Welcome to the host site for outdoor writer Steve Sorensen’s “Everyday Hunter” columns. For a complete index of all columns, go to EverydayHunter.com.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Why Do We Hunt?

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., February 17, 2007.)
Man was a hunter long before he farmed the land,
worked in an assembly line, or sat staring at a computer monitor.
"I was a deer hunter long before I was a man." So begins the first chapter of a book called Come November by Gene Wensel. It's a sentence that made me think.

Man was a hunter long before he farmed the land, worked in an assembly line, or sat staring at a computer monitor. From man's earliest excursions outside the camp with a stone-tipped spear to his latest trip afield with a scattergun, this big-brained biped -- although slower and weaker than most of his prey -- has been a hunter. And something important will be lost if he ever stops.

It's odd that modern evolutionary thinking -- the dominant paradigm explaining our origins -- views man historically as part of an eat-or-be-eaten natural system, yet so many moderns seem to think that man should now step away from eons of hunting heritage.

Very recently, only 400 years ago, Europeans left a culturally advanced society to face a continental wilderness much larger than they could conceive. Just 200 years ago an adolescent nation was only beginning to understand the scope of the wilds they were free to explore. And only 50 years ago virtually every home in America had a gun and almost everyone respected the culture of hunting. Only in the present generation has hunting not been an essential part of life.

Today hunting has matured to become a great industry supporting thousands upon thousands of small businesses backed by creative entrepreneurs who bring hundreds of new products to market each year. The revenue generated pours millions upon millions of dollars into state and national coffers -- dollars specifically earmarked for the support of wildlife. Whatever anyone else contributes to the support of wildlife is dwarfed by the contribution that hunters and fishermen make through their tax dollars alone.

But hunters tally up more than tax dollars. Sportsmen were the first to band together to create organizations dedicated to conservation. Members of groups such as Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation -- the list goes on and on and on -- vastly outnumber members of all other conservation groups combined. It's safe to say that hunters are the reason we have ducks, trout, turkeys, elk, sheep, moose, bears, deer, and other large and small species in abundance. Besides their money, hunters also pour their time into enhancing habitat for the benefit of virtually every species -- including non-game species.

Without hunters, the majestic whitetail would be a rarity, but its population is burgeoning across the country. Without hunters, the wild turkey would only be a memory, but instead we have many more than our pilgrim forefathers saw. And it's because of hunters that waterfowl is plentiful. So, when you hear geese honking their way north this spring, thank the hunters.

Yet hunting is in decline. In the long term, that does not bode well for America's wildlife.

Take deer, for example. Hunters are the one predator that efficiently keeps deer in balance with their habitat. Hunting deer is a vital service that hunters provide to society, so hunting is about more than venison for the table.

If the number of hunters continues to decline, the service they provide will diminish. It will be performed by hired sharpshooters and measured by a body count. Without hunters, those who render this "service" in the future will not need an acquaintance with the habits and life cycle of deer, or an appreciation for the deer themselves.

What we are as humans comes from a hunting past. When we turn our backs on our past we lose a heritage and a link with the natural world. A few thousand years ago we began to cultivate crops and livestock. A few hundred years ago we formed an industrial society. "Civilization" has taken man out of the hunt -- hunting is no longer the key to our survival -- but that does not mean the hunt must be taken out of man.

Hunters wonder why so many are severed from our past. We are human, so we hunt. We are the predators that think, so we hunt. We are the predators that care about the animals we pursue, so we hunt. We are the only predators that make sure wildlife populations survive for the future. For hunters, the question is not, "Why does a man hunt?" The question is, "Why do some not hunt?"

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Baiting Deer – Is It Ever Ethical?

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., February 3, 2007.)
In the modern world, deer must be hunted
for their own welfare. In some places they
cannot be hunted effectively without baiting.
Fortunately, these places are rare.
Although Pennsylvania hunters have traditionally objected to baiting deer, and most may still, baiting is now legal in certain locales.

Is this a concession to modern hunters who lack the skills of hunters from a bygone era? Has the Pennsylvania Game Commission caved in to hunters who think it gives them an easy way to shoot deer? Can you think of a time and place where baiting is ethical?

To answer these questions, we need to understand where baiting is permitted, and why.

In some urban areas it has become impossible to harvest enough deer. Specifically, the counties around Philadelphia have more deer than the habitat can support, but a dense human population prevents hunters’ access to most property.

The problem is far more serious than the dietary fondness deer have for the shrubbery around suburban homes. It’s also more serious than their dangerous habit of colliding with cars on suburban freeways. The fact is that housing developments, shopping centers, and industrial parks are crowding deer out of their natural habitat.

Deer cannot pack their suitcases and move to the big woods of Potter County or to Ohio farm country. They are stuck where they are. Fortunately, deer are amazingly adaptable and can live in close proximity to man. But as they continue to breed in areas with limited habitat, natural foods become scarce and crowded conditions set the stage for disease.

In areas of dense human population deer have virtually no predators other than man. But hunting is frowned upon in these areas. No one wants high-powered rifles going off in tiny woodlots adjacent to housing developments. And no one wants to see a deer sprint through a backyard and expire next to a child’s sandbox, with an arrow protruding from its chest.

So, deer populations continue to grow in these areas and their voracious appetites destroy what little habitat man has not developed.

It is to the benefit of the deer that their population is in balance with their habitat. How can they be controlled in these limited access areas?

Baiting may be the answer. The reason it has been legalized in the southeast corner of the state (limited to the late after-Christmas season in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties) is that baiting can draw deer away from non-huntable developed areas and into huntable areas. The new law has a sunset provision to end in 2010, at which time it will be evaluated and reconsidered.

As ironic as it seems, baiting may actually benefit deer. Of course, no one argues that it benefits any individual deer that is killed at a bait site. But the ball that the Pennsylvania Game Commission must keep its eye on is not the individual animal, but the larger population. It manages that by balancing the population with the habitat that it lives in using various tools -- controlling the times, places and conditions under which deer are hunted, and the strategies that are permitted.

Doesn’t baiting give hunters an advantage? Of course it does. But hunting is much more than a contest where a predator seeks an advantage over its prey. When the population of any species is too high for the available habitat, it becomes its own enemy. Deer have no advantage if scarce food resources threaten them with malnutrition, and overpopulation increases the risk of disease and conflict with humans. Deer should not be permitted to destroy their habitat and the habitat of other urban wildlife.

The simple fact is that without predators, deer live in an artificial setting. Hunters, playing the role of predator, provide a check on the population of deer. In other words, deer must be hunted for their own welfare. In some places they cannot be hunted effectively without baiting. Fortunately, these places are rare.

Are we headed for legalized baiting across the state? I don’t think so -- not until the entire state becomes overdeveloped and there is little room for deer. That will be the day when blacktop triumphs over topsoil, and residential landscaping conquers white oaks and grapevines. It will mean that wild places are gone -- that the entire state would resemble the east coast megalopolis.

For now baiting a test. It remains to be proven whether it benefits the deer and the wildlife habitat in urban southeast Pennsylvania. If it doesn’t, deer may be doomed to extermination in that part of the state. And that will benefit no one -- neither the hunters nor the non-hunters who enjoy them -- and especially not the deer.