As the season for white-tailed deer - the world's largest wild-game hunt - began amid the cool autumn glory of late October, something was largely missing from hunting grounds that have changed little over centuries: poachers.
Across America, states and localities are increasing penalties for poachers, while deer populations are soaring - eliminating the need for clandestine hunts.
Some hunters still refuse to play by the rules. But increasingly, they're fortune hunters seeking rare game or rich thrill seekers trying to bag a trophy buck. Now, 100 years after Congress banned poaching through the Lacey Act, wildlife officials say the system is as fair as it has ever been.
"The people who wrote the Lacey Act could not have predicted the wildlife abundance and opportunities we have," says Bob Byrne, director of the Wildlife Management Institute in Washington.
Mostly, the Lacey legislation was a reaction to the decimation of herds and flocks through hunting and massive clear-cutting that tore across the East in the 19th century. During that period, North Carolina saw bird hunters using guns with 10-foot barrels chock-full of salt; they came close to eliminating many flocks and killed off the Carolina parakeet.
In contrast, today's herds and flocks flourish. With few exceptions, America's "public trust" of game animals are at their biggest and healthiest levels since Colonial days. White-tailed deer have grown from 15 million animals to possibly as many as 30 million since 1986. And after a dearth of waterfowl in the mid-1980s, ducks and geese are plentiful on easily accessible hunting grounds.
"The deer herd has increased to way above what it was even in the 1960s," says Buford Mabry, chief legal counsel for South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
But the increased ability to find and hunt deer legally hasn't been the only reason for the decline in poaching.
States are being more vigilant in rooting out offenders, as well.
Stiffer sanctions in Texas led to 2,500 arrests in 1998, as well as the biggest bust in state history, in which game wardens nabbed 16 people responsible for hundreds of dead bucks.
Last month, Indiana became the 13th state - and fourth in less than a year - to join a "violator compact," which calls on states to share information on career poachers.
Still, in the "big deer country" of the Midwest and West, a handful of people are willing to take risks for trophies and cash.
Some experts estimate the black market in wild-game parts reached $1.3 billion in the mid-1990s. The Far East market for bear bladders and elk horns also keeps poaching lucrative.
And then there are the rich adventurers who have enough cash to spend weeks in the remotest parts of the country. Last year, the biggest buck ever shot was taken in Kansas by one such poacher.
"Today's poachers are mostly middle- to upper-class people that can afford to travel to these areas where trophy animals exist, people that have time on their hands to be able to do that," says Utah poaching investigator Douglas Messerly. "They don't understand that hunting is a privilege and an exercise in self-discipline."
That's a concern among sportsmen and state officials. But things are heading in the right direction, says Doug Painter, director of the National Shooting Sports Foundation in Newtown, Conn. "Everybody in hunting is seeing a keener awareness of natural resource issues, and a real sense of responsibility that people who hunt are taking to the field with them."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society