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Age, Disease And A Love Of Deer Hunting

I have hunted deer for more years than I have been married, have been a father or have held full-time jobs.

Now, I think that I am done. But I am having a hard time letting go.

I will be 75 years old this year. I can still shoot well enough to blast a home intruder backward through the front door with both barrels of a 12-gauge shotgun. I no longer feel as confident , however, about bringing down a deer quartering and leaping away from me as I squint through a scope and sleet.

I could restrict myself to shooting only at stationary deer, within 25 yards or so. Sure, I could. But I might not. I am all too well aware of the effects of adrenaline, which caused wild-shooting “buck fever” in my youth.

I know myself well enough to be concerned that, in the heat of the moment, I won’t restrict myself. That could result in a suffering, wounded deer doomed to a lingering death, or worse, death or injury to a person.

I have had a lifelong love affair with deer hunting. I am not a trophy hunter, or a dedicated hunter. Just getting afield and enjoying the outdoors has been a big part of hunting for me. But my wife and I both enjoy eating venison, and I have come home with a deer about every other year or so for the past few decades.

When does the time come to end hunting with lethal weapons or, for that matter, driving potentially lethal vehicles?

I can still go to the gym, work outdoors in half-day chunks, get down onto the floor and play with grandchildren. My eyesight, though no longer acute, is clear enough. So I can still drive a motor vehicle safely.

But shouldering a weapon that can kill someone standing a mile away? I might not take that chance any longer. There is no pressing need, and there is a sense that I would rather miss a deer season than hit another human being.

That is the major reason why I might not hunt deer again.

There is another reason, a gnawing worry that could dramatically change what it is like for all of us here in Penn’s Woods.

Another couple dozen wild deer in Pennsylvania have been found to be infected with chronic wasting disease, according to the Game Commission.

There is no evidence that the disease infects humans, though it is an always fatal and currently incurable cousin of the “mad cow” disease that panicked entire nations a decade ago.

There is no evidence that the disease will never affect humans, either.

But its spread among deer could foreshadow crossing the species barrier to coyotes, to vultures, to … humans?

What will happen to our culture if other, younger hunters come to the same conclusion?

Many people’s jobs depend on deer hunting and deer hunters.

If hunters stop shooting deer, the deer population is sure to surge — and so is the spread of disease, including the wasting disease as well as diseases borne by deer ticks.

If hunters stop flooding our fields and woodlands, a chunk of culture will have to change for entire regions, in Pennsylvania and in other states.

Yes, there are other species to hunt: bear, turkey, small game, elk, etc. But deer are just about ideal as a prey species for human hunters. They are large enough to yield generous amounts of meat for food. They are small enough and wary enough to not pose much danger to humans. They coexist with farmers and livestock if their numbers are kept under control.

I don’t know what west-central Pennsylvania will be like if deer hunting declines or disappears. I do know that life will be different, in ways that transcend the usual November-December main deer hunting seasons. Many of us only go into fields or woodlands during hunting seasons. We’ll lose that link to nature.

We’ll also lose state game lands, paid for by hunting license revenues. We’ll lose habitats for other species of wildlife, paid for by hunting license revenues. We’ll risk more deer-vehicle crashes on highways, perhaps enough to prompt reclassifying deer as pests to be eliminated.

For me, as for many aging hunters, it is clear that if we live long enough, many of us ought to give up the pastime that has brought us so much satisfaction through the decades.

But for younger hunters?

Just writing this column has made me sad. I recall hunting, getting ready for hunting, coming back from hunting, talking about hunting, shopping for hunting, eating after hunting. I began to hunt as a kid, with people who today, decades later, still count as among my best, lifelong friends. I nurtured and deepened my relationships with three sons and many of their friends during those youth mentoring years. I still enjoy bantering with neighbors and friends about hunting, year after year.

But “year after year” makes us think that things stay the same. They don’t. We change. Nature changes.

And there comes a time….

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Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: denny2319@windstream.net.

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