Volunteers aren’t the only ones harvesting Midewin’s bounty this fall. For about a month now, hunters have been in the field in search of deer. And their effort is just as important to the restoration and long-term health of Midewin as that of we weekend seed-gatherers.
I, too, had intended to join in the hunt this fall. My first time ever. Last January, I successfully completed the state hunter safety training. I even went so far as to obtain a state license to own a firearm. A neighbor who’s been hunting since he was a kid was going to take me out to a firing range to get some practice. Although he would have preferred my taking up a bow and arrow instead. More sporting.
I wasn’t into it for the sport. Although Aldo Leopold – the dean of the modern conservation movement –was. In his later years, he hunted almost exclusively with homemade bows and arrows. Perhaps in part because of his youthful experience of watching the “green fire” go out in the eyes of a wolf he had shot with a rifle – a story he relates with heartfelt remorse and introspection in his seminal work, A Sand County Almanac.
I certainly wasn’t looking forward to any green fire going out in the eyes of a deer I might shoot. Especially since deer are such magnificent creatures – spotted fawns, doe-eyed does and big bucks alike. But I was willing to give it a go because the restoration of our natural areas depends on the control – the killing – of white-tail deer. There are more deer in Illinois than ever. Largely because we people have created the conditions that allow their populations to explode unchecked by natural forces.
And deer are voracious herbivores. Without deer fences around the native plant seed beds, we couldn’t grow the many different kinds of plants we need to restore the prairie. And without serious deer control, much of what we plant in the prairie restorations would be nibbled to a quick and die.
But even within the conservation community, there are those who disparage hunting. And, more specifically, hunters. Nonetheless, the simple truth is conservationists need hunters. We need people who know how to carry and fire a shotgun safely. To set up in a tree stand before dawn on a frigid morning. To wait patiently for hours. And in the event that a deer ventures within firing range, to aim true so the animal doesn’t suffer. And then field dress the carcass. And then hike perhaps miles back to the parking lot with perhaps 200 pounds of deer meet on his or her back.
There’s nothing about the experience that is for the faint of heart or body. I might have handled the rigors of the experience well. I just never got in any practice with a firearm. To go out into the field without practice, I would have been a danger to myself and others. Maybe next year. Maybe never. But for those who do venture safely and successfully into the hunting fields, my blaze orange cap is off to them.