The Deer Paradox

It’s never been easier to shoot a buck. So why are hunters spending billions on high-tech gear?

R. Kikuo Johnson

Here are some curious facts. One: more white-tailed deer live in the United States today than at any other time in history. Two: fewer hunters are going after them than did even 20 years ago. And yet, three: deer hunting now rivals military combat in its technological sophistication. Outfitters’ shelves are crammed with advanced electronics, weaponry, chemicals, and camouflage, all designed to eliminate every last shred of chance from the pursuit. The average American hunter now spends nearly $2,500 a year on the sport, despite the fact that finding a deer to kill has literally never been easier.

Killing a deer 100 years ago would have been quite difficult. Across much of the whitetail’s natural range—more or less everything east of the Rockies—intensive small-scale farming had eliminated huge swaths of habitat. Deer were so scarce that some communities imported them to keep hunting a viable pursuit. But as America industrialized, millions of farms disappeared and were replaced by a patchwork of leafy suburbs and secondary-growth forests.

This new landscape was ideal whitetail habitat. Deer rebounded and, as anyone living in a leafy neighborhood knows, are now an epidemic. Fairfax County, Virginia, reports a population density of up to 100 deer per square mile. As many as 30 million of them roam the country at large. Across their range, deer trample gardens, host disease-carrying ticks, and further damage the already stressed ecosystems in which they swarm. Stripping forest understory of nearly everything green, whitetail herds destroy habitat vital to songbirds and other creatures. Earlier this year, The New York Times ran an op-ed titled “Why Bambi Must Go.” Hordes of deer, the author explained, are endangering warblers.

Hunters, on the other hand, are scarcer than they once were. After decades of decline, fewer than 14 million Americans are active hunters today. In 1991, about 1 in 13 adults hunted; today, just 1 in 18 do. Hunters are also getting older: their average age is about 46 and keeps inching up. Like the deer, they have spread far beyond their traditional habitat. More than half of hunting-license holders now live in suburbs and cities, where they face a new challenge: gaining access to hunting land. As Lindsay Thomas Jr., the director of communications at the Quality Deer Management Association, put it, “The average non-hunting citizen does not think of deer hunting as being an activity that is compatible with their subdivision.” Outside of town, the disappearance of small farms has meant the loss of traditional hunting spots; it’s hard to ask Archer Daniels Midland for permission to stalk the back pasture. Moreover, many paper and lumber companies are selling off their woodlands for residential and commercial development. That leaves fewer acres of these vast, semi-wild tracts available for hunters to lease during deer season. Now they must buy a piece of land or move on. The deer stay.

But these difficulties notwithstanding, the actual business of hunting is booming, and it is increasingly dominated by a few big chain stores. One of the largest of the mega-outfitters, Cabela’s, saw its annual sales grow from $500 million in the late 1990s to $2.8 billion today. It also established the now-standard practice of building elaborate “destination stores” to draw customers. Walking into a Cabela’s, you are greeted by classic hunting-lodge decor (wood beams, stone fireplaces), aerial displays (some stuffed geese on the wing, or maybe a bush plane), and the signature attraction, an artificial mountain bedecked with taxidermied big-game animals.

You also find that advanced hunting arsenal. The chemical-weapons aisle alone boasts such products as Dead Down Wind ScentPrevent e3 Field Spray (“Prevents human odors from forming”), Team Fitzgerald Deer Dander Attractant (“Makes you smell like the deer you pursue”), and Wildlife Research Center Special Golden Estrus—that’s bottled urine, “taken right from does brought into heat early through the use of hormones and lighting conditions.” Autonomous, infrared-triggered trail cameras such as the Reconyx Hyperfire HC500 help with surveillance. Target-acquisition systems include the Leupold RX‑1000i TBR Compact Digital Laser Rangefinder With DNA, and ATN Aries MK‑410 Spartan Nightvision Riflescope, which promises “resolution beyond current military standards.”

All this at a time when old-fashioned car bumpers bag 1.5 million deer each year. Tom Gallagher, Cabela’s purchasing director, understands the game that’s being played. “It’s no different than the club that’ll drive the ball the longest, the bat that’ll hit the ball the longest, the weight-loss drug that’ll lose you the most weight,” he told me. “Americans love anything that’ll give them an opportunity.”

We also love a sure thing. Hunters took down more than 6 million whitetails in 2011. An old military joke comes to mind: the enemy is all around us—this time he shall not get away.