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By Larry Keane

Last year’s hunting season saw millions of sportsmen and women of all ages head to the fields and woods to give the great American pastime a try.

Hunting recruitment efforts were successful as interest in hunting remained high through 2021. That’s led to an interesting dilemma this year. All that harvested game means something more. Hunters are helping families in need around the holidays. The flip side of that is wild game processors are backed up and hunters are scrambling to get their harvest ready for the freezer.

Numbers Continue Looking Good

Hunting participation reversed course after years of slow decline and kicked up a gear in 2020 as millions of Americans sought outdoor recreation during the pandemic. Overlapping record-breaking firearm sales, including gun purchases for hunting, hunting permit and license sales have also witnessed an uptick. Some areas have seen a cooling off, but recruitment efforts paid dividends as strong numbers of hunters have gone afield in 2021.

Ohio deer hunters went out in strong numbers. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife reported more than 70,000 harvested deer during the state’s first portion of deer gun season, eight percent above the same period last year.

The boost was almost identical in West Virginia. Hunters harvested 42,600 deer during the two-week firearm season, a mark 10 percent higher than the 2020 total.

In Illinois, the first firearm deer hunting period saw good weather and higher numbers of deer harvested compared to 2020. Illinois hunters harvested 50,300 deer compared to 47,147 during the same period.

Missouri Department of Conservation Cervid Program Supervisor Jason Isabelle praised Missouri hunters’ success during the 2021 season of 14,890 deer harvested, slightly below 2020. “Prior to last year, the average harvest during the three-day antlerless portion had been just under 8,000 deer. So, although we were below last year’s mark, this year’s total was well above the average harvest over the last several years with the shorter season.”

Iowa and Montana were successes too. “To a large degree hunters have figured out where the critters are and they’ll travel to places they’re more likely to be successful,” Montana biologist Scott Hemmer commented. “The near record number of hunters in the field this year was noticed and commented on by many hunters passing through the check station.”

Hunters Feeding Communities

The successes hunters have enjoyed this year means more than memories with family or friends and maybe a mount on the wall. Hunters are harvesting millions of pounds of fresh, healthy meat that can be donated to causes helping families in need during the holidays and cold months. Deer season alone can yield up to 400 million pounds of meat, good for an astounding 1.6 billion meals.

Organizations like Hunters Helping the Hungry (HHH) are ready. Participating hunters take their harvested deer to a processor that packages the venison to distribute to families through food pantries, senior centers, shelters, orphanages and churches. This year marks the 30th anniversary of HHH in West Virginia and hunters crossed a major milestone. They have donated more than 1 million pounds of healthy venison.

“A lot of the people that need this meat from the food banks can’t physically go get it themselves, so this is an amazing service these hunters are doing to help those around the state,” said W.V. Wildlife Center Director Trevor Moore.

Efforts to make it easier for hunters to fight hunger even reached the federal government recently when U.S. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) introduced the Wild Game Donation Act. The legislation would establish a charitable deduction for hunters for the processing costs, as well as allow for additional deductions for the meat processors themselves to participate. The effort to pass the legislation is ongoing.

Game Processing Growing Pains

All the good still comes with growing pains. In Pennsylvania, hunters have had so much success that deer meat processors are having a hard time keeping up. Labor shortages that kept many American businesses understaffed have created bottlenecks for butchers, including some who are turning down processing orders.

“I feel bad for my regular customers, and I’m trying to take deer that were donated for Hunters Sharing the Harvest,” said George Jarmon of George’s Wild Game Processing in Pennsylvania’s Elizabeth Township. “We are at full capacity and the problem is there’s no help out there.”

The successes hunters are seeing still means more meals for those in need, more dollars going back to conservation efforts, more traditions passed on and newer generations of hunters participating in America’s greatest pastime. NSSF’s +One campaign encourages hunters and shooters to bring someone new on their next outing to help continue the cycle.

 

Larry Keane is SVP for Government and Public Affairs, Assistant Secretary and General Counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

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14 COMMENTS

    • Old Guy in Montana,

      I have never been fortunate enough to eat much less harvest an elk. From what I hear, it is outstanding and easily surpasses the flavor of venison.

      Assuming that is true, I would be just as reluctant to share elk with a food pantry. Even so, venison is pretty outstanding and anyone should be thrilled to receive free venison from a food pantry.

      • Elk is freaking good! Lean, tasty, just the right amount of “chew” and not “gamy” like deer can be. Elk hot-spice pepperoni sticks are to live for….as well as the sausage, ground and steaks.

        My fave wild meat is bison followed by elk then moose as a very close second/third.

      • Not sure about other States / jurisdictions. Montana has a program where fresh road kill deer can be picked up (after reporting to the State) by the local pantries and processed for distribution. Many of our down-on-their-luck families survive (legally) on game meat.

  1. I could not help but chuckle at those states with deer harvest numbers in the range of 15,000 to 50,000–those numbers seem tiny compared to the number of deer that have to be living in those states.

    I am sad to say that I have only seen three deer this year–and I have been out a fair bit in two different locations where I fully expected to see a lot more deer. Looks like I will be buying a lot more chicken in calendar year 2022. I sure hope other people had much greater success.

  2. This is a good thing,
    More game is better than no game or crybabies screaming about loss of habitat or killing innocent animals (talking about YOU P E T A)
    Wild game is way better to eat than the store bought stuff.

    • I guess if your idea of a steak is some grassfed shoeleather than I suppose venison is all the same. NO THANKS – I’ll stick with tasty well marbled corn fed beef. We grow them here in IA.

      When you have to blend in pork sausage with the venison to make something, marginally, palatable why bother. Just eat the sausage. Also grown by the millions in IA.

      • neiowa,

        The common mistake that many people make with venison is overcooking it, which is super easy to do. When you cook it properly, it is pretty fantastic–tender and very tasty. For example, when I cook 3/4-inch thick venison steak medallions, I rub the medallions with a high-temperature vegetable oil (such as avocado or grape-seed), season them with garlic powder, onion powder, salt, pepper, and coriander. Then I heat a cast-iron skillet to 400 degrees and toss on those medallions for 2 minutes per side then pull them off to rest. They are moist, tender, and delicious.

        I once cooked some venison steaks side-by-side with quality beef steaks. It was hard to tell the difference. The flavor was slightly different but, blindfolded, I don’t think I would have been able to discern which was which.

        For reference the deer around me eat better than the cattle do. (Deer in my neck of the woods eat corn, soy beans, alfalfa, natural browse, and apples as well as whatever they eat out of gardens.)

  3. LOL, when I first glimpsed at the heading I seen “Game Processors Smuggle,,,,”
    heh, heh.
    A person may not realize it, but that free deer meat is greatly appreciated by the folks that get it. Same as the duck, goose and everything else.
    So when you donate it, remember the person on the other end got a big smile on their faces.
    👍’s up

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