If You Care About the Environment and Feeding the Hungry, Shoot Some Deer
When I was a teenager, my dad used to hang bars of soap with twine on wooden stakes and plant them in the front yard, like he was trying to register his protest of the soap president with tiny soap effigies. He is a serious gardener, with a greenhouse full of orchids, and he loves the long mid-Atlantic growing season in southeastern Pennsylvania, where I grew up and where he and my mom still live. The soap effigies were just one of a long line of attempts to discourage the white-tailed deer, which strolled onto his suburban property with the confidence of a Manhattan squirrel to eat his beloved plants. I don’t think they worked, but they instilled in me a fascination with these animals, so despised within Pennsylvania and so beloved elsewhere in the country.
John Plowman, the executive director of Hunters Sharing the Harvest, doesn’t really seem to despise the deer, but he has figured out a way to use one of Pennsylvania’s biggest environmental problems to solve one of its biggest social ills.
The white-tailed deer is the official state animal of Pennsylvania. That implies that it’s unique or iconic to the state; think of the Florida panther, the California grizzly bear, the Maine moose. The white-tailed deer has also been, at various times, the state mammal of 10 other states—but Pennsylvania has a unique relationship with it. In much of the state, the first day of deer season is a school holiday; venison is a primary red meat eaten by Pennsylvanians, rivaling beef. The debate over how to deal with the white-tailed deer overpopulation has, as Pennsylvanian and science writer Matt Miller wrote for Nature, “probably ignited more bar fights than politics or religion.” (And this in one of the most politically divided states in the country!)
Plowman’s answer to the problem is quite simple: Control the herd by hunting the animals, and give the meat away to the hungry.
It’s an approach that’s only become viable—and perhaps necessary—in recent decades. Due to overhunting, the white-tailed deer was nearing extinction in the Keystone State by 1900. Laws including the Lacey Act, which banned retail sales of wild game, along with the nascent rise in environmental awareness and the boom of the suburbs turned the deer’s fate around dramatically. Deer populations have rebounded respectably, but not completely, in rural Pennsylvania, away from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the cities that bookend the state. But in the areas surrounding the cities, including the suburb where I grew up, the deer have run rampant, occurring in concentrations leaping past 40 per square mile.
White-tailed deer overpopulation has been referred to as a problem larger than climate change. The deer prefer the young shoots and leaves of baby trees, which limits the natural regeneration of forests as older trees die. The only plants that do survive are the ones the deer don’t like, such as the hay-scented fern, which, though it only covered 3 percent of forestland in 1900, now covers nearly a third. The deer outcompete any other animal that likes the same plants they like, including, for example, several kinds of caterpillars. So the caterpillars die, and in turn the animals that eat the caterpillars, such as birds, also die. The deer used to have natural predators in wolves and mountain lions, but those were extirpated before the deer’s comeback in the mid-20th century, leaving nothing to keep the population in check. Besides us, that is.
“We came up with the idea that Pennsylvania has enough deer that maybe we could share them and help to feed the hungry through the food banks here,” says Plowman, who lives in Harrisburg, the state’s small, isolated capital. His nonprofit enables hunters to get the deer they bag into the state’s food bank system.
Hunters in Pennsylvania can hunt during various short seasons (though they are longer than the hunting seasons in many other states) according to the specific weapon they use: Archery season comes first, in the early fall, followed by rifle season and then flintlock (a more primitive, slower form of gun) season. The state gives out a certain number of tags, which hunters can buy for $6.70 each; each one allows you to kill either an antlered or an antlerless (not necessarily female, but usually) deer, depending on the tag. Pennsylvania is split up into Wildlife Management Units, a controversial system that allocates different numbers of tags to different areas based on wildlife population. My parent’s WMU, 5C, has one of the highest deer concentrations in the state, and in the 2013–2014 season, it had the second-highest number of deer harvested (likely only runner-up because, being largely suburban, there are fewer legal places in which to hunt).
For hunters who want to donate meat, the process goes something like this: Once you’ve gotten your tag and gone out in the woods to bag your deer, you can take it to any of the 115 or so designated butchers throughout the state. There, “the butchers take that deer and skin it, dress it, clean it up, then they bone it and grind it into burger, and pack the meat into one-, two-, or five-pound bags,” says Plowman. The butchers aren’t free; Hunters Sharing the Harvest pays for their services through sponsorship from various companies, including Cabela’s, Applebee’s, the Safari Club, and Walmart. In past years, hunters used to have to pay $15 to defray some of the costs, but the butchers’ fees are now fully covered, so hunters who bring in their deer don’t have to hand over a dime.
The processed meat then goes to any of the 21 regional food bank distributors in Pennsylvania, which, depending on how they operate, may give the smaller bags directly to needy families, or may give the larger bags right to a soup kitchen or similar operation for cooking. “The burger,” as Plowman calls ground meat, “is the easiest way to cook deer meat into a variety of meals, from spaghetti sauce and barbecue, meatloaf, hamburgers. You can stretch burger more than you can steaks and chops and roasts.” And it needs to be stretched; more than 1.6 million Pennsylvanians are food-insecure—more than the entire population of states such as Hawaii, Maine, and New Hampshire. Plowman says, “In many cases, our deer meat is the only red meat they get.”
The venison is a particularly valuable resource for the food banks. “An average-sized deer, after it’s boned out and every drop of it is used correctly, could provide 200 meals,” says Plowman. “And deer meat is really good: low fat, extremely high protein, low cholesterol. So it’s in high demand; there’s a tremendous amount of competition for deer meat.” Hunters Sharing the Harvest, unsurprisingly, has a waiting list of many of Pennsylvania’s 5,000 or so food banks that would like to get donations. The demand is much higher than what hunters can supply, even given the bonkers overpopulation of the deer in the wild.
In a good year, Hunters Sharing the Harvest will donate around 100,000 pounds of deer meat to food banks. Plowman couldn’t tell me how good of a year the 2014–2015 season was; the season only ended a few weeks ago, and his butchers are still tallying up the haul. So far, they’ve accounted for around 70,000 pounds. The last few years have been tough, because in bad weather, hunters won’t go out as much, and so they won’t get as much meat. Furthermore, Pennsylvanians have been hurt by the depressed economy as much as anyone, and if you lost your job and you go out and shoot an animal that provides you with 40 pounds of meat, well, maybe you need to keep it for yourself.
“Our hunters in this state do a super job, and it’s their program, not the government’s or anyone else’s,” says Plowman, showing a bit of the libertarian, or even vigilante, aspect of Hunters Sharing the Harvest. It’s an attempt to solve two pressing environmental and social problems at once, and also, I think, an opportunity to stick a thumb in the eye of the animal rights movement, which Plowman began our conversation by disparaging. He said that the organization from which Hunters Sharing the Harvest eventually sprung, Pennsylvanians for the Responsible Use of Animals, was founded largely as a way to counteract “that kind of rhetoric and misinformation.”
But it’s hard to really have an issue with Hunters Sharing the Harvest. The group is following the government’s regulations about the number and location of deer to be killed (they can track each parcel of meat right back to where the deer was killed) and are even taking in some of the deer that are killed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which sends in shooters to cull deer in more sensitive areas, such as parks and office centers.
I’m pretty sure my dad isn’t legally allowed to shoot the deer that eat his garden. But maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea.