Deer and wild turkey were certainly on the first Thanksgiving table, but the traditional menu through time came to feature the delicious fowl that is easily farmed in abundance.
The turkey remained a holiday icon while the significance of the white-tailed deer in the public mind faded as numbers dwindled.
By the late 1930s, only 20,000 deer remained in Florida, state wildlife officials estimate. Throughout the South, many rural residents, even the coon and rabbit hunters who tromped through the woods, never saw one.
The wild turkey was no better off. In 1900, only 30,000 birds survived nationwide, and they did so by hiding themselves in the country’s most remote corners.
Now the deer and turkey are back in a big way. The country has 7 million wild turkeys and 15 million deer. In Florida alone, hunters bag more than 130,000 deer a year.
The economic impact far exceeds the venison consumed. Hunters buy licenses and lease hunting land. They shop for hunting clothes, ammunition and camping gear. When they talk about a “rifle,” most U.S. hunters mean a deer rifle.
By one estimate, hunters as a group spend $1,500 for each deer harvested.
Hunters are also a strong constituency for land conservation and pollution control, which benefits us all. The importance of deer to the early Native Americans is told in the fossil records. Where deer were plentiful, the human population was most dense.
Now, because of its prolific rebound, the deer is the continent’s most important game animal. Because it is the biggest animal most Southern hunters get a chance to stalk, it has gained a cultural importance lost on many of us non-hunters.
Deer are a challenging quarry because they are so alert to every scent and sound. Especially during hunting season, they summon an almost magical ability to disappear. They can sprint through the brush at speeds up to 47 mph.
The more they are hunted, the harder they become to hunt, and thus the more desirable they become to hunters.
Throughout much of America, hunting deer is a major source of recreation, family bonding, conversation, and anticipation. The opening of deer season is in places cause for celebration.
In most wild areas, hunters and other predators such as the coyote keep the deer population fairly stable. It is no coincidence that the coyote has returned to Florida and the South along with the deer and turkey.
Because local deer populations and problems vary greatly and change year to year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is right to begin emphasizing a more localized approach to setting hunting rules.
In many suburbs and towns throughout the South, the deer population is dangerously high. The resourceful whitetail has learned to thrive near houses, where it is shot only by photographers. The fast-growing herds that romp across lawns and residential streets are rightly called an infestation. Deer will eat grass, seedlings, flowers and your vegetable garden.
The problem is so bad in North Carolina that 44 towns and cities, the Charlotte Observer reports, have opened a deer season for archers. The logic is that the limited use of short-range bows is safer than allowing the suburban herds a totally safe haven in which to breed.
It is an innovation worth considering elsewhere. Typically, urban hunters are limited to private land with the owner’s permission.
The hunters are welcome partly because deer are so hard on landscaping. But it’s mostly an issue of highway safety. Of more than 20,000 vehicle-animal accidents reported in North Carolina last year, 90 percent involved deer.
According to claims made for collision insurance, more than 1.1 million deer a year are hit by cars, and the damage to the vehicle can be catastrophic. About 14,000 deer a year are hit on Florida roads, far lower than the average in the East. Pennsylvania’s deer accidents exceeded 115,000.
Clearly, hunting is a good way to keep the adaptive and potentially dangerous deer in check.
It is believed five deer, taken from primeval forests, were served on the first Thanksgiving. In its 2013 report, the Quality Deer Management Association estimates U.S. hunters thinned the herds by 6.2 million animals.
No one should begrudge them this bounty, which is our responsibility to manage and our heritage to enjoy.