Editorial Note: A recent episode of Steven Rinella’s popular MeatEater podcast debated the upside and downside of a culture that allowed for venison meat sales. The podcast pointed to an article published by Grand View Outdoors. Let’s revisit.
Should you ever dine in Florence, Italy, at the “Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco” or, roughly translated, “Restaurant of the White Wild Boar,” you’ll probably do a double-take when reading a menu note beneath the pork and venison dishes: “The meat is fresh during hunting season and frozen the rest of the year.”
How does wild venison end up in a famous Florentine restaurant a block from the Arno River? This is novel stuff for American tourists. The closest thing to wild venison you’ll find in North American restaurants is meat from captive-raised New Zealand red deer and, to a lesser extent, Axis deer from Texas. In fact, New Zealand supplies about 85 percent of “venison” sold in U.S. restaurants.
In Italy, however, restaurants contract with private preserves to buy venison from animals killed by hunters. It’s popular with diners who gladly pay extra for this organic, high-quality, free-range meat that’s free of antibiotics, growth hormones, and artificial feeds and fatteners.
In Canada and the United States, only hunters, their families and friends — and food-pantry visitors — enjoy similar purity and luxury in their meat. Why such differences between the New and Old worlds in bringing wild meat to market?
Well, North America shut down commercial sales of wild meat more than 100 years ago after market hunters and unregulated subsistence hunting nearly wiped out the continent’s once-vast stockpiles of wild game. To end the plunder and restore wildlife, our forefathers made three landmark changes: They declared wildlife the people’s property; they outlawed market hunting and established regulated hunting seasons; and they decreed that wildlife will be managed scientifically for public benefit.
Deer, elk and pronghorn herds rebounded, as did duck, goose and wild turkey flocks. This system became the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (NAMWC), and today’s wildlife biologists embrace its principles as a sacred trinity.
When suggesting maybe it’s time to turn free enterprise loose in areas with too many deer and let hunters sell their venison, most agency biologists and wildlife professors shudder. Then they dismiss it as heresy while reciting Tenet 2 of the NAMWC as if it’s scripture: Thou shalt not conduct commerce in wild meat.
Related: Top 10 Reasons to Shoot Does Early
Unleash The Free-Market System
Recently, however, some biologists and academicians have broken ranks. They agree the North American model was great for rebuilding wildlife populations, but say it’s too inflexible to cap our wild herds and flocks. In 2011, for example, four wildlife professors from the University of Wisconsin and University of Nebraska worked with three biologists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to float a radical idea in the scientific journal “Wildlife Society Bulletin.”
Their eight-page article asked if it’s time to authorize commercial hunting operations to manage overabundant whitetails. They think their plan is compatible with the North American model and would supplement established hunting programs, especially in densely populated areas where recreational hunting is forbidden or restricted to bowhunting. They suggest keeping traditional hunting seasons, but allow wildlife agencies to award qualified individuals and businesses a “commercial deer harvester’s license” where needed to remove an allotment of deer with bait and suppressed rifles. The hunters could then sell the meat or entire carcass for profit.
They think it’s time to discuss such ideas because some herds already exceed wildlife agencies’ ability to control them through recreational hunting. And challenges keep mounting. Many states lost hunters in big numbers over the past decade, and motorists are striking about 1.2 million deer annually, which kills about 200 people and causes more than $4 billion in repairs.
Deer problems can be especially bad in suburbs and “exurban” areas with large one-home properties surrounded by woodlots, gardens and ornamental plantings. Meanwhile, in rural areas, even where herds have declined from recent all-time highs, many remain above the land’s biological carrying capacity — especially in habitats over-browsed by those record-sized herds.
And with the exception of earn-a-buck rules — a generally unpopular program that forces hunters to shoot an antlerless deer before shooting a buck — few incentives consistently reduce herds. Even with longer seasons, longer hunting hours, free unlimited antlerless tags, and state and local venison-donation efforts, few hunters kill more than one deer annually.
For instance, Wisconsin had all those incentives, including earn-a-buck, during its 2007 season. But of the hunters who killed deer, 63 percent shot only one, 25 percent shot two and 8 percent shot three. The remaining 4 percent shot four or more. Researchers Robert Holsman and Jordan Petchenik found Wisconsin hunters “very reluctant to exceed their ‘harvest thresholds,’ defined as the number of deer they were willing to process for their own use, despite additional opportunity.”
Therefore, the “Wildlife Society Bulletin” authors stated: “To allow hunters to profit from harvested deer would create another tool for managing overabundant deer by providing a financial incentive.”
Such ideas bash into a philosophical brick wall with other wildlife professionals. At the February 2014 Southeast Deer Study Group meeting in Athens, Ga., and the Quality Deer Management Association’s North American Whitetail Summit in March at Branson, Mo., few wildlife professors and biologists saw potential in deer hunting for profit. Here’s a sampling:
Dr. Grant Woods, Reeds Spring, Mo.: “I admit I’m imprinted by the North American model, but putting a price tag on wild venison would stimulate poaching. Our forefathers were smart to eliminate monetary value from venison. We need to help people see venison’s value as a healthy protein source so they step up to fill those needs for themselves, their families and food pantries.”
Dr. Harry Jacobson, professor emeritus, Mississippi State University, Athens, Texas: “I don’t think the free-market system belongs in this. We have other ways to increase deer harvests besides providing economic returns for hunting. The only thing about venison sales I’d support is covering costs for venison processors to feed the hungry.”
Matt Knox, deer program coordinator, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries: “Ideas like this should be on the table, but it would not be simple. The logistics would be overwhelming. Virginia alone has an army of about 300,000 deer hunters spread across 43,000 square miles. How do you regulate that? If they want to sell meat, who will pay for the inspections? It’s not as simple as hunters selling venison from their pickup trucks at farmers’ markets.”
Professor Stephen Ditchkoff, Auburn University: “I worry about negative unintended consequences. This could pull us back from advances we’ve made in quality deer management. I also think we’d create two distinct groups of hunters constantly fighting for opposite goals. We need to get herds below the land’s carrying capacity and in sync with the environment. A market-hunting scenario could drive us back to managing for maximum-sustained yield. Market forces could force us to keep deer populations above carrying capacity to maximize profits.”
Confronting The Code
Not all the biologists dismissed profit-driven hunting ideas. “It’s foolish to say it could never happen because it’s already a very real discussion in some regions,” said Mike Tonkovich, a research biologist in the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ wildlife division. “When you’re desperate to turn deer herds around, you consider desperate measures. We’ve had success recently rolling back deer populations, but deer don’t give up. They’ve evolved to expand rapidly. We’re concerned about hunter declines. Without strong annual harvests by hunters, we’ll deal with rapidly expanding deer populations again.”
Still others consider the North American model little more than outdated dogma.
“The North American model arose from an era of unregulated wildlife markets, uncontrolled hunting, few if any game wardens, and no scientific wildlife management,” said Tom Heberlein, a rural sociologist who studied hunters and hunting during his 30-plus years at the University of Wisconsin. “The North American model remains locked in the 1800s, even though we had few fish-and-game rules back then, and what we had wasn’t enforced or publicly accepted. We’re not there anymore. It’s time to move on.”
Heberlein believes it’s possible to maintain North America’s strong hunting culture while allowing hunters to sell their venison. Heberlein notes that hunting is a strong part of Sweden’s culture. The king of Sweden hunts, and rural schools often close when hunting season opens. And yet its 300,000 hunters — about 3 percent of the population — can sell moose and roe deer meat.
Unlike in North America, Sweden’s wildlife belongs to landowners. Even so, landowners must comply with government-approved harvest quotas. Also, although there’s no public hunting, Swedes pay access fees to private landowners and buy leases to hunt specific sections of public forests.
Therefore, almost all of Sweden gets hunted. “Hunting and hunting issues are important to Swedes,” Heberlein said. “The fact hunters can sell their meat doesn’t destroy their hunting culture. They haven’t turned hunting into some mechanistic harvesting operation that says, ‘Let’s kill as many deer and moose as possible, and who cares if we run out?’ The idea that a venison market automatically destroys the resource and recreational hunting just isn’t true.”
Related: Perfect Wild Game Pâté Recipe
Who Values Venison More?
And just because hunters can sell meat doesn’t mean they will. In fact, Per E Ljung, a Ph.D. student who studies public attitudes toward hunting, says few Swedish hunters do. The last study of Sweden’s wild-game meat sales was 1983, and it found only 3 percent of Swedish hunters sell any meat from deer or moose. Ljung thinks more hunters sell meat today, but doubts it’s substantially higher.
During the 2012-13 hunting season, Swedes shot 99,500 moose and about the same number of roe deer. Ljung said Swedish hunters harvest an average of 120 pounds of game meat annually, and about two-thirds of it comes from moose. At nearly 174,000 square miles, Sweden is slightly larger than California, and home to 9.6 million people.
“Individuals can buy meat directly from hunters, and that’s what most people do,” Ljung said. “We can also buy (wild) moose and deer from grocery stores, but it’s very expensive. Hunters also give meat away to friends and family. Nonhunters like me value it. My research shows up to 70 percent of Sweden’s nonhunters eat game meat each year. About 49 percent eat it once or twice a year, 12 percent eat it monthly and 4 percent eat it weekly.”
In contrast, a 2011 study by Responsive Management for the National Shooting Sports Foundation found only 42 percent of Americans eat game meat each year. Those differences aren’t explained by demographic differences. Roughly 85 percent of Swedes and 82 percent of Americans live in urban areas.
That raises this question: If the North American model instills a sense of pride and public ownership in wildlife, why do so many Americans balk at eating game meat, while most Swedes covet it?
Maybe it’s because Swedes know wild meat is valuable. In early March 2014, prices for moose meat at a wild-game store in Stockholm ranged from $11.22 per pound for ground moose burger to $61.81 per pound for moose fillet (backstrap). And a moose steak cost $33.02 per pound. In contrast, a Stockholm supermarket was selling high-grade hamburger for $6.35 per pound and vacuum-sealed American strip steak for $24.95. (See sidebar)
At those prices, game meat clearly has value. Tage Klingberg, 72, has hunted since age 18 and heads a 13-man moose-hunting group on his family’s 2,500-acre property. Group members pay Klingberg’s access fees mostly with meat from moose they kill.
Klingberg thinks it’s wrong to sell or donate moose meat, but he shares it with friends and family. “I’d rather have the meat than money,” he said. “We eat moose year-round, and when we visit friends for dinner, we bring a frozen moose steak instead of flowers. Our friends in town appreciate that. It is prime meat and very popular. Everybody likes it. I’ve never heard of anyone giving moose meat to the poor. If we want to help the poor, we give them ham or something.”
Never Say Never
Few American hunters or biologists expect we’ll soon be selling venison, but as Tonkovich, Knox and Ditchkoff agree, today’s radical thoughts can be tomorrow’s routine practice. And selling venison wouldn’t necessarily end science-based wildlife management.
Meanwhile, Ljung thinks game-meat sales enhance how nonhunters view hunters and hunting. “Hunting is well-ingrained in Swedish society,” Ljung said. “My research found that people who consume game meat have much more positive attitudes toward hunting than non-consumers.”
Heberlein agrees, and asks if keeping wild meat out of our stores and restaurants further distances North Americans from their most noble wildlife while depriving themselves of high-end dining.
It’s food for thought.
Swedish Meat Prices Wild Game Store Per Pound Price
Moose fillets, $61.81
Moose steaks, $33.02
Moose roast, $27.45
Moose burger, $11.22
Venison (roe deer) fillets, $52.92
Reindeer fillets, $55
Wild boar, $57.30
Wild duck, $27.97 each
Chicken (whole), $7.96
Stockholm Grocery Store Per-Pound Price
Hamburger (lowest grade), $2.82
Hamburger (highest grade), $6.35
Lamb burger, $8.40
Stew meat, $6.35
Chicken (whole), $2.82
American strip steak, $24.95
– Source: Tom Heberlein
Featured photo: John Hafner photography