How Wild is Your Game?

Feature Stories Fall 2010 Issue

How Wild is Your Game?

By Dan Johnson | Photo By Bill Lubing 0

In my arms, I held the symbol of our nation. As a recent wildlife biology graduate from Colorado State University in the early 1990s, it was my job with the Colorado Division of Wildlife to climb old cottonwoods and ponderosa pines to the base of an eagle’s aerie and figure a way into the overhanging nest. After what typically amounted to a trapeze act and a climb up a makeshift ladder made of nylon webbing, I would pull myself into the nest and the company of rotting fish, furry animal parts, ants—and one to three baby bald eagles. Moving slowly and then snatching quickly, I would catch each eaglet and individually transport them in a duffle bag down to waiting biologists who would place a numbered band on one of their legs, measure and weigh them, take a blood sample and then send them back up to the nest. All of this was being done to monitor the success of our national symbol as its population rebounded from near extinction in the lower 48 states, due in part to the pesticide DDT.

In the 1940s and 50s, DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was hailed as a panacea for controlling insect borne diseases and helping farmers combat pests in their fields. It was, in fact, such an efficient insect poison that its discoverer, Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1948. Not known at that time were the future effects DDT would have upon the reproductive success of raptors, such as the bald eagle and peregrine falcon.

Sprayed either directly on wetlands to control mosquitoes or washed into rivers and streams from agricultural fields, DDT became more concentrated as it moved up the food chain from insects to small fish and mammals, to larger fish and mammals, and eventually to the bald eagle at the top. In bald eagles, DDT and its metabolite DDE affected calcium metabolism, which caused eggshell thinning, the accidental crushing of eggs by adult birds and, consequently, reproductive failure.

With the banning of DDT in the U.S. in 1972, along with the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and earlier laws that protected the eagle and its habitat, our national symbol went from “endangered” to a success story of species recovery with their de-listing from the ESA in 2007.

A few years after my work as a tree climber, I hid at dusk at the scrubby edge of a southern Iowa soybean field. In the fading autumn light, I watched as a small herd of white-tailed deer left the security of the woods to browse in the beans. I set my sights on a small buck, took aim and fired. The deer dropped in the field, and I quickly moved to its side to begin field dressing it for transport back home for hanging and eventual butchering. During this process I reflected upon the reality of meat eating, life and death, venison chili, smoked meat, the combine that would be coming any day to harvest the beans, and how the flavor of deer meat can be influenced by what it consumes: wild native plants leading to a “gamey” taste or agricultural crops that can mellow the flavor and add a little more fat.

And then it occurred to me: This deer, like the eagles, was being exposed to the chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides used on this field and the majority of the 320 million acres (an area three times the size of California) of principal crops like corn and soybeans grown across the United States. Unlike domesticated livestock, there was nothing keeping this deer or other wildlife from feeding in or traveling through fields immediately after chemicals were applied, or anytime thereafter. Considering this, the potential for the impact upon wildlife became looming.

It goes without saying that the longest reigning meat influencing the diet of the region we know today as Wisconsin is venison. From the time of the Paleo-Indians 10,000 years ago, to the first European settlers, to Wisconsinites today, the consumption of venison has allowed humans to survive and flourish. For many, deer hunting is as much a part of Wisconsin culture as the Packers, cheese, brats and beer—although, it should be noted that all of these add to the enjoyment and culture of today’s deer hunting experience. And while we may be the badger state, the white-tailed deer is our state’s official “wildlife animal.”

Economically, deer hunting and hunting and fishing in general annually contribute approximately 1 billion and 1.5 billion dollars, respectively, to Wisconsin’s economy, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). An estimated 450,000 deer are harvested each year from a heard of approximately 1 million animals. To put this in perspective, if each deer provided an average of 50 pounds of meat, the annual deer hunt would provide 22.5 million pounds of venison. For Wisconsin’s 5.5 million residents that would be equal to about 4 pounds of meat per person. Of course among deer hunters and their families, their annual consumption of venison can be several times higher.

Venison is typically referred to as “wild,” “natural” and “healthy” when describing both the source and quality of the meat. It is automatically assumed that because wild ranging game are free from the fences and confines of domestication, that they are less impacted by human contaminates and manipulation and are, therefore, better for you. The meat is about as lean as it gets due to both the genetics and active lifestyle of the deer, and wild deer most certainly do not receive any antibiotics or hormones as domesticated livestock sometimes do. However, is venison truly more “natural” and “healthy” then other meats? Could it qualify as “organic,” a label—unlike “natural”—that is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and backed by third party verification?

As Bonnie Wideman, executive director of Midwest Organic Services Association (MOSA), a non-profit organic certifying agency, points out, “White-tailed deer could not be certified as organic in the wild because their diet cannot be monitored.” Ten million Wisconsin acres are cropland, and organic crops make up only half of one percent of that total. This means potentially 28 percent of the state is applied with chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides—and deer and wildlife have access to almost all of it. The real question, then, is whether this in any way threatens the health of deer and those of us who enjoy eating them.

What Does the Science Say?
Back in the mid-1980s, the WDNR monitored contaminants in wild game including white-tailed deer, and released a paper entitled “Environmental Contaminant Monitoring of Wisconsin Wild Game 1985-1986,” by Terry E. Amundson. The results found that “[n]one of the meat samples analyzed in 1984, 85, or 86 from white-tailed deer, cottontail rabbits, pheasants, ruffed grouse, wild turkeys, black bear, fox squirrels, or showshoe hares were contaminated with detectable levels of PCBs, organochlorine pesticides (ex. DDT), or trace heavy metal residues.” Sean M. Strom, WDNR wildlife toxicologist, says, “While we have not tested white-tailed deer in many years, we have no reason to believe they are accumulating any type of environmental contaminant. Most herbicides and pesticides used today are not readily accumulated in muscle tissue and other organs like old DDT accumulated in fat tissue.”

Good News for Venison Eaters? 
Perhaps. But it should be noted that this study sampled only eight deer out of an estimated population of 1 million, which by any statistical analysis is pretty insignificant. The monitoring also did not test for other chemicals such as glyphosate (a.k.a. Roundup), the most used herbicide in the United States, or atrazine and alachlor, currently banned by the European Union. Add to that the numerous other questions not addressed—Do older animals have a higher accumulation of contaminants due to increased exposure? Can these contaminants, including “inert ingredients,” combine in the body to create a toxic stew? Can diseases like cancer or reproductive problems be linked to specific toxins?—then the question becomes why even mention this dated study? The simple answer is, according to WDNR staff, this is the only science in Wisconsin addressing this issue.

While the scientific literature is ripe with studies on the influence of nutrition on antler size (albeit, probably a more significant question than contaminants, for some) and millions of dollars are spent on combating chronic wasting disease, the amount of research and money spent on agricultural chemical contamination in wild game meat is little to none. Strom stated that other than the WDNR study, he has not heard of anything. Activist groups such as the California-based Wild Farm Alliance did not immediately know of any specific studies. A thorough search of the scientific literature similarly turned up very little, and what was available was dated from the 1950s and 60s and focused primarily on DDT.

What is of concern is that these chemicals, like in the case of the bald eagle and eggshell thinning, have a way of sneaking up on us and presenting themselves in ways we never expected. For example, while the primary ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate, may not pose a risk to wildlife, the inert ingredients like the surfactant polyethoxylated tallowmine, and/or a combination of these may, according to the American Chemical Society (2008). Furthermore, it is often difficult to directly correlate diseases like cancer or reproductive problems in deer or humans to specific toxins without lengthy testing occurring over many years. The science and monitoring of how these chemicals in our environment may or may not be impacting wildlife—even potentially the humans that eat them—remains a mystery.

The good news is that venison still tastes great, and this season over 600,000 of us will take to the woods and farmlands of Wisconsin to participate in our oldest tradition. While the deer herd may be a little smaller than in past years, this is most likely due to herd management and natural fluctuations in wildlife populations. The WDNR stresses that venison is a healthy, chemical-free meat and that neither deer nor the humans who eat them have become sick due to deer being exposed to agricultural chemicals. However, the question of whether deer meat may be contaminated by agricultural chemicals is, as I told the WDNR wildlife toxicologist, a thesis dying for a graduate student.


If you're lucky enough to snag a deer this fall, try some of that hard-won venison in this recipe for Bacon Wrapped Venison Skewers with Pesto, which accompanied this article in the Fall 2010 issue. 

Dan Johnson lives on a small farm in Driftless region of southwest Wisconsin. He is the owner and operator of Midwest Earth Builders and builds, teaches and writes about how we can move toward greater economic and environmental sustainability in construction and farming. He holds a degree in Wildlife Biology from Colorado State University.

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