Fri. Jan 21st, 2022

When I grew up as a white baby tree in the American Midwest, deer were a cultural transition ritual. Now our hunter-gatherers are dying out, taking with them many of the hunting season’s traditional rituals – which in my case included driving around on the roof of the car, or on the back of a motorcycle without a helmet, when drunk. family members indulgently watched from the log cabin.

The hunting of deer in the Midwest declined relentlessly until the Covid-19 pandemic sent city swallows back to the country. In 2020, 100,000 new hunters in Michigan alone took up guns, arrows and crossbows to ensure a fresh supply of meat for the table, reconnect with nature or find something to do when the malls close, says Dustin Isenhoff , researcher at the Michigan Department. of Natural Resources. With 1 to 3 percent declines in most years since the mid-1990s, hunter-gatherer numbers increased by 5.5 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, he says.

“The pandemic was the best [recruiting] an initiative that anyone could have come up with, ”says Jeff Pritzl, deer program specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Hunter numbers in Wisconsin rose by about 2 percent in 2020 from 2019, to 669,813, he says, with women making up as many as a quarter of the new entrants. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has no post-pandemic numbers, but hunters nationwide dropped to 11.5 million in 2016 from 13.7 million in 2011.

“Lack of time and lack of access” explained the decline before Covid, says Isenhoff. “But the pandemic represented a forced reallocation and re-prioritization of time,” he adds: “School sports were canceled, movie theaters closed, and people reconsidered ‘what’s important to me’.”

“I’ve never seen so many people in the woods,” says Jeramie Hotz, 53, a Wisconsin deer hunter-cum-advertising manager who says he eats every deer he shoots. There’s a new “hunting at lunch” mentality among the work-from-home crowd, he says. “People say, ‘I’m going to have an extended lunch today and shoot a pheasant,’ or ‘I’m going to see if I can scare a deer during lunch.’

Hotz and those like him see deer hunting as a form of conservation – herds need to be managed to protect habitat. He says many hunters develop over time, from the youth when they are in it for the “bragging right” to throw down a big goat, to more mature hunters who spend the pre-dawn hours in a quiet hiding place and the commitment appreciated with nature.

But if you love nature so much, why do not you look at the goat, why shoot it? I ask Mitch Baker, 45, a carpenter and lifelong Wisconsin hunter. “That’s a fair question,” Baker replied. “I have a complicated relationship with the fact that I’m killing something, but at some point I have to think of it as food.”

Baker says he feels a “deep reverence” for the animal: “The first thing we do is kneel down next to him and say thank you to him and say a prayer for it and give time for appreciation” – and then he places it carefully for the animal. unavoidable Facebook photo “so it does not look grotesque”.

“Everyone draws their own line,” Pritzl says. “My wife went hunting deer until she shot one and then she never did it again – but she eats the venison of the deer I shoot. And my daughter is a vegetarian, unless that’s something I killed.

“I accept that maintaining my life requires the termination of other lives,” Pritzl says. He adds that if nature is left to its own devices to limit herd numbers, as advocated by some animal rights groups, deer would suffer more than by being hunted responsibly.

Will the “Covid-hump” Midwest deer hunt keep alive until boomers’ grandchildren can build their own greener traditions around it? Pritzl says Wisconsin lost about half of the profits it made in hunter numbers in 2020 in 2021 and Michigan fell 3.4 percent from the year before. But both states still had more hunters last year than before the pandemic.

For Wisconsinites, hunting is a “quality of life” issue, Pritzl says. “You are more aware of the natural world and your place in it.” He says 20 people are most ripe for recruitment – “they are more interested in where their food comes from.”

The author is a contributing columnist based in Chicago

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