Under a canopy of leaves colored bronze by the autumn chill, Donald Ross kneels over the moist clay soil of the forest floor and studies the upside-down, heart-shaped track of the white-tailed deer.
Kneeling next to him is his young son, also named Donald, who traces the track's muddy indentation with his finger, listening intently as his father describes the difference between the tracks of doe and those of a buck.
Deer tracks, he explains, appear as two symmetrical halves in an oblong crescent shape, and commonly range from one-inch long for a fawn or yearling, to just over three inches for a large adult deer.
Father and son are deep in the woods on a scouting mission — the most important part of the hunting process. It's during these reconnaissance trips that the wise hunter looks for droppings, feed areas, beds, rubs and scrapes and other tell-tale signs that whitetails are in the area. It's all valuable information that will determine where Ross sets up his tree stand in preparation for archery season.
It's also a time-honored tradition and ritual that goes back to Ross' own childhood and the many seasons he spent in the woods with his own father hunting deer and developing a bond that is as strong today as it was back then. Now, he's passing along that same hunting heritage to his own son, who eagerly peppers his father with questions about their quarry.
As the sun starts to dip below the trees, a chill sets in and Ross and his son prepare for the long hike back to the truck. A flock of Canada geese wings overhead, the brash honking piercing the stillness and shadowy silence of the woods.
It's moments like these when Donald Ross feels at peace.
“When I'm out here I know who I am and what I am,” says Ross, 37, of Scituate. “I belong in the woods. It's a place where I don't feel like an outcast or alienated. I feel a spiritual connection with nature and God's creation.”
And Ross is not alone.
A new report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states that more people are heading outdoors, reversing a downward trend.
The Great Outdoors Federal study shows participation in wildlife-associated recreation increased in 28 states since 2006. The survey found that 38 percent of all Americans 16 years of age and older participated in wildlife-related recreation in 2011, an increase of 2.6 million participants from the previous survey in 2006. Participation in recreational fishing increased by 11 percent and hunting was up 9 percent. This increase reverses a trend over previous surveys showing a 10 percent decline in hunting participation between 1996 and 2006.
The 2011 survey also reports a corresponding increase in hunting equipment expenditures, which are up 29 percent from 2006.
The combined number of hunters/anglers in the country, according to a 1991 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, was estimated at nearly 50 million — 14 million hunters, 35.5 million anglers.
“These recent survey results are good news for the small businesses and rural communities who depend on wildlife-related tourism, and it shows an encouraging increase in personal investment of citizens in the future of wildlife and wild places,” says Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.
While hunting has always been a way for self-sufficient people to feed their families, another theory for its current popularity is that it can also be an affordable “staycation” for people trying to spend less in a poor economy.
The growing interest in farm-to-table dining may also be part of that rekindling as an increasing number of Americans become interested in where their food comes from.
The 2011 survey is also welcome news for state fish and game agencies, which are financed through licenses and excise taxes on sporting goods, as well as for pro-hunting conservation groups and advocates like the National Rifle Association.
Ross says while he is encouraged by the latest national trend, he is merely carrying on a family tradition that began when he was 12 years old and learned to hunt from his father, 57-year-old Donald Ross Jr.
“Hunting has always been a big part of my life,” says Ross, a longtime member of the Cranston Rod & Gun Club, and who is currently interning to become a bow instructor at the club.
A life member of the National Rifle Association, former treasurer of the Northeast Wild Turkey Federation and scorer for the Northeast Big Bucks Club, Ross says hunting is not only about self-sufficiency, but also helping wildlife conservation efforts and sustaining and improving the quality of natural resources.
Hunting in Rhode Island
Ross, who hunts both deer and wild turkey, typically harvests three to five deer a year during the hunting season. There is an open season for white-tail deer in Rhode Island, which can be hunted with a bow from Sept. 15 to Jan. 31; muzzleloader from Nov. 3-25; and shotgun from Dec. 1-16, and again from Dec. 20-Jan. 2.
“Every part of the deer is utilized when I harvest an animal,” says Ross. “The venison is put in my freezer for my family so we can enjoy everything from venison steaks to roasts to sausage.”
Rhode Island's land mass actually encompasses a tremendous variety of natural habitats. From coastal environments and farmland, to upland forests and swamps, these areas provide the habitat necessary to maintain healthy and diverse wildlife populations. The 48,000 acres designated as state management areas in Rhode Island, including the Arcadia, George Washington and Great Swamp Management Areas, are available for fishing and hunting and equal about 7 percent of the state's total land area. Hunting opportunities include white-tailed deer, wild turkey, ruffed grouse, woodcock, pheasant, dove, waterfowl and small game.
During the 2011-12 deer hunting season by all methods, Rhode Island hunters harvested 2,413 deer, compared to 2,569 in the 2010-11 season. Archers harvested 689 deer statewide and enjoyed a 15.5 percent success rate, while gun hunters harvested 1,729 deer and enjoyed a 16 percent success rate.
“When it comes to hunting, I'm all about safety first,” says Ross, an advocate for hunter education programs to protect both the safety of the public and promote the ethical use of the state's wildlife resources.
Ross says the stereotype of hunters as beer-swilling rednecks trampling through the woods blasting away at anything they see, does not describe any of the hunters he knows.
“There are a very small percentage of hunters like that who do ruin it and give hunting a bad name. But they are not really hunters in my book,” he says. “They certainly don't represent the hunters I know. The hunters I know are responsible people who take their game within the limit of the law and do so in a respectful way.”
And hunting, he says, takes years to master. It's not as easy as you think.
“Take bow hunting, for example. Bow hunters have to have nerves of steel and be very conscious of their surroundings and everything they do because they're taking a shot within a range of about 30 yards.”
“Ninety percent of hunters in Rhode Island kill one deer, and 10 percent of hunters hill 90 percent of the deer,” Ross adds.
What many non-hunters may not realize is how big a role hunters play in wildlife conservation and management and boosting the local economy. All deer harvested must be tagged by the hunter immediately after the killing and reported to the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, which rely on these harvest reports so that accurate statistics on the deer herd and hunting season can be generated.
Hunting, Ross says, is also a tool to help manage Rhode Island's deer herd.
Managed hunting of deer is designed to smooth out the highly dynamic population cycles of deer. Deer populations can rise very quickly, but when they are bad (or over-utilized by too many deer), they can crash just as quickly. These crashes usually occur through starvation and or disease issues. Managing the population through regulated sport hunting can minimize these types of events, Ross says.
Another way that managed hunting contributes to herd protection is through the payment of fees for tags and licenses. These funds are used for collection of population, habitat use and movement data, information to monitor and research disease issues, and enforcement of the laws and regulations that are the basis of managed sport hunting. Tag monies are used for habitat projects to benefit deer herds in the state as well.
“In Rhode Island, the problem is that suburban areas are being overrun with deer because there is no hunting allowed in these areas,” Ross says. “East of Route 295 there's a deer infestation, which results in a lot of auto strikes.”
In fact, auto strikes are a major factor in adult and juvenile deer mortality in Rhode Island. Annually, auto strikes account for up to half of the total deer mortality by all causes. In 2011, the number of deer auto strikes was 56 percent of the total reported hunting harvest, demonstrating, state wildlife biologists say, the obvious need to reduce deer populations in suburban areas. The state's deer management strategy strives to reduce auto strikes by increasing hunter harvest in restricted areas with too many deer.
That issue is playing out locally in the town of Lincoln, where hunting has been illegal for nearly two decades. But with the deer population on the rise, town leaders are considering lifting the current ban and legalizing bow and arrow hunting. The controversial ordinance amendment, which is still under consideration by town officials, has both its proponents and detractors.
“The collision rate between deer and cars is such a problem that there are insurance companies advocating for hunters because of the sheer number of accident claims that are filed,” Ross says. “The answer, really, is to expand the harvest and allow urban bow hunting.”
Defending an American Pastime
Ross knows all too well there are a lot of folks who don't share that opinion. While he's never had to defend his lifestyle from what he calls the “anti-hunting extremists,” he has had many friendly debates over the years with “more reasonable” people who just don't happen to share his passion for sport hunting.
“I can honestly say that by the time I'm done talking with some of these folks, they at least have a better understanding of what hunting is about,” Ross says. “They may not necessarily agree with it, but I think they gain a new understanding, especially when you start pointing out the conservation aspects. I've changed some minds and those are the people who usually have common sense anyway, and understand hunting as a means to control overpopulation. Then there are other people whose minds you will never change.”
Despite what he calls the proliferation of animal rights groups, Ross believes hunters and sportsmen have been and will continue to be the primary players in the effort to protect the game which they hunt.
“Wildlife management in this country is paid for from two primary sources: hunters’ and anglers’ license fees and the excise taxes we pay on our equipment,” he says.
The Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, he explains, was established in 1937 and imposes an 11 percent excise tax on the sale of sporting firearms and ammunition. The revenue derived from the act is apportioned to all 50 states and U.S. territories based on a formula that takes into account a state’s total number of paid hunting license holders and land area.
Administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies have the ability to use their allotted Pittman-Robertson funds as they see fit for a wide range of qualifying projects, including the reintroduction of declining species, wildlife population surveys, species research, hunter education, acquisition of wildlife habitat, and the development of shooting ranges, among others.
“Without hunters, the land the tree-huggers are trying to protect would not be there,” Ross says.
Ross says what he can do personally as a hunter is to continue to promote and preserve America's wildlife and hunting heritage for future generations, including his son.
“Hunting has been a way of life and a tradition in the United States for hundreds of years and will continue for hundreds more,” he says.
For the additional installments in this series, see our print edition.