Steve Chapman

It may seem mean to abruptly snuff out a beast's life before its allotted time is up. But death in nature is typically far more brutal -- coming from disease, starvation or razor-fanged predators. As humans encounter deer more as pests and hazards, sentimental notions tend to give way to a clear-eyed view that puts hunting in perspective.

"What's wrong with eating animals is the practice, not the principle," wrote Michael Pollan in his best-selling 2006 book "The Omnivore's Dilemma," deploring industrial methods of meat production. "People who care about animals should be working to ensure that the ones they eat don't suffer." Every meal that features venison instead of chicken or pork is a plus for animal welfare.

From an environmental standpoint, too, human predation serves valuable ends. "The deer had chewed through the understory of the Hidden Valley (Ind.) woodlands, devastating habitat for other wildlife, and their feces were raising bacteria levels in the town lake," reported Time magazine about a town that decided to allow hunting.

Deer, however, are a petty nuisance compared to feral pigs, which now number some 5 million and which the U.S. Department of Agriculture blames for a host of ecological harms -- causing soil erosion, polluting waterways, spreading invasive plants and contributing to the decline of endangered species. The Environmental Protection Agency says a typical wild hog, over its lifetime, destroys 10 acres of wetlands.

So destructive and abundant are these pests that San Jose, Calif., decided recently to legalize hunting of them. Texas allows feral pigs to be killed all year, day or night, in unlimited quantity -- even strafed from helicopters.

In the absence of people, nature would establish its own balance among species. But having shaped (and disrupted) the natural environment so extensively, humans can't very well wash their hands of responsibility for what happens when certain species over-expand. Hunting is one way to keep wildlife numbers in check, for the good of people, plants, land and other animals.

For a long time, hunters, tree-huggers and animal welfare advocates have often operated as though they were adversaries. They actually should be allies.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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