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Beauty and Goonery Hunting Public in NY (Conservation Series Pt. 1)

I didn’t write much last week because I was out doing what I love, hanging from a tree, playing the chess match that is hunting for whitetails. I’m blessed this year to have a wonderful work schedule and an even more wonderful partner, both of which basically allows me to go out whenever I’d like, and I’ve been taking full advantage of that. I have five spots in my rotation this year. Three are on public land and one is on semi-public land (anyone with a valid license can apply to be part of a deer management program in the Ithaca area). Two are brand new spots that I know very little about other than the presence of some fresh sign and a general hunch that there are a good amount of deer in the area, two are spots that I hunted last year and did quite a bit of scouting in the off-season and have quite a bit of data about, and one is near our family cabin, a spot that I have been hunting for most of my life, which may not have a huge herd but always has some deer. I think it’s a perfect combination to keep things fresh while keeping the hunting pressure to a minimum, and I’ve been getting some action every time I’ve gone out.

I’ve also been reading quite a bit for my third and final field exam, the topic of which being American nature writing and memoir, which will be the topic of my dissertation and first book – six chapters of which are already published in various literary journals and can be found under the publications section of the site (excuse the shameless self-plug). I’ve been reading plenty of the classics, including Emerson, Muir, Thoreau, and Aldo Leopold and some more contemporary writers like John Gierach, Barry Lopez, Bill McKibben (a new favorite) and Steve Rinella. Three books that stick out so far are Rinella’s American Buffalo, Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, and an incredible book by Dean Kuiper’s titled The Deer Camp (which I stumbled upon by total accident and would recommend to anyone, outdoorsman or otherwise.) I haven’t finished it yet, but I think it has secured its place as one of my favorite books of all-time.

All these wonderful books and the beginning of the new deer season have got me thinking quite a bit about the impacts of all these early environmental writings, conservation, and hunting on public land, so much so that I’ve decided to write a series of articles about the aforementioned, of which this is the first installment of three. Hunting public in the Southern Zone of New York can be particularly challenging. Where I used to live in Orange County, there are only two pieces of huntable public land, both of which are absolutely horrifying during rifle season. There are some good chunks of public near or in Broome County that I’ve been exploring, but its nothing even close to some of the Western states that brag over 50% public land, chunks large enough you could spend your whole life exploring and still not even see half of it.

The chunks of land here are often pretty small and not off the grid by any means – not that this really matters for whitetails anyway since they love transition zones, but it can definitely burst that in the woods away from it all feeling. The lack of huge swathes of public land and the closeness many of these spots are to the road have lead me to observe some pretty goony situations. Once the leaves fall, I often can see cars passing on nearby roads from my tree stand and have heard people beeping and screaming at each other while driving by. I’ve been close enough to houses that I can hear entire conversations, my favorite of which last year being something involving a dad getting stuck in some kind of precarious situation with a four-wheeler and screaming for his son to come help him for about a half hour before he showed up. They aren’t good neighbors, have cut down trees on our property with tree-stands in them, and have threatened to shoot our dog more once, so I didn’t feel very compelled to help him out. I’ve seen guys in lawn chairs with coolers of beer with rifles sitting in the middle of a trail. My brother saw DEC arrest two guys hunting for bears over bait, caught because his an entire car was full of empty honey jars and boxes of various cereals visible to any passerby. Last year, I had a buck coming in on a string to one of my doe bleats early in the rut, only to spook when someone in a very nearby house started shredding the blues on a guitar. The guitarist was very talented and played for about an hour, but apparently deer do not really appreciate this sort of thing. Recently, one hot-spot I believed I “discovered” (I think we all feel this way when we find a new spot hunting or fishing) has three other treestands within 50 yards of mine that I didn’t notice until my third hunt in the area.

There’s nothing I could do in any of these situations except shake my head and sigh, accepting this is just part of the deal here. All this goonery aside, I’m super grateful for these little chunks of land. The ability to go out and use these pieces of public land, and hunting white tails in general (which were brought back from a population of about ~500,000 at the turn of the century to approximately 15-20 million animals today) are a result of the success of the North American Model of Conservation. This model, created in part by Teddy Roosevelt (whose impact on conservation and complicated legacy will earn its own article, the next installment in the series) John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and the work of many biologists has been wildly successful in restoring many species, such as elk, white-tailed deer, and wild turkeys, and the saving the land they inhabit from various forms of development through the creation of federally managed public land, currently around 610 million acres in the United States. This model is centered around the idea that wildlife is a public, democratic resource to be managed by federal and state governments using policy guided by science, and that anyone should be able to utilize this resource for legitimate purposes only, prohibiting killing of wildlife and wasting the resource.

This being said, the model does have some criticisms I find interesting regarding predators in particular. I was just listening to a podcast on The Hunting Collective, (Ep. 82 A Contentious Interview With Grizzly Bear Attack Survivor and Wildlife Advocate Barrie K. Gilbert) in which a grizzly bear biologist stated in not so many words that the North American Model is anti-predator, citing public and hunter opinions on grizzly bears and wolves as examples. He was very critical about some states in the lower 48 considering opening up grizzly bear hunting being that the population is now considered “stable” and in recovery having doubled in population in recent years, despite the fact that this doubling was only from about 300 to 600 animals. He also discussed interesting points regarding how wealthy ranchers and hunters can/have shaped some of these anti-predator policies, both of whom having an obvious self-interest in the removal of predators from the landscape by having less of their livestock killed or by having a higher population of ungulates for hunters to hunt.

I think he had some interesting points, and I feel conflicted about predator management. Here in New York, there is a small population of coyotes, about 20,000-30,000 animals, but they are allowed to be hunted over bait, with a spotlight at night, and there is no bag limit. Although the exploding deer population would certainly benefit from more predator pressure in many ways, finding a deer carcass on our property in Deposit that was been eaten by coyotes earlier in the year still filled me with a sense of disappointment and dread about the future of the small herd there. Additionally, this all makes me wonder about the future of predator restoration. Some areas are loosely seeking to restore species to their pre-European contact ranges, but there are several species myself and others would absolutely not want returned to prevalence, in particular mountain lions. Although I’ve met more than a few folks that claim to have seen one recently, mountain lions have been extirpated in New York since the late 1800s. Do I want them to be restored to the landscape? Absolutely not; I rather enjoy being able to walk around here in the Northeast without the worry of predator becoming prey that I feel in many Western states.

Although the model will have to mitigate these questions in the future, the ability to pick a chunk on a map and go hunt, hike, fish, or whatever else on it is an incredible resource. I often think about what my season would look like without public lands. It would probably entail a lot of begging random people and over-hunting a spot or two, at the whim of a landowner who can change their mind at any point, or trying to convince ten buddies to help purchase very expensive land leases. I’d like to get out West in the next few years, make the switch from still hunting to mountain hunting, and begin exploring those millions of public acres, which I’m more than sure have problems all their own, but in the mean time, I’ll just keep appreciating the beauty and the goonery of New York’s public lands watching the seasons turn hanging from a tree.

Further Reading and Sources:

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