The last time I shot a deer it was 2018. That was the first year we lived in a condo. So when I headed to deer camp I had to walk two blocks on the near west side to my car while carrying my deer rifle. A young woman was coming the other way on the sidewalk. I braced for a nasty glare at the least and a lecture at the worst. Instead, she smiled and said, “Good luck.” Her dad must be a hunter, I thought, as I breathed a sigh of relief.
The next day I got a very nice buck on opening morning. I decided that I didn’t know where the next big buck was coming from and I had always wanted one of those mounted deer heads. (Full disclosure: my wife did not.) So, when I took the deer to Rhonda in Richland Center (Rhonda works out of her tiny garage) to have the deer butchered, I asked her to preserve the head.
On Monday of that year I stopped at Rhonda’s to pick up my deer, now transformed into a box of steaks and roasts all neatly packaged in Zip Lock bags. The head was in its own box, exposed but sitting in a plastic bag.
From there I headed northeast to Crivitz and a second deer camp that I had been invited to that year. I had offered to drop one of the young hunters in our camp in Stevens Point, where he was going to school, since it was pretty much on the way to Crivitz. After I dropped him off I got on my phone and searched for a taxidermist, but first I needed to have the lymph nodes removed and sent off for chronic wasting disease testing.
I found a butcher shop that would do that for me. When I arrived they asked me to wait outside until a butcher could come out and take care of it. So, I’m standing on a sidewalk in front of a butcher shop in Stevens Point with a box of a deer head at my feet. A grandmotherly woman came toward the store and once again I girded myself for rebuke. Instead, she smiled and said, “Nice buck.”
My point is that in Wisconsin deer hunting is baked into the culture. The anti-hunting days of the 1980s when protesters would tie mannequins dressed in blaze orange to their bumpers and parade around the Square on opening day are long gone. For the most part, the local foods movement and a more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between high deer populations and ecological and agricultural damage has made deer hunting at least acceptable, if not revered, to the vast majority of Wisconsinites.
But it’s not just killing deer and it’s not just herd management. It’s part of the state’s culture. And one part of that culture has been lost in recent years. Until a few years ago, the DNR required successful hunters to produce the body. Cervid habeas corpus. You had to physically transport your deer to a registration station where data was recorded and a metal tag was attached to the animal, proving that the deer was legally taken. Ever after it was butchered, you were supposed to keep that tag with your venison in your freezer.
That in itself was important because it heavily discouraged poaching. But showing up at the registration stations was a big part of the culture as well. Hunters would gather at the stations, mostly after sunset, and while they waited around to have their deer registered they’d examine the other hunters’ deer, share stories of the day’s hunt and just generally form a deer hunting community. They did that against their will since most deer hunters would never think about — or admit it if they did — forming any kind of deer hunting support group. It happened naturally and it was a good thing.
And there was another thing about those stations. They were usually at country stores or taverns. The proprietors were paid some small fee for registering deer, but the real profit was in the stuff they could sell to hunters while they waited. It was a passive rural economic development program.
Then it all went away. The DNR decided that it would join the digital age. Now you can register your deer right from your deer stand, assuming you can get cell phone reception. Not only do you not have to produce the body, you don’t even have to tag the deer in the field.
No question about it; it works slick. It’s fast and easy and it saves the DNR some money as they don’t have to pay shopkeepers and tavern owners to be deer registrants. But I wonder, with the impersonal, distanced nature of the registration, whether this doesn’t breed a nonchalance about killing deer. Taking a big animal like that — an animal that does not belong to you, but the public at large — should require some effort. Killing a deer comes with responsibility and among those responsibilities is to prove to your fellow citizens that you did it legally and according to the rules. Producing the body was an important part of that ritual.
I don’t suppose the registration stations (they still exist, but to much more limited extent and they get little use) will ever return. By now a whole generation of hunters, raised in a digital world, know no other system than online registration.
But license sales, while still over a half million, have been steadily decreasing, this year by another 2 percent. Deer hunting is full of rituals and traditions and when we lop one off it makes the whole thing somewhat less special. The loss of mandatory physical registration has weakened the community of hunters that, for a lot of us, is the main reason we hunt in the first place.
Sometimes, efficiency comes with a big cost and progress really isn’t that at all.
It’s the last day of the traditional gun deer season in Wisconsin. This piece originally appeared in Isthmus.
Welcome to Midwest, an occasional Sunday morning feature here at YSDA, where we explore what’s good about the center. Want to read more about why it’s best to be in the middle? Pick up a copy of Light Blue: How center-left moderates can build an enduring Democratic majority.