With several weeks remaining in the archery season, Missouri hunters this year have already killed more deer than either of the past two seasons. According to the state Department of Conservation's website, hunters have so far bagged more than 267,000 deer.
Hunting has long had its critics (profiled in the past by KCUR), and that rhetoric has grown more strident in a post-Cecil the Lion world. But Brandon Butler considers the heated rate of deer kills this year in Missouri a good thing. He runs the Missouri Conservation Federation's Share the Harvest program, which distributes venison donated by hunters to food pantries throughout the state.
"We are providing meat to people who may go without it," he says. "As a hunter, you're actually putting food on someone's table. It's a great gesture, simply as a human being, to help provide for others."
Holly Grimwood can attest to Share the Harvest's effects. She directs the Raytown Emergency Assistance Program, or REAP. Her organization's food pantry has a sizeable walk-in freezer that is normally not as full as it should be, she says. Except this time of year, when processed venison donations from Share the Harvest pile in.
"We love getting it. The deer meat in particular is a treat because it's so expensive to buy in stores. And its nutritious and provides sustenance."
Grimwood says this year REAP received about 200 pounds of processed venison. They typically give families one pound each. For larger families, she says, they'll give two or three pounds. REAP also gives away donated turkeys during the holiday season but admits the venison holds a special allure for her low-income clients.
"A lot of them come in here this time of year asking for it. They remember eating it as kids with their families."
For her clients, Grimwood says, this time of year is often the hardest. Seasonal work has dried up, families are forced to move frequently. Often, she says, they have to choose between putting a full meal on the table and paying utility bills.
That, says Butler of the Missouri Conservation Federation, is the ultimate payoff. He can't help but make a politically-tinged case for the positive effects of hunting.
"It's hard to be against a hunter who is harvesting wild game, protein-rich game, that is providing for a family who may otherwise go without."
Despite the uptick this year in the overall deer harvest, the state's deer population is still recovering from a severe outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) in 2012 and 2013. Butlers says seasoned hunters have been more judicious in their kills the past three seasons, as they allow the herd to recoup.
He says through mid-December, though, the Share the Harvest program has reimbursed state-licensed deer processors for nearly 1,300 donated deer carcasses. He says that pace is ahead of last year's, when hunters ended up donating more than 212,000 pounds of venison.
Kyle Palmer is the morning newscaster and a reporter at KCUR. You can find him on Twitter, @kcurkyle.