Earn-a-buck programs could have an entirely new meaning if a New Jersey legislator gets her way. Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande (R-11) introduced a bill into the state legislature that would allow hunters the opportunity to sell venison and other deer parts.
Her goal is to increase the local deer harvest and reduce deer/vehicle collisions, Lyme disease, and other issues related to an overabundance of whitetails. Believe it or not, a growing number of biologists agree with Casagrande.
As whitetail numbers climb in some regions and hunter numbers slide, wildlife managers are facing a growing dilemma: How to best control booming deer numbers where hunters don't or can't. One solution proposed in a paper published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin is to create a market for wild deer meat.The paper — titled "Regulated Commercial Harvest to Manage Overabundant White-Tailed Deer: An Idea to Consider?" — laid out a careful argument in favor of allowing hunters to sell deer meat and other parts.
Not just any hunters, though. The seven authors propose "state wildlife agencies would award qualified individuals and business entities a Commercial Deer Harvesters License€¦." Hunters would have to pass a series of proficiency tests in everything from field care and meat handling to proper firearms use and shot placement. They would also have to develop a business plan and establish a relationship with a local processor.
They couldn't just do this anywhere, either. According to co-author David Drake, the sale of deer would apply only to specific areas with a chronic overabundance of animals.
"We are talking mostly about urban and suburban areas where hunting access is restricted or where hunters don't put much effort into hunting for various reasons," says Drake, an associate professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin. "Applying economic pressure would create an incentive to open more areas to hunting where it is needed most, and it would encourage more people to shoot more deer."
The commercial sale of wild game isn't necessarily a new concept, at least not in other countries. It's legal in many parts of Europe. New Zealand hunters routinely sell game, including whitetail deer, through a government-regulated system. It's also a common practice in parts of Africa.
The idea put forth by Drake and his colleagues has more to do with population control than with establishing a new food source. That's why some waterfowl managers are discussing the same idea for lesser snow geese. The birds are so numerous they are having a serious and long-term impact on the Arctic tundra where they nest.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relaxed regulations in 1994 to promote increased harvest. Hunters can now use unplugged shotguns and electronic callers, and there are no daily bag limits during the lengthy spring season.
Even with those liberal rules, hunters still aren't killing enough geese. The population is about the same as it was two decades ago. That's why some waterfowl biologists have suggested allowing hunters the freedom to sell the snow geese they harvest.
"As managers, we want hunters to shoot a lot of snow geese, but what are they going to do with them?" asks Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Waterfowl Biologist Mark Vrtiska. "Maybe if they are allowed to sell them, hunters would be willing to shoot more and put more effort into hunting."
It's just one of many options to reduce lesser snow goose numbers. Ironically, it may be the hardest one to sell to hunters themselves. A survey of goose hunters in Nebraska found that 40 percent were opposed or strongly opposed to legalizing the sale of hunter-harvested snow geese. About 30 percent were in favor or strongly in favor.
It isn't just hunters who are troubled with the idea of commercializing game birds and animals. Many wildlife managers are also uneasy with it. Placing a dollar value on wildlife is a clear violation of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, the foundation of modern wildlife management.
"We've seen what happens when you put a price on wildlife," says Quality Deer Management Association CEO Brian Murphy. "Pretty much all the previous troubles associated with wildlife populations were driven by the dollar bill."
More troubling, adds Murphy, is that commercializing deer would further erode hunting opportunities. It might also set a precedent that bleeds over into other game species.
"It would make it too easy for municipalities, agricultural producers, parks, and other entities to sell deer instead of allowing hunters the opportunity to do the job," he says. "We should be undertaking efforts to open more areas to hunting. Turning deer into a product would likely take away that incentive."
In some situations, that's okay, says Jim Tantillo, executive director of Orion: The Hunter's Institute, a hunter ethics think tank. Hunting isn't a feasible solution in every situation.
"You have to adapt in natural resources management, and you have to take into account the context," he says. "In this case, there are too many deer and no viable way to control their numbers in some places. We need to look at ways to encourage more harvest, even if it means allowing people to sell the meat. Is this a slippery slope that may open up the commercialization of other species that are not causing problems like deer are? I don't think so."
Even if hunters were allowed to sell deer or goose, would anyone actually buy it? As Murphy says, Americans have not shown much of an appetite for farm-raised venison, so why would wild venison be any different? And how often does domestic goose show up on a restaurant menu or at the grocery store?
Drake, however, points to the growing "locavore" movement. Consumers are increasingly aware of their food, where it comes from and what's in it. The demand for hormone- and antibiotic-free, ethically and locally raised meat is growing dramatically. Wild venison fits that bill. More people seem to be willing to try food outside the standard grocery store fare, as well.
"I live in Madison, Wisconsin, which has a huge farmers market. It's packed every Saturday. There is certainly enough of a demand to create a niche market, particularly in urban and suburban areas where deer are overpopulated," he says. "Remember, we aren't talking about millions of deer, so it's not like this would be a huge industry."
He admits that giving hunters the freedom to sell meat might discourage them from donating it to food banks. A number of venison donation programs have seen a significant decline in donations recently, which is why Murphy would prefer excess game, no matter who kills it, go to food banks and other programs.
Despite the opposition from some biologists and hunters, Drake says there seems to be increased acceptance in the wildlife management community to the idea, particularly among the younger generation. Vrtiska agrees. He's seen little opposition from wildfowl managers who understand the problems associated with too many geese in too little habitat.
"I think we can all agree that something needs to be done," says Vrtiska. "At this point we have to consider every possible solution, even if it means giving hunters the opportunity to sell what they harvest."