Culling deer to feed the hungry

There are too many deer in Rappahannock County, and across the state – so many that in 1988, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) introduced its Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP), which allows qualifying landowners or hunt clubs a more liberal harvest of antler-less deer than offered by the state’s general hunting regulations.

But what to do with the bodies? Two years ago, County Administrator John McCarthy and the Board of Supervisors discussed what McCarthy referred to as the “exploding deer population” in the county and of ways this might benefit the Rappahannock Food Pantry.

And the answer was simple: the state and nationally recognized Hunters for the Hungry program – which involves partnerships between hunters, landowners, meat processors and inspectors, and hunger relief organizations to bring hundreds of thousands of pounds of processed venison to food banks and soup kitchens over the past three years. The county formed a partnership last year with the Rappahannock Food Pantry and Muskrat Haven Farm’s deer processing program, and appropriated $5,000 per year to pay for the processing.

“We knew that Manfred Call was processing deer for hunters at Muskrat Haven, right now, and we basically approached him and asked whether he would give us sort of a reduced rate to process it into ground venison and just give it to the Food Pantry, in frozen form,” McCarthy said, noting that Call agreed to charge the county $50 for each deer carcass to be turned into venison steaks and burgers.

Last year, Call said he processed nearly 50 for the Food Pantry. So far this year, he said, he has processed more than 200 deer for private hunters who didn’t want to bother with the time-consuming process of turning a deer into something fit for the dinner table – more than 20 of which are headed to the Food Pantry.

“There’s a lot of people who like to hunt, but they really don’t care for the meat,” Call said, when asked who donates the actual deer carcasses for the Food Pantry. “And a lot of them are in this DMAP program, where they’re trying to improve the deer herd – they gotta thin the deer out, there’re too many deer. And then some people get the damage permits to shoot deer for one reason or another.”

John McCarthy said that this cooperative relationship is essentially “killing two deer with one stone,” because the state population control program is being enforced, and local residents-in-need are getting good food at no cost.

“The population definitely needs to get culled, both for the herd health as well as just for man’s interaction with them; this is a way that both causes can be advanced,” McCarthy said, adding that there are “an awful lot of cases where you have farmers that are killing deer that are being a menace to their crops or to their livestock operations. All too often that means those deer are going to waste – well, here’s a way where they don’t have to.”