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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Venison is the most eco-friendly food on the planet – if you hunt the deer yourself

A whitetail buck as seen in Glacier National Park.  (Courtesy of NPS)
By Tamar Haspel Special to The Washington Post

I spent the past eight months writing a book about the good things that happen when you put down your phone, roll up your sleeves and go outside to find something to eat, so I naturally also gave some thought to the environmental implications of those foods.

Turns out, one of them absolutely tops the environmental charts. It’s unequivocally the single most ecologically friendly food you can eat. A food that actually makes the environment better rather than worse.

Seriously. Literally. The food is venison. The catch, of course, is that you have to kill a deer. But stay with me here.

Lots of us are unwilling to kill a deer; I was, for a very long time. And not because I’m categorically opposed to killing animals for food. Like the vast majority of people, I’m a meat-eater, but I’m nevertheless reluctant to take the life of an animal. A cute, furry animal.

But that cute, furry animal is wreaking havoc in some parts of the United States. Let me count the ways.

They can destroy the habitat of other plants and animals: In some part of the United States, deer clear the land of every native plant they like to eat. One study done in upstate New York in 2014 found that “the impacts of deer browsing on aboveground vegetation were severe and immediate, resulting in significantly more bare soil, reduced plant biomass, reduced recruitment of woody species, and relatively fewer native species.” With those species go the insects, birds and mammals that depend on them. In Washington, deer and elk in agricultural lands often destroy valuable crops, although in recent years a spate of disease, harsh winters and drought has reduced Eastern Washington’s whitetail population.

But those researchers were at least 65 years late to the party. Back in the 1940s, pioneering conservationist Aldo Leopold watched as wolf populations declined and deer populations, delighted with the decrease in predators, skyrocketed. In his 1949 book “A Sand County Almanac,” Leopold wrote, “I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.”

If you live in deer territory and have tried to grow almost any kind of plant, you’re familiar with deer’s voraciousness. In fact, the Virginia Native Plant Society points out that suburban habitat can be even better for deer than their “natural” habitat, because “human landscapes provide high concentrations of edible plants close to the ground where the deer can get to them.”

It’s not that I want to eat deer because deer eat my Asian pears, but it sure helps me get over my acute case of cutefurryitis.

They’re harming humans: According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, around 200 people die in car crashes with animals every year and, although hard numbers are hard to come by, estimates I’ve seen indicate that the majority of those crashes involve deer. OK, that’s not up there with the Black Death, but if it’s your mom or your kid in that car, you may find your attitude toward deer changing.

Besides, death isn’t the only damage deer do. Even if you survive a car crash with a deer, your car may not. There are something like 1.5 million insurance claims every year for those collisions, according to insurer State Farm.

Then there’s Lyme disease, which is carried by deer ticks, which are carried, of course, by deer. In 2000, one community in Connecticut, overrun with deer, reversed its no-hunting ordinance, and scientists stepped in to monitor the results. Over seven years, deer density dropped 87%, and cases of Lyme disease dropped commensurately (by 80%).

They produce greenhouse gases: Deer are ruminants, like cattle, sheep and goats. They eat grass, leaves and Asian pears, and methane is a byproduct of their digestion. It’s not easy to measure methane emissions in a wild animal, but one estimate from 1986 is 15 kg of methane per deer per year.

If you look at it per animal, that’s only about one-quarter of what a beef steer emits, but a beef steer can weigh as much as 10 times what a deer weighs, so on a per-pound basis, deer are responsible for more methane than cattle.

Think about what that means. We have to grow the cattle to have beef, so you’re adding methane to the atmosphere with every steak. But the deer are wild, so you’re subtracting methane with every steak. Not only the methane that your deer will no longer be producing, but also, if it’s a doe, the methane her progeny will also not be producing.

Ready to get your hunting license? I thought not. Understanding that venison is the single-most responsible food you can eat will take you only so far in the decision to pick up a weapon and shoot Bambi. And the distaste for shooting Bambi runs so deep that some communities prefer to spend significant money and resources capturing, sterilizing and re-releasing their deer – a strategy that doesn’t seem to work. People will try anything – anything! – other than killing and eating them.

But if you’re a meat-eater (vegans get a pass here), killing the animal you’re going to eat might make you think differently about meat.

Our food supply distances us from all the things that have to happen for beef – or pork or chicken – to be what’s for dinner. We would prefer not to know the animal, and how it lived and died. It’s much easier to buy the burger, or the pork chop, or the chicken nugget, once all that work has been done by someone else, and the little cubes, unrecognizable as animals, are lined up in the nice clean display case.

That distance can harden us. From not seeing, it’s just a hop, skip and jump to not caring. We eat a lot of meat, fish, and poultry – and we waste a lot (according to the USDA, about 150 calories’ worth per person per day). Killing an animal closes the distance. I can no longer eat meat without thinking about its animal of origin and the life it led – and that makes me selective about the animals I eat and careful to waste as little as possible.

If you want venison, but you’re just not a hunter, you don’t have a lot of options because selling wild venison is nearly always illegal. There are some places where harvesters make special arrangements with government regulators to make it possible (like Maui Nui in Hawaii), but if you get your venison this way, you won’t win your gold star for climate-friendliness if it ships by air.

If you decide you do want to hunt, and everyone else does too, of course everything changes. Once the animal isn’t overpopulated, the calculus is different. But I don’t think that’s likely to happen just because I wrote about it. So think about getting your hunting license. Our world could be the better for it.