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November 24, 2008
How the decline of hunting is changing the natural order of predator and prey
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November 24, 2008

A More Dangerous Game Bears On The Golf Course, Deer On The Windshield, Wolves On The Walk Back Home

How the decline of hunting is changing the natural order of predator and prey

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In Brookhaven, N.Y., officials are pondering how to handle the deer carcasses scattered across the town's roadways. In 2006 they removed 265 deer hit by cars. Last year they found 282. This year they're on track to remove at least 370 deer, and the cost—at $400 per animal—is straining the town's budget. (Across the U.S. deer-car collisions rose 15% over the past five years, costing annually more than a billion dollars in property damage and 150 human lives.)

At the same time Lyme disease—the crippling illness borne by deer ticks—has gripped the Hamptons. Suffolk County reported an estimated 585 cases last year, up from 190 two years ago. In response, some town leaders across the area turned to what they saw as the only practical solution: They contracted licensed hunters to stalk and kill deer in the tony beach towns along the Island's North and South Forks. Some residents ask that men like Walker do their work discreetly, so that their neighbors, or even their spouses, remain unaware of exactly what's going on in their backyards. But few protests are heard, in part because the deer, which eat expensive shrubbery and virtually everything else in sight, are often butchered for venison and donated to local soup kitchens.

"I could shoot a deer every night," says Walker, as he stares out at the tree line, waiting for a deer to emerge. He is not complaining. He learned bow hunting from his father and his uncle, and he enjoys his night job, to the point of performing it as a free "friendly customer service."

THE RELATIONSHIP between the hunter and his game is ancient, a give-and-take described in its simplest terms by prehistoric men drawing on cave walls: They showed figures of deer, of man, of deer felled by arrows. The hunting half of the hunter-gatherer model came about because man's brain—the thing that sets him apart from many of those other animals—demanded meat. The brain burns through a quarter of a resting human's calories, and gathering alone couldn't provide enough nutrition to maintain "our most costly instrument," according to Harvard biological anthropologist Daniel Lieberman. "Hunting made us humans who we are."

But hunting depends on a healthy regard for the animal population, a point underscored by a previous ecological crisis. Starting in the late 17th century, commercial hunters and trappers began to fan out across the North American continent, systematically stripping the land of its wildlife. The passenger pigeon population famously declined from probably a few billion in the mid-19th century to zero in 1900, when the last wild one was shot. Buffalo, occasionally picked off along the prairie by men firing from the windows of passing railroad cars, nearly suffered a similar fate. "The game population almost collapsed," said Nicholas Throckmorton, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Reform didn't come until the early 1900s, when individual conservationists—led by President Theodore Roosevelt—pushed federal and state governments to begin enacting a set of laws that became known as the North American Wildlife Conservation Model. The legislation restricted the sale of meat and fur from wild animals, effectively curbing the commercial hunting market. Just as significant, in 1937 Congress approved the Wildlife Restoration Act, which imposed special taxes on guns, ammunition and other hunting equipment; the revenue is distributed to state governments and earmarked for state wildlife agencies, the hiring of biologists and other expenses related to game conservation. By the middle of the 20th century, the animal population had begun to rebound, and our fathers and grandfathers could again satisfy what Charles Dickens called "the passion for hunting ... implanted ... in the human breast."

But in the decades since, attitudes have shifted and hardened, and the very idea of hunting as "sport" has come to imply something cavalier. Among animal-rights advocates it indicated indifference to wildlife. In two generations the lone hunter—once exemplified by Teddy Roosevelt—found himself accused of enmity toward nature. Hunting had become a question of morality.

IN 1998 the venerable outfitter Cabela's entered the business of virtual hunting. "Cabela's video games [like Dangerous Hunts 2009 and Legendary Adventures] let you go hunting instantly," says spokesman Joe Arterburn, "so it is very appealing to hunters or hunting-minded gamers to experience the thrill of hunting as soon as the game is turned on." That thrill is, apparently, strong: To date Cabela's has sold more than 13 million copies of its games. Many people also watch hunting shows on television. They buy waxed-cotton jackets from British outfitters, or sturdy boots from Filson, that they never wear in the field. Some people—to widespread public revulsion—pay to hunt through the Internet, aiming a remote-controlled gun in some distant place, and firing a bullet by clicking a mouse.

It is not just hunting; outdoor activity in general is decreasing. Americans are becoming an indoor people. Visits to national parks have dropped steadily since 1987. Twenty-first-century Americans talk much about the environment, but they navigate websites, not rivers.

"What we're seeing among young people is, in a phrase, nature deficit disorder," says Throckmorton. "People are growing disconnected from the outdoors." Says Lieberman, "We've become so disassociated from our roots that we're shocked by things that should be natural and normal," like killing the animals that we eat. Once a year Lieberman butchers a sheep with his students to remind them where meat comes from. "Some of the students are appalled and aghast," he says, "but they think nothing of buying meat on a Styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic."

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