Whitetail deer populations on the Great Plains, like so much of life in the region, are a boom-and-bust proposition. Not being a wildlife biologist, I speak from the experience of a long life connected to the land and its history when I say, this is the nature of things in our place.
I suspect whitetails were not all that abundant prior to white settlement of the prairies, nor was settlement kind to them. Hungry homesteaders pretty much wiped them out, leaving the prairies bereft of deer early in the twentieth century. Deer hunters of the plains traveled to the mountain west or the eastern woodlands for their sport.
That word, “sport” - I use it advisedly. Deer hunting became no longer a matter of subsistence, but one of recreation. This made it amenable to regulation and conservation, which the plains states implemented parcel to progressive prairie values.
“Sport” also invokes a set of ideas propounded by people like Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell. Big game hunters all of them, trophy-oriented, they derided those who shot game for subsistence or, worse, for market. Their elitism is not an attractive feature, but they labored for conservation and wildlife. They developed what is often called the “Code of the Sportsman” to govern responsible relationships with nature.
As a hunter of more than a half-century standing, I observe most of the conservationist values of Roosevelt and Grinnell. As a representative of the settler society, on the other hand, I perpetuate the connection between shooting sport and table fare. In fact I consider that connection vital both to good sporting values and a good regional culture.
This year’s winter doe hunt, obviously, was not a trophy hunt. It was a matter of connections - with people and the land - and it produced a freezer full of venison. I confess, as a historian, taking a certain delight that I filled my tag using a Model 94 Winchester 30/30 with a peep sight, old-school, firing old-school 150-grain bullets, not these newfangled high-velocity cartridges.
This meant taking a deer at close range, with none of the clinical detachment of telescopic sights. It meant taking care of the meat, valuing it, and using it with with respect. There are many thousands of plains folk like me, who improve on the values of homesteader and conservationist by combining the best of both.
Fortunately, I live with a woman who is tolerant of coexistence with this type of prairie sportsman. Indeed, she consumes the product, most of it, with relish.
She draws the line at moose. Born and raised in the interior of Alaska, she forbids me to bring home a moose. She knows once you admit moose meat to your home, you’re going to be living with it for a long time.
So venison it is for winter fare: venison sauerbraten, venison with cranberries, venison colorado, venison chorizo, venison Swiss steak, blackened venison, venison chili.
Respect for the game means learning to handle and prepare the meat deftly and artfully. That final stage, from freezer to table, brings the venison chronicles to a fulfilling conclusion. More on that, the tasty details, in a future essay.