The Hunt

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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.

aldo leopold hunting

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.

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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.

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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.

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About this time last year, I came across a newborn fawn at Midewin. Perhaps only a few hours old, it was nestled in tall grasses alongside Turtle Pond; too new in this world to be afraid of the large, two-legged creature staring down at it from three feet away. Wondering if lightning might strike twice, I retuned to Turtle Pond this year in the hope of glimpsing another fresh fawn.

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Not a hundred feet down Chicago Road, which leads to Turtle Pond, I hear a rustle in the roadside grass. A few seconds later, a spotted fawn appears. A little older, but still lovely. Intoxicatingly cute. Truly, you just can’t help but grin like a child.

For me, such chance encounters are the true treasures of life. Chicken soup for the soul. Call them what you will, I wouldn’t trade a single one of them for all the world. Even as I wrestle with the fact that as adults, deer are highly destructive.

Deer are voracious. They eat five to nine pounds of vegetation a day. Nearly hunted to extinction in Illinois in the 1800s, there are now more white-tailed deer in our state than at any time in history. To make matters worse, they are concentrated in our remaining natural areas, which amount to but a fraction of their original territory. As a result, many of our natural areas are virtually devoid of vegetation up to the height a deer can reach with its sharp incisors.

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At Midewin, the native plant seed beds – like those next to Turtle Pond – must be fenced off from deer, which would eat virtually every plant in sight.

So, where I see cute in a fawn, natural area land managers tend to see a future pest to be controlled. And so they turn to hunters, who are just as likely to see a future trophy. Or meat.

hunter safety card

This past January, I passed my hunter safety training toward the goal of going on my first deer hunt. I don’t need the meat. And I certainly don’t want the trophy. But I realize that we, as a people, have created the conditions that allow deer populations to explode. Left uncontrolled, deer will effectively undo all the dollars and hard work invested at places like Midewin to make them havens for a full spectrum of living creatures, both plant and animal.

And so the herd must be culled. And while some might view the opportunity to do so as sport, and others as an ecological necessity, to me the need to do so presents more of an ethical and emotional challenge. And so, later this fall, while sitting cold and silent in a deer blind, hours before the dawn, waiting for my prey, I’m sure I’ll spend no small amount of time thinking back to a warm summer day and the large, liquid eyes of an exquisite creature.

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