Vantage Point

Who Doesn't Count?

It's nearing the end of the millennium, but Conservation Department number crunchers are too busy with the end of one year to pay much mind to the passing of a thousand of them.

Each December, researchers bend to the task of tallying annual harvest figures. Their nimble fingers tap into computers the number of ducks and geese taken, the deer brought to check stations, how many anglers bought permits at trout parks, an estimate of the quail, pheasants, squirrels and rabbits shot, and creel data taken at selected launch ramps and public fishing lakes.

Those researchers will then generate a sheaf of detailed reports that sum up the year, wildlife wise. Who knows, maybe deer hunters will break last year's record harvest of 225,618 animals.

These year-end reports help our scientists manage wildlife populations, but when I read them, I fear they are missing something important.

I bought an Archery Deer and Turkey Hunting Permit last year, making me a part of the statistics.

It was a busy fall, and I probably hunted less than a dozen times. One of those was a crisp morning. Approaching my treestand in the dark, I spooked some deer that were hanging around nearby, perhaps traveling the very trail my stand guarded. I froze midstep as they bounded away.

You don't get many chances at deer, and I figured I'd had most of my action for the day. I sat in the stand for about two hours, entertained only by squirrels and an old raccoon that ambled in from his night's work and disappeared into a hole in a tree that didn't seem big enough to accommodate him.

I'd passed into the fidgety stage of sitting when I saw some movement about 200 yards away from my stand. With a bow, 200 yards might as well be a light year, so I just sat and watched as three deer--two does and a 4-point--milled about. Rather than walking away, they one-by-one sank into some tall grass.

Having marked where the deer bedded down, I determined to stalk them. I had in my favor winds that whistled now and then and rolled leaves along the forest floor, but those crunchy leaves also might give me away.

It was an archetypal situation--game and hunter. During the stalk, my only thought was to close in on the deer undetected. I waited for wind gusts before stepping; I watched and felt where my boots touched. I have never been so controlled and so quiet.

It took nearly two hours before I'd placed myself among the deer. I didn't spot them until the buck popped out of the grass about 15 yards in front of me as if jerked by strings. Then the does stood, too.

OK, I missed. I brought my bow to an excruciatingly slow full draw as the buck stared at me, standing broadside, but he must have ducked or jumped when he heard the string release, making the arrow pass above or beneath him. For all I know he's still out there, probably telling an entirely different version of this story.

Because I missed, the statistics don't record my hunting year as a success. I fall into the category of being a purchaser of an Archery Deer and Turkey Permit who did not fill the tag. But I know better. I'd had one of the most satisfying experiences of my life.

That's why when these reports roll across my desk, I take them for what they are--a collection of numbers. They are not completely meaningless for they document the success of modern wildlife management, but I can't help think of the stories they don't tell--of families spending time together, of friends enjoying each others' company, of the relaxation that comes from hearing nothing but gusting winds, gurgling creeks or chirruping birds, of people feeling at one with nature and good about themselves.

We can't enter this kind of data into our computers, but who would deny that it counts much more than all the harvest figures put together? Statistics sure can be deceiving.

Tom Cwynar, Editor