerns. As many of you know by now, CWD was recently found on a game farm in Pennsylvania (and subsequently in two other counties in the wild, apparently near other game farms). Relative to urine, here is the kicker. It has recently come to light that this CWD-positive game farm also collected and sold deer urine. So, even without conclusive proof that hunter-used deer urine can spread CWD, you can see why politicians and those who write regulations, and deer managers, are concerned.

Where will this end? I have no crystal ball, but it would not surprise me to see some kind of restrictions placed on deer urine in Pennsylvania, even though enforcing them would be difficult. If that happens in such a huge deer hunting state, other states would probably look hard at the sale of deer urine. How those involved in the deer urine industry will react to this is unknown, but I'm sure they are concerned.

Antler Restrictions

One last thing. As you all know, antler restrictions are gaining in popularity with hunters. In most states where there are antler restrictions, at least 60 percent or more of the hunters like it. Quality deer management leads to healthier deer, healthier habitats, and healthier buck age structure (that usually results in bigger-antlered bucks). Sounds great, but there are some folks who are questioning antler restrictions. Our hunting population is aging. In 1996, 7 percent of all hunters were sixty-five years of age or older. By 2011 that number jumped to 11 percent. By 2016 you can expect that number to go as high as 16-18 percent or more.

Now let's look at the percent of yearling bucks in the harvest, a figure that antler restrictions should cause to be relatively low. The average for the Northeast states in 2011 was 48 percent, and Pennsylvania (a state that has antler restrictions) had 50 percent of their harvest being yearlings. Note, most states (including Pennsylvania) that have antler restrictions allow youths to harvest any size buck. So what is the problem? We've got more and more older hunters, and we want fewer yearling bucks in the harvest. The problem is that we're hearing more senior hunters in antler-restriction states asking to harvest any size buck. If the state allows that, they will defeat the purpose of antler restrictions. Making the harvest of yearling bucks more lenient messes with the age structure of bucks. Managers work hard to get a better buck age structure, but you'll destroy that by creating more loopholes for hunters to kill more yearlings. A sign of the times? I hope not.

Photo credit: Roger Trentham/Getty Images/iStockphoto/Thinkstock


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