Obsessions April 2003

Overkill

"I was always interested in animals," says Thomas Venezia, recently the subject of an extensive criminal investigation stemming from his hunting practices. "I always wanted to be near them"

In a good year more than 100 million waterfowl migrate across North America (of this number some 20 million will be killed by hunters), and only a tiny percentage of these birds are banded. Robert Rooks, the chief warden for the State of Vermont, explained to me that in order to collect 300 bands "you'd have to shoot thousands of birds."

Hunting to excess is practically a New World tradition. European settlers, freshly arrived from a continent in which natural resources had been limited for centuries, were awestruck by what they encountered—seemingly endless forests, millions of buffalo, billions of passenger pigeons. In a letter written from Florida in 1831, John J. Audubon, a forefather of the conservation movement, observed, "The birds, generally speaking, appeared wild and few—you must be aware that I call birds few, when I shoot less than one hundred per day." But by the 1870s many animal populations were in free fall, and hunters were largely to blame. During a trip out west in 1848 Audubon had engaged in the popular sport of buffalo coursing, in which a rider armed with a pistol or a carbine would gallop into a herd of stampeding buffalo and kill them at point-blank range. When the shooting was over, little was taken from the carcasses but the tongues, which were considered a delicacy. Lewis Squires, one of Audubon's companions on that trip, became so enamored of the sport that he begged to stay on after Audubon continued westward. He then killed so many buffalo that he confessed himself "almost ashamed."

But Audubon saw the writing on the wall. "Before many years," he wrote in his Missouri River Journal in 1843, "the Buffalo, like the Great Auk, will have disappeared; surely this should not be permitted." It would be three decades before Congress passed protective legislation. By then the U.S. buffalo herd had been reduced to fewer than fifty animals. The passenger pigeon was not even that lucky: it was driven to extinction by a combination of habitat loss and market hunting. During a single month in 1878 market hunters took more than a billion birds from one colony in Michigan.

To say that hunters from earlier eras "didn't know any better" is both naive and revisionist: all successful hunters have an intimate understanding of their environment. American colonists in Rhode Island demonstrated that understanding as early as the 1640s, by passing a law to protect deer. By the 1700s such restrictions were common along the eastern seaboard, although they were rarely enforced. Like cod fishermen today, Americans who hunted game for profit were relentless until their quarry grew so scarce that pursuing it was no longer remunerative. By the mid-1800s deer, beaver, and wild turkey, to name just a few of the most commonly hunted animals, had been all but extirpated from the northeastern United States. Opposition to the slaughter was growing, however. The urban upper class was spawning sportsmen's clubs organized around the need for restraint—not least because their members had limited opportunities to hunt, and conservation would improve their chances of bagging something. Meanwhile, market hunters were shooting all week long, sometimes with light cannon that could bring down a hundred geese at a time. The clash between the working-class market hunter and the wealthy, politically connected recreational hunter laid the groundwork for the culture of conservation that exists today. It also provides background for understanding the intense hostility that Thomas Venezia engendered in Vermont's close-knit, highly disciplined waterfowling community.

Venezia was a commercial guide in a state that has no guiding tradition. Unlike its neighbors Maine and New Hampshire, Vermont has no licensing or certification requirements for hunting guides—and although the Missisquoi River delta, in northwestern Vermont, boasts some of the finest waterfowling in New England, Venezia was the only person working there as a professional hunting guide. His talents as a salesman were instrumental in both his success and his downfall as a hunter. Like salesmen, serious hunters are deeply concerned with territory. Ideally, they want at their disposal a large area that is attractive to game and inaccessible to other hunters. Public land doesn't always fulfill the second criterion, so an ambitious hunter may try to secure exclusive access to private land. Leasing private land for this purpose is standard operating procedure in the American South, but it is a relatively new practice in Vermont, one of the few states in which hunting is still considered a right rather than a privilege: all of the state's private rural land is open to hunting unless bans have formally been posted. Leasing arrangements for posted land are often under-the-table deals sealed with cash and a handshake, and Venezia approached them with his characteristic zeal. "Tom is a master negotiator, a master bargainer," Bradley Carleton told me. "He drove the roads and found the fields and got permission like no one you've ever known."

Venezia's persistence paid off. By the mid-1990s he had secured exclusive rights to large swaths of prime hunting land across Vermont and New York. "Other guides and locals were really upset," recalls a hunter who assisted Venezia on guiding trips, "because he would move into areas they were already hunting on, or he'd get on land they'd never been able to hunt."

In the Champlain Valley, which straddles western Vermont and eastern New York, April still qualifies as winter: leafless forests rise like gray stubble over the white hills, and spring feels a long way off. Despite the recent sprouting of McMansions on the farmland around some of the area's bigger towns, the largest manmade structures on the landscape tend to be barns, and many of them are still owned by families who have been working the land for generations.

One local farmer, Bud Bodette, raises cows on the banks of Hospital Creek, in Addison County, Vermont. He has lived in the area for more than sixty years, and has seen a lot of changes. "I used to be a pothunter," he told me one spring. "I hunted to put game in the frying pan. But people look down on that now." Bodette is one of the landowners Venezia paid for hunting rights, and he believes it was Venezia's leasing arrangements, rather than his hunting practices, that drew the sustained attention of state and federal agents. "Tom stepped on a lot of toes—a lot of important toes," Bodette told me. "Game wardens competed for this land too, and they have connections. Somebody had to have some clout to have a federal agent on Tom for that long."

Some of the toes that got stepped on may have belonged to Bill Crenshaw, who has been a state wildlife biologist since 1973. Diligent and soft-spoken, Crenshaw is well respected by wardens and hunters alike. He's also a duck hunter and a good friend of Bodette's. For years Bodette had given him permission to hunt a blind on Hospital Creek. In the early 1990s Venezia leased hunting rights to Bodette's land. He invited Crenshaw to stay on, but only if he agreed to share the leasing cost. Crenshaw declined and was forced to hunt elsewhere. "When you're a hunter who's always asked permission and made an effort to have good relations with the landowner," Crenshaw told me, "it stings to lose a spot you've hunted for years."

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