If you told Americans circa 1900 that 120 years later North America would be overrun with both whitetail
deer and human beings, they would have thought you daft. And yet that is precisely what has occurred.
Even as the human population of the United States, Canada, and Mexico has grown, whitetail
populations exploded from distressingly low levels. They are probably higher now than when Europeans
began to colonize the continent five centuries ago.
Of course deer, like people, are not evenly spread across the landscape. While humans can use
technology and markets to cluster into dense spaces, literally living on top of each other completely
divorced from the biological carrying capacity of the local environment, deer populations remain bound
by the iron chains most infamously described by Thomas Malthus. In many places today, too many
deer roam too few suitable acres of habitat.
When a species becomes too numerous for a local environment, natural processes typically intercede.
Most often, predator populations increase along with their prey. Busts follow booms, sometimes quite
dramatic ones in small-bodied species like rabbits and grouse.
But what happens to the members of a species when predators do not keep their numbers in check?
They suffer in sundry ways, including dying of starvation if their weakened bodies do not succumb to
disease first. And some get pushed into new areas where they can wreak ecological havoc.
In the case of whitetail deer, many invade urban parks or suburban backyards where they have
unfortunate encounters with dogs, flower beds, and motorized vehicles. Some become habituated to
humans and supplement their diets with bird seed or, in the case of those in Mendon Ponds Park
outside Rochester, New York, with the french fries that well-meaning suburbanites supply them in
distressingly large quantities.
Where have all the natural predators gone? The main one, wolves, were driven from the proximity of
human habitation through a combination of hunting, trapping, and poisoning campaigns, along with
intense competition from human hunters, of which more below. While reintroduction of wolves has
been tolerated in parts of the North American West by paying ranchers for livestock depredation, they
remain feared by most in the East, and rightly so. Their smaller canine cousins, coyotes, have been
moving in but they prey less efficiently on adult whitetails than wolves do.
The most efficient predator of all, human hunters, greatly depleted whitetail numbers in the late
nineteenth century. Although the percentage of the workforce engaged in extractive industries like
farming, mining, and ranching was already trending downward, most North Americans, even those
living in the continent’s burgeoning cities, like Chicago, New York, and Toronto, retained ties to the land.
Most still owned firearms and many enjoyed hunting and fishing excursions. Those still living on farms
and in small towns still hunted and fished as a matter of course, and surprising numbers trapped
common furbearers like coon and skunk.
That generation proved particularly deadly for whitetail, turkey, and other game species for several
reasons. The total number of hunters peaked at a time when few hunting rules were on the books and
even fewer were effectively enforced. Transportation, via trains and wagon roads, was cheaper and
more convenient than ever and firearms had become more effective. Unfenced private property was
treated, whether lawfully or not, as a common pool that could be hunted by anyone without landowner
consent. Deer and other game could be, and were, harvested at night, with dogs, on skis or horseback,
in the dead of winter in their “yards” (restricted winter ranges), in early spring by “crusting” (corralling
them into snow drifts that trapped them for easy slaughter), and dozens of other techniques today
considered unethical or unsporting if not downright illegal.
But the game then was one of meat, for personal consumption or for sale in the nation’s ubiquitous
markets for game animals. Men bragged of killing thousands of deer and hundreds of apex predators
over their lives. By then, not even American Indians limited themselves to the bow and fair chase rules
applied only to gentlemen hunting for diversion rather than to fill their purses or cooking pots.
Thankfully, this toxic stew ended with the adoption of the North American Wildlife Conservation Model
(NAWCM), which, among other things, reduced the tragedy of the commons problem by assigning
property rights in wildlife to governments, which then had incentives to develop and enforce
biologically-sound hunting regulations. Most importantly, the state and federal governments worked
together to end markets for wild game meat, which induced growing numbers of sport hunters to follow
the new rules because they no longer had to compete against commercial hunters for increasingly
The NAWCM effectively reduced human predation, giving hard hit species like deer and turkeys time to
restore their numbers and even extend their habitat into areas more densely populated by people.
Before the NAWCM, people could, and often would, shoot deer on sight, even off the back porch. While
some poaching occurred under the NAWCM, most people followed the rules and harvested game
animals only in season, in permitted areas, and up to limits specified by wildlife managers in
consultation with wildlife biologists.
Throughout the twentieth century, urban men like my grandfather and father filled their one buck tag, or
didn’t, and were happy just to get out of the city for a weekend or two each year. Their lives hardly
depended on their hunting prowess. By the time one factored in the price of the tag, the hunting
equipment, and the gasoline, even successful day-trippers spent far more per pound for venison than
they did for beef. Rebounding game numbers led to more frequent success and eventually to more
tags but killing deer was no longer a paying proposition. Over the decades, the old school sport hunters
aged out or died and not all of their children took up the hunt, much less recruited new hunters from the
ever-growing ranks of non-hunting families.
By the twenty-first century, the number of hunters was trending downward in many states and efforts to
retain them, and recruit new hunters, have had mixed results. Such efforts are important and demand
the continued attention of enviropreneurs and state wildlife officials. But the fact remains that human
predation has fallen too low in many areas, leading to increased suffering for deer, drivers, and
Lots of well-meaning efforts to cull deer herds in ways other than hunting have been tried but proven
either ineffective or, like sterilization or winter feeding, extremely costly. In many areas, paying snipers
to harvest deer, the meat of which is then donated to food banks, is the dominant management policy.
Some brave enviropreneurs have suggested reopening markets for wild game meat once again would
quickly solve overpopulation problems. Calls for commercialization have much merit once it is
understood that the policy proposal does not involve returning to the bad old days where everyone and
anyone could kill as many critters when, where, and how they saw fit. Culls would still be highly
regulated, but instead of snipers receiving payment in cash and the venison being forced on
impoverished individuals who may or may not relish it, the snipers would be compensated by allowing
them to sell the meat (and hides and antlers) to the highest bidder, i.e., people who truly value it.
Commercialization of wildlife resources does not necessarily, or even often, lead to extinction unless a
common pool problem exists. Oceanic fish that dwell in national waters can be, and increasingly are,
sustainably harvested through “catch share” and similar programs. Apex predators like alligators are
commercially hunted in Louisiana without endangering them. And in Europe, markets for the meat of
wild ungulates have not led to their desolation because harvests are carefully managed.
In North America, however, reverence for the NAWCM has rendered such markets “repugnant,” or akin
to the sale of human organs like kidneys. As Nobel laureate Al Roth has explained, it would be best if
people got over their repugnance and simply allowed organs to be sold like most goods are. Until that
happens, though, policymakers must commit themselves to second best options, ones that Roth
Critics of the commercialization of wild game meat in North America fear that large corporate interests
might be able to co-opt government wildlife managers, as the whaling and fishing industries were able
to do in the twentieth century, and increase harvest quotas above sustainable levels. That is certainly a
possibility but one that decreases with the size of commercial hunting firms. So a second best option,
shy of a full-blown market in wild game meat, would be to allow a market limited by statute and its very
nature to numerous small, competitive firms.
That is the heart of what I call proxy hunting, or hunting by proxy. The notion is to allow avid hunters to
fill the tags of individuals too busy, squeamish, or physically immobile to fill the tags on their own. Wild
game meat would not appear in supermarkets sold by some agribusiness by the pound. Instead,
professional proxy hunters would provide the meat of entire animals (probably but not necessarily fully
processed) to individuals who contracted for it and lawfully pulled a tag. Buyers would then be able to
consume, gift, or non-commercially sell the meat as they see fit.
Proxy hunting entails not so much the restricted commercialization of wild game meat as it does the
extension of guiding services. Right now, individuals can pay big money to be carted to a blind or
elevated stand for the opportunity to shoot a big game animal, often one of “trophy” caliber. The guides
often then field dress the animal, butcher it, and, if desired, prepare it for taxidermy. The hunter may do
nothing more than pull the trigger. The system works well for those who want to hunt impressive
animals on private land with minimal hassle.
But what about public lands and individuals who relish organic, grass-fed wild game meat? That used
to be the bulk of hunters, but, as noted, many have voted with their feet and left the sport. Hunting on
public land is cheaper than a guided hunt but it remains expensive and challenging because few have
the time or inclination to scout effectively and those who do often find the best laid plans destroyed by
feckless fellow hunters. It can be dangerous too! I have had bullets and slugs whiz within a few feet of
my head on at least three occasions.
In addition to providing people with the wild game meat they crave, additional income for sole
proprietors and small businesses like guide services, more dollars for conservation, and better wildlife
management, proxy hunting will also likely increase political support for hunting by increasing the
number of people who benefit from it, either as suppliers or consumers of wild game meat. Hunters
and hunting have not come under as much political pressure as trappers but recent events have
proven that nothing in the political realm can be taken for granted anymore.
Like any policy proposal, proxy hunting should be implemented carefully, on a small scale at first to
work out any kinks, and then slowly, starting with the most overpopulated species and districts first. It
likely will never be appropriate in some contexts, like elk in South Dakota’s Black Hills, where hunters
queue for an average of seven years to draw a tag. In Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, by contrast, it should
have been tried decades ago, when I lived nearby and used to salivate at the sight of hundreds of deer
that I then had neither the time nor the inclination to hunt.