Warning: This is a disturbing post. It may not be suitable for all readers.
In the rose-pink light of dawn, I see the silhouette of a large eight-point whitetail buck as he stands motionless near the pond’s shoreline. His gaze is directed across the pond. Soon, I hope, in the rapidly increasing light of the approaching sunrise, I’ll be able to see what he sees. Minutes pass, and finally the buck turns to its right and moves forward in a few stiff-legged gaits, his tail raised to half-mast. “Something has this old boy riled up,” I think. Suddenly, the deer spins around and bucks his hind legs into the air before bounding a short distance away in a couple high-arching leaps.
Flashes of gray catch my attention in the small prairie grass openings near the pond’s edge. Judging by the animal’s cadence, it must be a coyote. Another movement captures my interest - a second whitetail buck emerges from the prairie. “Whoa,” I think, “what a majestic animal.” The large buck with mahogany-colored antlers swaggers toward the other whitetail buck. His antlers are exceptional, 10 points, tall and wide, evenly balanced and symmetrical. This old patriarch has survived many hunting seasons.
Given that it’s the last weekend of Wisconsin’s rifle deer hunting season, there’s only one reason why both of these mature bucks would risk everything and expose themselves during daylight hours. There must be a doe in estrus nearby. During past deer mating seasons, I’ve watched does escape pursuing bucks by taking to the water. Deer are powerful swimmers.
The 10-point buck takes the dominant position by the pond shoreline, with the eight-point buck hanging back some distance. Both are motionless with fixated stares directed across the pond. “That doe has to be over there. But why aren’t the bucks pursuing her? Maybe the coyote has them spooked?” The bucking of the first deer is certainly indicative of behavior in response to a predator. But both bucks appear healthy; the coyote is of little threat to them.
I see sparkles of light reflecting from ice shards on the frozen pond. Half of the surface has a thin layer of ice, and I see a swath broken through it, exiting on the pond’s opposite shore - evidence of a deer in the water. An uncomfortable thought emerges: “Did the coyote or one of the bucks push the deer into the water?”
My thought is immediately answered as a doe deer clumsily plops into the ice a few feet away from the pond’s opposite bank. She’s motionless, legs and lower torso hidden below the frozen surface, her chin and tail resting on the ice. “Dammit,” I curse, “another hunting season and another deer wounded and lost by hunters. I’m so tired of watching this same scene played out year, after year, after year!”
“Calm down, David, you can’t prove this deer was wounded and lost by hunters; it could have been a lot of things.” Yes, I suppose it could have been, but time after time – from who knows where – these wounded and sick deer show up during hunting season.
Lands such as ours, under ecological restoration, quickly become irresistible to whitetail deer. In many cases, there’s no other place where deer can find such a smorgasbord of native, ancestral food. Unfortunately, many of these native plant species that deer love to eat are rare. Land managers are working desperately to try to save these plants from extinction. Deer, however, have no problem eating them all. Controlling the deer population is absolutely critical in maintaining an ecological balance.
In southern Wisconsin, we’ve inherited a landscape long devoid of top apex predators. In good habitat, deer numbers explode rapidly. Human hunters are an effective means to maintain ecologically healthy numbers of deer. Matching ethical hunters with land managers can be symbiotic. Hunters learn about ecology, enjoy outdoor recreation and consume nutritious food. Land managers gain a healthier deer population. Deer overpopulation threatens many plants and animals, as well as the deer species itself. Deer overpopulation leads to diseases such as chronic wasting disease, which can have long-term, devastating consequences.
The coyote is back on the scene. It’s lunging and snapping its jaws just short of the doe’s tail, apparently afraid of falling through the ice. The coyote becomes bolder, occasionally sinking its jaws in the doe’s flank, pulling out tufts of hair. The doe pushes forward breaking through the ice, her tail and flank now below the surface. She inches her way forward, the back part of her body slowly submerging as she reaches deeper water.
She makes it to open water, only the top part of her head and skyward-tilted nose is now exposed above the water line. The bucks are on the move, pacing back and forth on the ice-free side of the pond’s shoreline, hoping to engage her if she emerges from the water. With the coyote on the other shoreline, she circles in the water in agonizing slow motion.
I don’t recognize her as a deer – a powerful animal with head, neck and back above water leaving a prominent V-shaped wake as it swims. No, her presence is like a tiny wind-up, shoe-size toy boat, running in circles until the energy stored in its metal spring is gone.
Afflicted, I question myself. “How long can she go on? How did we get here? Who decided humankind is best served without nature’s top apex predators? How can a human hunter be so apathetic toward such a magnificent creature?” While seductive and comforting, it’s a fool’s game searching for a villain on whom to place the blame.
The gun blast startles me. Instinctually, I scan the surrounding hillsides for hunter’s orange, hoping to find the source of the firearm’s report. But the hillsides are empty, and the bucks and coyote have melted into the tall prairie vegetation. The doe is now motionless, floating on the pond’s surface, head under water.
I’m all alone. My mind, after warring with itself, finding direction again with the acknowledgment of my role as an unwilling participant.
It was I who pulled the trigger. I needed it to be over.