For an unseasonably warm weekend in northern California, all you had to do was flip a switch and the tarp came off Conestoga Mountain.
Held on the first Sunday of May, the annual Conestoga Easter Outing is one of only three sanctioned deer hunting expeditions in the continental United States. The other two are in Alabama.
“We have the first course loaded,” said Ken Clarke, the general manager of Rancho San Antonio Wilderness Park in Grass Valley, Calif. “We have the largest permit distribution of anywhere in the Western United States.”
A quarter-million pounds of venison are being raised and bagged in the nation. The federal government has declared it a more environmentally friendly alternative to beef. And for animal rights groups, it’s more of a problem than a solution.
“We’re having a hard time catching up with demand,” said Kevin Kostelny, executive director of Sonoma County SPCA, a local agency that’s taking donations. “Every year it gets bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Sonoma County SPCA, which has two of the park’s 55 permits, has been told it will take 120,000 pounds of deer. Farmers there must harvest a harvest for each egg laid.
An environmental group told state regulators that hunting should be required every five years. But the agency ruled the process “is cruel, unsustainable and a waste of animals’ lives” and ordered it to stop.
On the private ranch overlooking Northern California’s dessert, elk droppings line the road and deer tracks are clearly visible, along with the occasional splinter of your own hunting dog. Residents say the birds and animals have become like a part of the landscape, and they thank the hunters for that.
“If they didn’t allow it, then we’d have no deer, no deer antlers,” said Keith Enzler, owner of Rancho San Antonio Wilderness Park. “We would lose a really important part of our natural heritage.”
You might think hunters would be on board with the plan. But they are in short supply.
“Some hunters don’t come because they like to hunt pheasants in the middle of the afternoon, when they can do it quietly,” said the Rev. John Sauer, the pastor of Los Angeles’ Graceland Park United Methodist Church, which is taking one of the permits. “They feel they have to be in the thick of it and in a hurry.”
Sauer, who just started teaching Sunday school at the club, likes to point out the lack of evidence that wildlife habitat has been lost through development.
“Let me ask you a question: Have you gone to your local shopping center and ever seen a herd of mallards, ducks or geese?” Sauer asked. “You don’t even know they’re there. They just hide in their nest.”
Tim Jackson, the president of Bridging the Divide Ministries, which is providing one of the permits, admitted that the hunters needed a change of pace. “We’re more interested in the environment, in the forest and wildlife,” Jackson said. “We’re really more science-based.
“We’re hunters, but we’re not outdoorsmen.”