Hunting season is dear to this state's heart

May 6, 2002 USA Today by Laura Bly
BLUE MOUND STATE PARK, Wis. -- From the crest of Blue Mound, the 1,716-foot hill that ranks as southern Wisconsin's Mount Everest, you can see Bambi heaven: mile after checkerboard mile of alfalfa fields and wooded valleys, studded with pockets of small-town backyards perfect for opportunistic grazing.

But starting this week, that Eden becomes ground zero in a radical, emotionally charged battle to wipe out thousands of white-tailed deer and prevent the spread of a deadly mad-cow-related brain disease -- and, in the process, save a cultural icon as cherished as Vince Lombardi and cheddar cheese. At stake: an annual autumn pilgrimage that draws nearly 700,000 orange-clad hunters to Wisconsin farms and forests and at least $ 233 million to state cash registers, and the biodiversity of a gentle landscape threatened by too much of a good thing.

Opening day of deer hunting season in Wisconsin "is the equivalent of the Green Bay Packers playing in the Super Bowl," says cultural anthropologist and native son Richard Nelson, author of Heart and Blood: Living With Deer in America. Schools and businesses close early. Priests hold special hunters' Masses. Local casinos advertise male strip shows to entertain the "deer widows" left behind. Eliminating that ritual, Nelson says, "would be like saying, 'We're going to call off Christmas this year.' "

Like most of her neighbors in southwest Wisconsin, Linda Derrickson grew up in a deer-hunting family. The 54-year-old farmer remembers making venison sausage in her mother's kitchen and sharing the bounty at an annual "deer feed" that capped what she calls "a tribal, community celebration of life."

But the state's plan to contain the outbreak of chronic wasting disease before it spreads is a "knee-jerk reaction" that could threaten far more than the lucrative deer-hunting business, she says.

"We know the deer herd is overpopulated, but the (Department of Natural Resources) has whipped up a paranoia over a disease we know very little about," says Derrickson, who also owns a bed-and-breakfast inn just outside Mount Horeb. She worries about the safety of residents and livestock in what could become a war zone, as well as a potential drop in tourism in an area that attracts thousands of visitors.

"As an ecologist, I'm happy to see the herd reduced," says Bob Wernerehl, a community activist whose Blue Mounds Project educates local landowners about the problems created by Wisconsin's ballooning deer population. But eradicating the disease completely, he adds, "seems like an impossible task."

Animal rights activist Patricia Randolph couldn't agree more. Madison-based Randolph says she holds no illusions about eliminating hunting in a state that "equates manhood with killing deer," but she derides the current proposal as "gratuitous slaughter."

Even avid sportsmen are leery, says Madison hunter Thomas Holt. "I think they need to act quickly to get this under control." But he won't be among those shouldering rifles in support of the cause: "It takes away from the experience" if hunters can't consume the animals they kill, he says, and it flies in the face of the deeply ingrained ethic of fair chase.

The stakes are high for hunters and non-hunters alike, says anthropologist Nelson. "Among all the animals native to this continent, deer probably evoke the tenderest and most protective sentiments," he says. "They are emblematic of wildness -- and our hearts still skip a beat whenever we see one."

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