Many years ago, the first snowfall in November used to be a cause for celebration in our family because it meant good tracking through the woods during the deer hunt. My dad and uncles were out before dawn on the first day of hunting season, and when they bagged a buck the excited talk of their deeds lit up the Thanksgiving table as they relived the fatal moment in the woods again and again. Those memories of the hunt were more precious than gold, and they would be taken out and polished for many years to come. Even when he was in his 80s, I recall my father talking about his first deer, taken at the age of 17 on the family farm outside Rockford.
I thought of those deer last week when the temperatures were in the 70s. By now, perhaps, theyre making tracks in the snow, seeking to elude the 700,000 or so deer hunters who swarm the forests and fields. But last week, they could have used some sunglasses.
Anyway, heres some information on the wily whitetail, dug up from the web archives of the DNR, along with a wish for all the hunters to stay safe out there in the crossfire.
A little background: deer range from 125-225 lbs. in size and live an average of 10 years or so. They tend to live in family groups of up to 25 members, and the leader tends to be female. They can hit speeds up to 35 mph in short bursts. They also find it useful to have four stomachs, which allow them to break down lots of stuff wed find inedible, like pine needles, leaves, grass, acorns, twigs and mushrooms.
Whats the most dangerous animal in the woods? The black bear, the honey bee, the human being? Well, its the deer of course: tens of thousands of them leap in front of our cars each year and 65,000 find their mark -- some flying through front windshields with deadly results. Then too, its claimed that sex-crazed bucks have been known to charge hikers during the mating season because their hormones are so jacked-up. This sounds a little dubious, but watch your back if you see a buck with a romantic glint in its eye.
And indeed, those deer are prodigious lovers. They start breeding when theyre only a year-and-a-half old and are Casanovas on par with rabbits. Some fawns breed when they are only seven or eight months old.
A cartoonist named Warbach at www.midnr.com notes that: In Sept. 1962, six bucks and nine does were released on South Fox Island in Lake Michigan. In 1970 (just eight years later), 382 deer were shot by hunters.“
But, despite that birthrate, deer werent always so plentiful in Northern Michigan. Before the white settlers arrived, whitetails were found mostly in the southern part of the state where the habitat included plenty of bogs and clearings in the forest. The forests of Northern Michigan were too dense to sustain much of a deer herd, so our territory was more the home of the elk and the moose.
But as the lumberjacks of the 1800s took down the trees of the north, our deer herd increased. By the 1880s, we had an estimated one million deer in the region. Meanwhile, deer all but disappeared in southern Michigan due to unregulated hunting and the destruction of habitat.
From that point on, Michigans deer herd was on a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. Market hunters slaughtered hundreds of thousands, according to the DNR, and by 1914, there were only an estimated 45,000 deer in the state.
In order to save the herd and hunting in general, regulations were passed stating that only antlered bucks could be taken by hunters. This and other measures worked so well that by 1937, Michigan had a deer problem of 1.25 million of the critters -- a number that grew to 1.5 million by the late 40s.
Today, the DNR aims to have a fall herd of 1.3 million deer, and it‘s remained pretty steady for years.
So, whats next for Bambi and Buck? No doubt our changing climate will play a role in their future -- perhaps with less starvation in the winter. Perhaps the Internet will affect them too: a lot of kids are more interested in playing the latest version of Grand Theft Auto than in tramping around in the cold in blaze orange. The NRA would be wise to spend more time worrying about the impact of video games on gun ownership than it does on the Democratic Party.
Whatever, heres to the deer and to the hunters who chase the white tail. Their game of hide-and-seek plays out this week, just as it has since the dawn of time.