I’ll have you know my passion is for wild places & wild things, both of which are centered around wildlife. I love to hunt. Immersing myself in nature for extended periods of time to divest myself of the marauding demands of modernism while interacting with wildlife on their terms to feed my family, is difficult to put into words.
Recently, my brother in-law, a few of my best buddies from all corners of the country and I converged in western Kansas for a long-anticipated whitetail deer hunt. It was sure to be filled with great camaraderie and the traditional deer camp fare, which is almost certain to never be traditional or even the same from year to year. Taking turns, each guy’s favorite, newest, fondest, wildest recipes of fresh shrimp, venison, bison, elk, etc, are shared around the table after long days afield. My good friend Jeff, from NC, happened into Farmer Alan in western KS over a decade ago and makes the 23 hr trek every December for the same reasons as I: plentiful game and wide open spaces.
A simple, perfect respite.
However, as I’d soon find out, we’d have an interesting complex.
I grew up hunting around the home ranch here in NW Wisconsin. We hunt big-bodied, big-woods whitetails with relatively limited access to grain crops due to our harsher northern climate. Our place is purely native vegetation and, as a result, the game is mild and sweet tasting. I’ve also skinned, cleaned and cut a passel of our home-raised bison in my days on the processing floor. Our bison meat is succulent and a pleasure to work with. As I grew older, I spread my wings and soared west with my dreams to the high plains and Rockies of Northern New Mexico. Another no-place-for-grain climate. We’d hunt those mountains hard, eventually taking a deer, elk or antelope. The “sweet smell of success” has always been in reference to the mild, tender, nutritionally-dense protein. We sometimes actually slice off a chunk of lean, clean, tender backstrap to shave thin and enjoy raw in celebration of the pounds and pounds of amazing primal protein we’d just been blessed with.
On the 3rd morning of our Kansas “Bro hunt”, I was lucky enough to take a mature buck I’d glimpsed at dusk on day 1. As he fed his way out of the cut milo field toward the river bottom, I cut the distance and was able to make a perfect shot. In that bittersweet moment, I rushed over to admire the majestic animal and pay my respects. As I neared, that old familiar “sweet smell of success” was awkwardly pungent. Regardless, I responsibly began the cleaning process. That nagging odor lingered in my nostrils. A buck harvested cleanly with a single, well placed bullet, in single digits should smell mild and slightly sweet. Farmer Alan arrived to congratulate me on my harvest and admire the deer. He stood aside with a smirk across his lips, undoubtedly feeling a sense of satisfaction that the harvest of this animal meant a few extra bushels of grain in the bin next year and a bushel basket of sausage for the freezer. I rattled off a comment thinking the buck possibly had a systemic infection or an injury abscess causing the stench.
Farmer Alan piped up,
“Don’t they all smell like that? That’s just how deer smell, isn’t it?”
We had a simple ‘comparing of notes’ session, better understanding the difference in our experiences.
Inside, I was flabbergasted.
A big, healthy buck, harvested cleanly, hosting an odor akin to acid reflux.
How is this possible? I was perplexed and continued to mull it over.
I hopped in the truck midmorning to run to town quick for a bag of ice, scanning the incredibly expansive crop land wondering what it would have felt like 200 years ago with no infrastructure and a million bison roaming
when it hit me like freight train: The environment has changed and therefor my paradigm must also…
These deer now live in a proverbial free-range feed lot.
Milo, corn, millet, soybeans, wheat for as far as the eye can see.
This is the ‘Breadbasket of America’.
This buck did have systemic issues… a surviving case of acidosis.
His entire diet was focused around unlimited access to grain.
Up to this point, I revered all wild game as superior. It’s not so simple anymore. The waters have been muddied.
The vast majority of the landscapes in our country have been invaded by the mighty plow and planter, pesticides and herbicides, fertilizer and fossil fuels. 17 hours of the 18 hour drive from our ranch in northern Wisconsin to my brother in-law’s ranch in northern New Mexico is now solid row cropping. The drive from here to western South Dakota, “the heart of buffalo country” used to be mostly native prairie ranch land, now it’s mostly grain fields. Crops are creeping into every corner of our country. This, of course, affects the health of our soils and what we see on our grocer’s shelves but also the wildlife that inhabit it and, in turn, the animals harvested by those of us who hunt for food.
As I think about it, the ranch boundaries our bison live within are a blessing.
A blessing to them and a blessing to us.
Live well this week,
Sean & the Northstar Tribe