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Through the Woods

Opinion: The Virginia white-tailed herd is about one million strong. Here's why fewer hunters lead to deadlier roads.



When Matthew O’Brien and his 14-year-old daughter, Madison, are sitting side by side in the frigid Accomack County woods this time of year, they aren’t thinking about keeping Virginia’s roads safe for drivers.

Nope, they’re concentrating on white-tailed deer while sharing a precious chunk of daddy-daughter time.

The O’Briens are hunters. And when Matt O’Brien gets an entire day to spend alone with his oldest child, he drinks in every moment.

“There’s nothing to do but sit together,” says O’Brien, a safety, health and environmental manager with an industrial pump manufacturer. “Those conversations we have when it’s just the two of us, well, they cover everything. Drugs, boys, drama, all the stuff any father would like to talk about one-on-one with a 13- or 14-year-old girl, but you usually don’t get the time.”

If it’s a successful day of hunting, the O’Briens have meat for the freezer.

If the day doesn’t end in a kill, it’s still a success, O’Brien says, because they’ve had that uninterrupted time together. O’Brien has three younger children who also are learning to hunt, but it’s his oldest who has the patience to spend a whole day at it.

According to Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the O’Briens may be an endangered species. The number of hunters in the commonwealth drops a bit each year. It’s a way of life handed down usually from father to child. Fewer hunters mean fewer kids learning the skills necessary to bag a buck.

“Hunting is the best management tool we have to keep large mammals in check,” department spokesman Lee Walker says. The Virginia white-tailed herd is about one million strong, with hunters taking about 200,000 a year, he says. “Without hunters, you have too many deer interacting with people, and you increase the chance of disease in the herd.”

By “interacting,” Walker means car collisions and destruction of crops.

Recently there was a horrific result of deer interaction in Chesapeake, when a 13-year-old boy died after police say his mother swerved the family car into a tree to avoid hitting a deer on a dark road.

It’s a chilling story. Fact is, it could happen to any of us. No matter how often we’ve been told, “when you see deer, don’t veer,” no one knows for sure how he or she will react in the nanosecond after a deer appears in the headlights.

According to a 2011 United Press International story, about 200 Americans are killed every year in collisions with deer, and another 10,000 are injured. The insurance industry estimates that the annual cost of deer encounters is about $1 billion.

The problem is that suburbia has encroached on deer territory, Walker says. Rather than move deeper into the remaining woods, deer simply adapt. They’re also nocturnal, which means they pose a danger on the darkest roads near wooded areas.

The deer population is so bloated in Northern Virginia that several localities have hired sharpshooters to reduce the suburban herd, Walker says.

If it seems like there are more accidents involving deer at this time of year, there are. We’re in the heart of rutting season, when deer hormones kick in and the animals abandon their lazy summertime habits that involve a lot of grazing and sleeping.

“Hunters know that the rut has begun when they start to see dead deer along the road,” O’Brien says. “You’ve got everything going on: Young, dumb deer that have been run off by their mothers. You’ve got bucks chasing does. You’ve got does running from bucks.”

It’s during this mating season mayhem that we see glinting eyes along rural roads at night and carcasses strewn along the shoulders by day.

Nonhunters don’t always understand the attraction of stalking deer and killing them. Chances are, you get your meat the way I get mine: in plastic wrap, from the supermarket. If I had to kill what I eat, I’d probably subsist on eggs.

But O’Brien, one of the activists who convinced the General Assembly to legalize Sunday hunting, usually has enough deer meat in the freezer to last his family until July. He learned to hunt about 20 years ago while he was a student at Virginia Commonwealth University and isn’t offended by those who recoil from hunting.

“I’m a firm believer that it takes all kinds to keep the world spinning,” O’Brien says. “As long as no one’s trying to stop me from hunting, I don’t judge.” S

Kerry Dougherty is a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot.

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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