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The Price of Deer

Jeff Ell SmallBack in the good old days, folks used to congregate at the home of someone with a deer hanging in their yard. Getting a deer was a big deal: a time for hearty handshakes and the telling of stories. While I’m sure the good old days were good for some things, they weren’t nearly as good for hunting as these days.

Today, North America has more whitetail deer than at any time in recorded history. Most states are scrambling to keep herds at reduced / sustainable levels by lengthening seasons, increasing bag limits, and trying to recruit more hunters into the sport. In some locales, hunters pile deer like cord wood and venison has become a relatively cheap meat.

Roanoke County is one of those places. This is the second year of an urban archery season, an antlerless deer hunt that the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries created as a way for places like Roanoke County to take a bite out of the growing herd.

Yet in spite of all these efforts, two larger forces are working simultaneously and making it difficult, if not impossible, to keep deer populations in check.

First is the implementation of modern deer management practice. Wildlife biologists and state game agencies have been working together and for the most part making good policy. The science of deer management has increased both the number and quality of the deer herd. This is why it’s not uncommon to know a Virginia hunter who has filled their five deer limit, and why next month you’ll see any number of big antlered bucks lying dead on the side of the road.

The second factor making it easier than ever to kill a deer is the declining number of hunters. The average age of a hunter is now pushing fifty. As demographics shift from country to city, there are ever fewer young men and women taking up the sport.

Simply put, there are fewer and fewer hunters pursuing more and more deer. Even with the odds now stacked in the hunter’s favor, taking a deer is rarely easy.

Yet few hunters of this modern era can fathom just how difficult it was for our parents and grandparent to put venison on the table. Just forty years ago in 1973, the total number of deer taken here in Virginia was just over 60,000. This year the number of deer that will be harvested is expected to be nearly four times that.

As challenging as it was to take a deer forty years ago here in Virginia, it is nothing compared to the hardships faced by hunters during the Great Depression, back when the deer herd was hunted to the brink of extinction by hungry hunters who were trying to put meat on the table.

More than once I was at the bed side of a dying Adirondack hunter by the name of Vinney Beecher. He was a grizzled old guy, hardened by a lifetime of hard work and hardscrabble. He became more tender as his body gave way to disease, and even started to welcome the visits from the young preacher from the city who enjoyed listening to his stories.

I would read him some scripture passages and pray for him. Then he would tell me about hunting with iron sighted 30.30’s in the decades before tree stands, trail cams, Gore Tex, and bottled doe estrus. I was a recent convert to hunting and would sit with rapt attention as he spun his tales.

Once he told me that in the years of 1934 and 1936, he hunted every hour of every day of the six week season – cold years when snow covered the forest floor and he was unemployed from his seasonal job in a lumber mill. He looked out the window and said, “I hunted everyday both of those years and never saw a track”.

He never saw a track.

If you’re a hunter, please doff your hat and join me in a moment of silence. Let us take a moment to reflect upon the sacrifice and courageous optimism our departed comrade summoned to rise before dawn and brave the snow and cold for forty trackless days. Vinney, we salute you.

Compared to men like Vinney I’m a genuine powder-puff. I whine about not seeing a deer each time I go out. I enjoy sipping Costa Rican coffee out of my insulated mug while napping in my camp chair.

Next time we’ll talk about the actual cost of venison, crunch some of the hunting industries numbers and discover the monetary value of this wild meat. Until then, let’s remember that the price of venison is not always something that can be measured in dollars and cents.

Jeff Ell is pretty good at catching, killing, picking, and growing things to eat. He regularly finds bemusement in the outdoors and enjoys telling his stories to anyone who will listen. Jeff’s is the author of Ruth Uncensored and blogs at

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