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North America's deer dilemma

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Like most hunters, I love white-tailed deer. I brake hard when I see them gathering on the fields in late summer. I make special trips to Pinawa to photograph them on winter's white blanket. Come spring, I oooh and aaah just like everyone else at the sight of a spotted fawn. And in the fall I hunt them.

It's a love that at times borders on obsession. And it seems I'm not alone in my obsession. Wisconsin writer Al Cambronne loves deer too. After years of research, he's released a booked called Deerland. In it, he chronicles the complicated and often conflicted relationship North Americans have with deer.

Wondering about the "conflicted" part? Ponder this. The United States is home to more than 30 million deer. That's 100 times more than there were just a century ago. Simply put, there are way too many deer in many parts of the country.

Depending on your neck of the woods, you may not think Canada has these problems, but consider for a moment the large numbers of deer in Winnipeg's Assiniboine Forest. The deer that wander onto the roadways are reason for at least some concern.

In many areas of the U.S., overabundant deer damage high-ticket crops, endanger motorists, devour city landscaping, wreck entire ecosystems and spread Lyme disease. In Canada, we may already be seeing threads of this kind of damage where deer numbers are too high. How can we put the brakes on this kind of destruction? Cambronne has a few ideas.

SZ: Why did you want to write this book?

AC: Like a lot of people, I was fascinated with deer. And I was fascinated with how truly obsessed some people are when it comes deer. So I figured that would make for an interesting human story. On the other hand, a lot of people take them for granted. I wanted those people to begin seeing the familiar with new eyes. And the deeper I dug, the more I found there were some really important, untold stories here.

SZ: Through all of your research, was there one incident, interview, image or person that really stood out, that made you have an 'ah ha' moment?

AC: I met a lot of really memorable people and learned a lot. If I had to pick just one, I suppose it would be my interview with Tom Rooney, the botanist who gave me a tour of a site where he's studying the impacts of overabundant deer on the forest ecosystem. To see an extreme example of a forest that had been fundamentally altered by deer, and then to have someone like him explaining what we were looking at, that was something.

SZ: It might just be me, but I felt a certain sense of sadness while reading this book. Maybe it was guilt. I keep thinking, wow, we've really messed things up. Do you feel the same way?

AC: At times I did feel discouraged at some of the things I saw and learned. But there's hope. If we have the power to mess things up, we also have the power to restore some semblance of balance and harmony. As I begin my final chapter, a look into the future, I quote both Spiderman and the Dalai Lama -- which you don't see every day. Together, those two quotes give me hope. Some mornings, at least.

SZ: In Manitoba, we certainly struggle with some of the same issues outlined in the book. In the city of Winnipeg, we have plenty of deer. Yet out in the country, we're under a reduced deer hunting season because of low populations. What does it all mean? How can we talk about overabundant deer to hunters who have a single tag to fill?

AC: Deer aren't overabundant everywhere. We have a lot of states where you'd encounter overabundant deer in the suburbs and farm country just beyond, but then fewer deer in the big woods a couple hours away from the city. But that's where everyone wants to go hunt. So maybe a partial solution to both problems is to do at least some of our hunting closer to home, and even consider participating in the managed bowhunts being held in many suburbs. But you know, when I went out with some of those urban deer hunters as part of my research, that was definitely not a wilderness experience. To me, it did feel a little strange.

SZ: If you could change one thing in history when it comes to today's U.S. deer populations, what would it be? In other words, is there on thing that you believe has had the biggest impact?

AC: Feeding deer does them more harm than good and it would be great if we could educate people to stop doing it. We're not doing it for the deer. We're doing it for ourselves, because we want to see more deer. And "private wildlife reserves," that's sometimes a euphemism for canned, high-fence hunts. It might be legal, but when those high fences encircle too small an area, it diminishes the deer and it diminishes hunting -- everyone's hunting.

I'd wish that hunters in the U.S. -- and Canada, too, for that matter--could worship antlers less and value venison more. I'd wish that all of us, hunters and non-hunters alike, could respect deer as wild animals that belong to all of us -- and to none of us.

Deerland by Al Cambronne is available for order at McNally Robinson and It's also on Kobo.

Shel Zolkewich writes about the outdoors, travel and food when she's not playing outside, traveling or eating. You can reach her with your comments at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 22, 2013 C12

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