The precious little American whitetail deer does not crawl out of its bedding area each morning intent on murdering you. That’s just its nature.
The “deadliest beast in North America,” as the Washington Post anointed them this week, is responsible for roughly 96 percent of all the deaths attributable to confrontations with wildlife in any given year. More than 2 million people collide with these animals on America’s roads annually, sometimes fatally. “Deer are responsible for at least 69 percent of animal-related accident claims, according to State Farm,” the Post reported.
Their overpopulation has contributed to reduced biodiversity among native plant species, which allows their more invasive competitors to flourish (to say nothing of the local fauna and microorganisms that also depend on that vegetation). They spread tick-borne illnesses, such as Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and their contributions to “intolerable” crop losses are responsible for tens of millions of dollars in lost agricultural revenue.
In short, the things are a menace. Deer-induced disasters are not a new problem, and the political class has devoted untold sums of taxpayer dollars to control the Cervidae population. But nothing has worked.
In 2019, researchers published a 10-year study in the journal Ecology and Evolution studying various methods of population control. One of the study’s authors, associate professor at Cornell University and the co-chair of the school’s Deer Management Committee, Bernd Blossey, concluded that there is “no hope” that traditional methods of fertility control will work. “Despite deer sterilization of 90 percent,” he noted, the effect was minimal. Likewise, recreational hunting has little observable impact on the deer population or its impacts.
In Western New Jersey, a population-dense state with an equally high concentration of whitetail deer, the problem is an increasingly urgent one. “Sustainable levels of deer should be 5 to 15 individuals per square mile,” one local arboretum fretted in 2021. “New Jersey averages 112 per square mile, with some areas as high as 270.”
Somehow, unacceptable deer concentration levels, their injurious effects on the environment, and the acute threat they pose to life and property exist alongside another bewildering phenomenon: They are positively delicious.
The “star” of the menu at Washington D.C.’s Café Berlin every autumn, an NPR profile of the restaurant’s fare read, is venison. Loin, ribs, chops, tartar—take your pick. “It’s food that takes your mind back to old European castles, where you can imagine eating like aristocracy,” the piece gushes. But you can’t buy deer meat at your local grocer or often even at upscale food purveyors. This NPR reporter found venison loin selling for a staggering $40 per pound. And about 85 percent of all deer meat sold in American restaurants is imported from New Zealand.
It’s not impossible to get your hands on local venison—even professionally prepared fare. But you’re not going to pay $40 per pound. You’re not going to pay anything at all, in fact. Where local venison is available, it is in charity kitchens and food pantries.
Recreational hunters are not allowed to sell their kill for a variety of reasons. States want to avoid providing poachers with incentives to hunt in the off seasons and without permits, and local officials want to avoid the circumstances that almost led to the eradication of the local deer population by overhunting at the turn of the 20th century. Moreover, the FDA, which regulates proteins not covered by the Federal Meat Inspection Act, restricts access to non-commercially raised game animals. But you can donate that meat, and there is a thriving non-profit industry around the provision of deer meat to charitable institutions.
Legislative reforms that would allow for both commercial hunting licenses and the commercial sale of deer in restaurants and markets isn’t a panacea. It would not itself solve the overpopulation problem, and it would create incentives to transform private game preserves into factory farms. After all, deer are already classified as “livestock,” as opposed to “wildlife,” in a number of U.S. states. But commercializing wild deer meat would make a dent in their numbers. That’s why, for example, New Jersey tried to experiment with legislation that would have opened up commercial deer hunting licensing in 2014. The effort failed due to a “lack of support.”
Opposition to the commercialization of deer meat is an outgrowth of a strange alliance among conservationists, sport hunters (for whom the regulatory environment is already a struggle to navigate), various regulatory institutions, and the politicians beholden to them. But the alternatives to commercialization are either unpalatable, like the reintroduction of predator species such wolves and cougars to suburban areas in significant numbers, are destined to fail. According to The Human Society’s Brian Hackett, rather than expanded hunting, states should invest in “community education” programs about deer-vehicle collisions. Precisely no one who spends their autumns crawling along wooded streets at 25 miles per hour to avoid a catastrophic collision needs to sit through a deer-sensitivity training course.
The market is there. The infrastructure already exists. The personnel are ready and waiting. A commercial industry around wild venison could be incepted into existence overnight, and its salutary effects on producers, consumers, and drivers alike would be almost instantly felt. All the federal and state governments must do is get out of the way.