Another hunt was complete, some might say it was unsuccessful in that no deer were shot, shot at or even spotted by the entire group. At the far end of the meadow, a dusty CJ-7 loaded down with five hunters, guns glistening in the hot sun, tore down the dirt road, a huge plume of dust rose behind the speeding jeep and hung in the still air. Back at camp more jeeps rolled in on dust clouds, dogs and hunters piled out in a cascade of empty, plastic water bottles. There was enough artillery to start a medium size war. Some guys carried a rifle, a side arm, bandoleers of brass cartridges, knives, backpacks and binoculars all topped by safety-orange caps. The dogs shook like they were wet, the vicious burrs and stickers plaguing their fur and headed off to lap some cool water at the dog pan under the bar sink.
Men headed off to their respective huts to unload their hunting gear and take off the now cumbersome jackets that were a great comfort in the biting chill of the pre-dawn hunt. More hunters trailed into the corral to unsaddle their mounts and care for their horses and mules. Fresh water and a good brushing was a welcome respite after carrying their masters through the steep hillsides and thick brush.
Men curried the tenacious burrs off their boots and jeans with a stiff brush. The dogs lay in the shade, their bellies full of cool water and methodically tore at the burrs stuck in their fur. It is instructive to watch them pull at the stickers with the tiny teeth between the canines. Like a comb, the little teeth hook the burr, as they pull out a bit of hair, sometimes a little ‘yelp’ comes out with the sticker.
It was barely ten in the morning and the temperature was a hot, dry ninety degrees. For many hunters, a quick clean- up, a fresh cold drink and a game of Pedro, dominos or cribbage fill the mid-day hours. The main camp is in the shadows of ancient towering bay trees that scent the air with their peppery perfume, a small winter run-off creek offers little respite from the oppressive heat of late summer.
This year the deer have all but gone missing. More than halfway through the season and not one buck has been taken. Last year at this time the count was in the high teens, more typical of late season hunting. There is speculation that the deer are being poisoned by tenders of a nearby marijuana garden. Some say the poachers are killing the bucks. The overriding issue is the near absence of any deer, boy or girl on the 3,000 acres. It seems impossible that so few are around, over hunting might produce an abundance of young deer, or mostly does, but to have them all gone? A game warden interviewed by phone, posits the culprit is depredation by natural predators, mountain lion, coyotes and even a bear or two.
“Think about it, how many deer could be poisoned in a year? They are not stupid, after a few deaths, they would stay away from the pot garden. My money is on coyotes, two or three will separate a fawn from its mother and chase it until it runs out of energy. Two coyotes might kill two or three fawns a week in the spring when the new babies come. If you multiply that by a dozen or more coyotes in a pack, it doesn’t take long to eat every new deer each spring. Then the well fed coyotes start on the weak and injured adults. Then there are the lions. It only takes one mountain lion to eat an adult or two a month and the population begins a steep decline. After a few years the deer are dead or have moved on to safer ground. The answer is get rid of the coyotes, easier said than done. Mountain lions are protected under state law so there is not much that can be done there.” He asked not to have his name published.
Something is way out of balance on the mountain, the rains the last two years have provided plenty of browse and water for the wild population so it is not likely that food and water are the issue. A long, hard look at options is needed, curtailing hunting will only make the problem worse, if it is natural predation, the lack of hunters would only eliminate one of the competitors in the wild.
Bill Hanson is a Sonoma County native and a lifelong sportsman. He is the former president of the Sonoma County Mycological Association. Look for his column in The Community Voice each week.