In a tree stand 16 feet above the leaf-covered ground of suburban Clarke County, Jennifer DeMoss peeked through the scope of a black crossbow, searching for a hoof or a fluffy white tail. As the setting sun slunk between the trees on a Wednesday evening in December, DeMoss knew she was running out of time. Soon, it would be too dark to see through her viewfinder.
Hidden in head-to-toe camouflage, DeMoss tried not to make a sound. With each rustle of the wind or footstep of a scampering squirrel, her ears perked up, and she peered as far as she could through the corner of her eye.
“You’re looking for a deer trail. You’re trying to figure out where they are,” DeMoss said. “If your feet smell like your house, your shoes, and if you touch things as you walk along, they’ll smell it, and they’ll know you’ve been out there. And it may or may not make them avoid you.”
The deer must have whiffed DeMoss’s scent. In almost two hours, not a single one passed.
At dusk, DeMoss packed up her gear and trekked back through the woods empty-handed. She wasn’t disappointed, though. DeMoss cherishes every quiet moment in the trees.
“I know some people bring books or something. I couldn’t,” she said. “This is just too good.”
Until recently, DeMoss struggled to find time to spend outdoors. The University of Georgia doctoral candidate spends most days staring at a computer screen, drafting her dissertation.
But in 2017, DeMoss found an excuse to get out of her office for a few hours each week. She decided to learn how to hunt.
Many consider hunting a relic of the past, DeMoss said. Modern technology and the agricultural industry have largely eliminated the need for self-foraged food.
DeMoss doesn’t think it’s time to give up the age-old practice, though.
“The idea that we’ve moved beyond hunting into some, you know, an evolutionary stage in which it’s not necessary, I think is a huge fallacy. And I hear people say stuff like that all the time, as though hunting is just something that is, you know, super primitive, and we’re over it,” DeMoss said. “It’s just a different way of interacting with the world.”
DeMoss isn’t the only one hoping to preserve the sport.
The number of hunters decreased more than 20 percent nationwide between 1996 and 2016, according to the National Survey of Fish, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation.
Nearly 14 million Americans hunted in 1996, surveys have found, while fewer than 11.5 million hunted in 2016.
Ecologists, environmental conservationists and hunting enthusiasts have struggled for years to recruit more participants to the dwindling pastime. In Georgia, conservationists are tapping into new audiences who have been largely neglected by the hunting industry until now, in an effort to increase interest in the sport.
Hunting is more than a hobby, conservationists say. It plays a central role in the ecosystems at the heart of everyday life.
‘The backbone of wildlife conservation’
The downturn in hunting will impact more than just hunters, said Charles Evans, a wildlife biologist who oversees the recruitment, retention and reactivation of hunters and shooters for the Georgia Wildlife Federation as coordinator of the Georgia R3 Initiative.
“Hunting is the backbone of the wildlife conservation funding model we have in the United States,” Evans said.
Almost 60 percent of wildlife conservation is funded by hunting and fishing, according to the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies and the Arizona Game and Fish Department. License sales alone account for 35 percent of funding, while taxes on hunting and fishing supplies through the Pittman-Robertson Act and the Dingell-Johnson Act contribute another 24 percent.
And hunting declines don’t just affect conservation funding.
As sprawling urban and suburban areas overtake deer habitats, Evans said, unbridled deer populations could result in more deer-vehicles collisions. Deer caused over 1.3 million vehicle crashes in the U.S. between July 1 of 2017 and June 30 of 2018, according to State Farm.
Denser deer populations are also linked to higher incidence of Lyme disease and other tick-related illnesses, studies show. And because they feed on many of the crops cultivated in the U.S., Evans said, deer overpopulation could cause landscape and agricultural damage, as well.
Many people don’t draw the connection between hunting and its environmental effects, said Hank Forester, hunting heritage programs manager for the Quality Deer Management Association.
But Forester thinks that more people would support hunting if they knew about its ecological benefits. He and Evans hope to dismantle common misconceptions about the sport that often prevent newcomers from giving it a chance.
“Hunting’s something completely different,” Evans said. “It’s a true interaction with the natural cycle, all the way from the chase when you’re out there interacting with these animals, to the point where you get the shot and you take the life of the animal, and then processing that and putting what you know is clean, all-natural protein on your table.”
If Evans could instill in others an appreciation for the woods to table process, he figures, he could spread an appreciation of the sport beyond traditional hunting circles.
One morning in 2016, Evans and Forester set up a booth at the Athens Farmers Market, offering free venison samples to anyone who walked past. And with each slice of venison sausage, they also handed visitors flyers, advertising a new program they hoped to launch that fall: Field to Fork.
Before long, Evans and Forester filled all eight spots.
“The intent of this program was to expose new audiences to hunting and to give them the opportunity to get started on their own,” Evans said.
Participants gathered for two training sessions, where they learned about the history of wildlife conservation, the relationship between biology and hunting strategy, and the basics of crossbow-shooting technique. Then, Evans and Forester paired each novice with a mentor who guided them through their first hunt. At the end of the program, participants gathered for a home-cooked venison dinner.
Since 2016, Evans and Forester have led two more Field to Fork courses in Athens, and have also expanded the program to eight other states across the country. Only 33 people have participated in the Athens program so far, but Evans has already seen a ripple effect.
“Their experiences are impacting people in their communities, because they go back, and they tell their story, and they share venison from the animal that they harvested,” Evans said. “And overall, it’s generating more and more interest in hunting, making hunting relevant in those communities again.”
Too good not to share
Edwin Pierre Louis couldn’t wait to share his first harvest with friends. The UGA graduate student left packages of butchered venison in the freezer at his lab and invited his colleagues to help themselves.
It was too good not to share, he said.
Pierre Louis didn’t have many opportunities to hunt as a child. Born and raised in Haiti, there were no deer where he grew up. But Pierre Louis remembers sneaking behind his grandparents’ house and shooting birds with slingshots.
Pierre Louis is passionate about fresh, locally sourced food. It took time to acclimate to frozen, store-bought meat and produce when he moved to Florida for college.
In Georgia, though, Pierre Louis has found a community of fellow locavores. He spends most Saturday mornings at the Athens Farmers Market, where Evans and Forester encouraged him to register for Field to Fork.
Pierre Louis completed the program in 2017 and has mentored seven new hunters this year. He enjoys teaching others even more than he enjoys hunting himself.
“Just knowing somebody is out there hunting brings me happiness,” Pierre Louis said. “As I learn from others, I would like to pass it on and even learn while I’m doing it as well.”
The original all-natural meat
Evans and Forester acknowledge that hunting isn’t for everyone.
There isn’t enough wild game to sustain the entire population, Evans said. And the nutritional and ecological benefits, alone, won’t convince some animal lovers to kill their own dinner.
Forester and Evans haven’t faced any negative feedback yet, though, they said. Even a few vegetarians and vegans have tasted samples of venison backstrap with chimichurri sauce at the farmers market.
“It’s pretty neat to see that whole spectrum of society be interested in fair chase wild game,” Evans said.
A few passersby rolled their eyes and declined, but most wanted to learn more.
“Anybody that’s interested in natural food, organic food, things like that, would be a perfect audience to introduce to hunting, because, I mean, it’s the original antibiotic-, hormone-free meat, and it lives a life free of animal welfare,” Evans said. “So, it’s something that would be appealing to a lot of people.”
The key, he said, is to give people the tools they need to get started.
‘The most incredible feeling’
Before enrolling in Field to Fork, DeMoss had wanted to learn to hunt for years. But she didn’t know where to begin.
“A friend of mine who showed me how to use a bow basically just said, ‘Go ahead! Go hunting now.’ And I had no idea where I was supposed to shoot an animal, how that was even supposed to happen,” DeMoss said. “I guess he thought that I was supposed to just go out and wing it.”
DeMoss didn’t want to “wing it,” though. She wanted to learn how to hunt the right way.
“When I saw the Field to Fork program, I said, ‘Heck yeah, I’m gonna go,’” DeMoss said.
DeMoss’s mentor walked her through every step of the process, never judging her lack of experience.
In the year since she started hunting, DeMoss has spent countless hours in the woods, waiting for prey. She said she’s obsessed.
But DeMoss doesn’t take the sport lightly.
“I’m 40 years old, and, when I shot my first deer, I had no idea how it would feel,” DeMoss said. “And it was the most incredible feeling of my entire life.”
DeMoss was devastated, scared and overcome with joy at the same time. Her heart was pounding out of her chest.
But more than anything, DeMoss felt grateful.
“You’re out there, and you’re freezing your butt off, and you finally get this deer, and you realize that, like, you’ve been given this incredible gift,” DeMoss said. “It’s not like going in the store and picking up a wrapped package.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.