New Zealand Whitetail Hunting, Part 2
September 22, 2010
Wave after wave rolled up from the sea, each crest running far up the sand before dissolving in a spread of pearly foam. For miles in either direction there wasn't a person, boat or condominium in sight . . . only the timeless meeting of land and water.
It was the sort of scene that burrows deep into your memory bank and refuses to leave. But as spectacular as the view was, I dared not admire it for long. Just above the water hung a pale sun only minutes from keeping its daily appointment with the western horizon. Time to turn my gaze back to the quest that had brought me from the other side of the world to the top of this windswept sand dune.
RELATED: New Zealand Whitetail Hunting, Part 1
Not long after resuming my inspection of the ridge before me, I sensed something about it had changed. There, in a small opening between two trees: a speck of orange. It was small enough to have easily missed before, but so bright I felt certain I hadn't. What else could it be other than the coppery summer coat of a whitetail.
Ordinarily, my next move would have been to simply glass the deer. But in this case, I didn't care whether the animal was big or small, buck or doe. All that mattered was that it was a whitetail, which meant I was going to try my best to shoot it.
As Dave McCarlie and Dr. James Kroll trained their own optics on the spot, I brought my Thompson/Center Encore into position and waited for a clear shot through the foliage. Even with my Swarovski scope cranked to 9X, the deer looked tiny. I put the cross hairs a tad high and fired.
At the shot, the deer briefly moved out of sight. Then it calmly reappeared in the opening. I'd apparently missed clean. Throwing in another round, I once more settled in for a shot. This time I literally brought part of the forest down; the 7mm bullet smashed through a limb above the animal, sending the branch down with a crash. The deer jumped out of sight.
Well, so much for showing off my shooting skills. In disgust, I reloaded and gave the ridge a token follow-up look. Just beneath the opening where the deer had been stood another one!
Holding lower this time, I fired again. When my eye returned to the scope, I couldn't find the deer, but the dull thud of a bullet's impact told me this shot had found its mark. Sure enough, the deer had died in its tracks. I'd just shot a 5 1/2-year-old doe with a live weight of around 80 pounds.
Whenever a hunt comes off as planned, it's a happy occasion, and few whitetail hunts have ever taken more planning than this one. Later, back at camp, we celebrated with fresh tenderloin seared in salty butter. It was some of the best venison I've ever had, and the deer that provided it will always be one of my most cherished trophies.
Why such a fuss over an 80-pound doe? Time and place had everything to do with it. The time was late March 2005, and the place was Stewart Island, New Zealand. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of whitetails in the South Pacific, James and I had traveled nearly halfway around the planet. Not only had we now seen these deer in their adopted home, but we actually had DNA: genetic material we hoped would lead to a better understanding of the most isolated whitetail herd on earth.
It's rare to find a herd that originated from just a handful of deer and hasn't been diluted with other bloodlines since, whether from later stockings or eventual mixing with another local herd. By virtue of the small number of whitetails stocked in each location in New Zealand, as well as their having been separated from each other and other whitetails for a century, these herds are great examples of genetic isolation. Roughly 30 generations of whitetails now have lived in the South Pacific, and we were eager to see how they had adapted to the land -- and, at the same time, the land to them.
THE DEER THAT LIVE SOUTH OF EVERYWHERE
As detailed in Part 1 of this story, the two wild whitetail populations in New Zealand descended from a captive herd sent there from the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, reportedly as a gift from U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. New Zealand has no native game animals, and bringing in whitetails was but one in a long series of stockings of various species in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the government's Tourism Department.
There were 22 whitetails on board the ship that left St. Louis in late 1904. When it reached Invercargill, New Zealand, in March 1905, 18 of the deer -- four bucks and 14 does -- had survived the epic 12,000-mile voyage. They then were divided equally, with two bucks and seven does being sent to each of the locations selected for stocking. One group ended up near the inland village of Glenorchy, in the South Island's Southern Alps. The others were released near Port Pegasus, a rugged area on 425,000-acre Stewart Island.
How James and I came to be in that corner of the world 100 years after the deer arrived is a bit of a story in itself. My wife, Catherine, and I visited New Zealand in 2001, and while we were there I presented whitetail seminars to two branches of the respected New Zealand Deerstalkers Association (NZDA). One of the folks I met was whitetail enthusiast John deLury.
When I learned from John that New Zealand's whitetail history had begun in 1905, I began thinking of what it would be like to return 100 years after the introduction, to check out the descendants of those first deer. Knowing James had always wanted to visit New Zealand, Catherine and I asked "Dr. Deer" and his wife, Susie, to join us there in March 2005.
Unfortunately, John's work schedule precluded his showing us around. However, he was able to set us up with Dave McCarlie, one of the owners of South Coast Productions. An avid hunter, naturalist and experienced cameraman, Dave volunteered to accompany us to both areas where New Zealand's whitetails live.
After going to Glenorchy and speaking with locals about the herd in that area (Part 1), we drove 100 miles south to Invercargill. The world's most southerly city, it's the departure point to Stewart Island, which lies 15 miles across Foveaux Strait. South of Stewart Island, the next landmass of any size is Antarctica. You've heard of hunting whitetails "down south," but this is taking it to extremes!
The island's resident human population is under 500, and the lone town is Halfmoon Bay, on the eastern side. Every Stewart Islander lives in or near that settlement; in fact, the entire island has just 12 miles of roads. The only folks who ever see much of the west side of the island, where we'd be, are "trampers" (hikers), a few fishermen and other boaters, and hunters bent on getting away from it all.
That you certainly can do. Most of New Zealand is remote by North American standards, and this island is remote even for New Zealand. The best options for accessing the hunting areas are by water taxi or aircraft. We chose the latter; flying is faster and less expensive than going by boat, and it eliminates the pounding on passengers and gear. On March 21 Dave, James and I headed south on a small plane operated by Stewart Island Flights.
Two environmental factors dictate the flight schedule to Mason Bay. One is weather; the other is tides. These come into play because the only place for a plane to set down on the west side of Stewart Island is the beach.
Following a short flight that took us over the Ruggedy Mountains on the northwestern corner of the island, we spotted Mason Bay's sweeping 12-mile-long beach ahead. (Perhaps 10 miles farther south was even more remote Port Pegasus, where the deer had been released in 1905.) After a low pass to make sure there was no debris on the "runway," our pilot set us down right next to the Tasman Sea.
Most Stewart Island whitetails live within a mile of the ocean, and most of the coastline is divided into public hunting blocks bearing such colorful names as "Hellfire," "Yankee" and "Chew Tobacco." To reserve one of these areas for a week of hunting access, you simply apply, up to a year in advance, through the local office of the Department of Conservation. We'd be hunting the "Homestead" block, a choice based on its high deer numbers, diverse habitat and the presence of a hut-type shelter near the landing site.
The hike to that hut was just over a mile, taking us on a gradual ascent through coastal scrub, ferns and clumps of yucca-like New Zealand flax. Along the way we saw many birds, including black-and-white tomtits, green bellbirds, gray fantails and multicolored wood pigeons larger than those in your local park. Stewart Island is a world-class haven for birds, including the rare, flightless kiwi that has become New Zealand's national symbol.
But as much as we enjoyed the birdlife on the way to camp, we were here for deer . . . and we nearly got one that evening. While glassing only a few hundred yards from the hut, I saw a velvet-antlered yearling buck feeding on clover and alfalfa marking the site of a former sheep paddock.
I could have taken a quick shot, but there seemed no need; the buck was just 125 yards away, feeding slowly across the open flat. As soon as he stepped out from behind that last tall clump of flax, I'd drop him. Just a few minutes into our hunt, we were about to collect our first DNA.
But the buck didn't go along with the plan. Instead of stepping into view, he walked into the head of a shallow gully we couldn't see from where we sat. He fed his way to safety without ever knowing we were there. It was disappointing, but as we returned to camp that night, we were happy. James and I had seen our first Stewart Island whitetail.
Around daylight the next morning we started north from camp, intent on skirting the tall, densely vegetated sand hill between our hut and the sea. Many brushy fingers came off the hill; some poked into the flat, open valley our camp overlooked, while others extended almost to the beach at Mason Bay. We wanted to see if whitetails used that cover and topography as they would similar elements in North America.
It didn't take long to confirm that they do. In fact, as soon as we climbed the first timbered rise overlooking the flat, we began finding sign. While it was difficult to see tracks with so much thick ground cover, the fresh pellets and beaten trails were clear indicators that many deer lived here. Of course, with three of us clambering through the thick stuff, there was no way to sneak up on any of them for a shot.
I don't know how to describe the habitat around Mason Bay, other than to say it's something like a Caribbean jungle growing on the sand dunes of North Carolina's Outer Banks. Across the flats spread groves of brushy manuka, the tops shaped by the salt spray into what appears to be topiary covering many acres. The manuka, along with such trees as rimu, leatherleaf and broadleaf, forms a low, dense canopy.
Of these species, by far the most important to whitetails is broadleaf, a squat tree with succulent foliage. While kelp washing up on Stewart Island's beaches is also eaten by these whitetails, studies have shown broadleaf to be the most common material in the diet. The deer will nip off growing broadleaf leaves within reach, but due to the combined impacts of long-term browsing and the self-pruning nature of broadleaf, much of the herd's diet now consists of freshly fallen yellow leaves.
Broadleaf is an evergreen, so the foliage doesn't drop all at once; it's like a sporadic "mast crop" that falls a few leaves at a time, all year long. Whitetails frequently check the ground beneath these trees, particularly after a high wind shakes more than the usual amount of foliage from the canopy.
Of far less use to the deer, but of great fascination to Stewart Island's human visitors, are the countless ferns. Tiny ones cling to living trees and moss-covered deadfalls. Crown ferns as high as a deer's back cover acre after acre. And then there are the tree ferns, with their 12-foot-wide "wingspans" spreading from atop 20-foot-tall stalks. I'll never forget standing in the shade of these prehistoric giants as Dave, James and I examined a big whitetail rub. In that habitat, a brontosaurus would have seemed less out of place.
By mid-afternoon we'd reached the top of the dunes leading west to the sea. We'd seen no deer, but there was enough sign to convince us that the density was high. On the dunes we'd even found kiwi tracks paralleling those of a whitetail. I was struck by this odd intersection of one of earth's rarest birds and one of its most abundant big-game animals. What continental drift had not achieved in millions of years, a single ship a century ago had set into motion in the relative blink of an eye.
From there, we pressed on over the sand pass to the seaward side. It seemed clear from the fresh sign on the ridges that many deer were bedding on them, so we decided to hike down to within a quarter-mile or so of the beach and then sit atop a huge dune -- James watching to the south, Dave and I to the north. It was from that perch that I would shoot my doe just before dark.
The next morning, James pulled from the doe's tail some hairs with roots on them. Then he cut off a small strip of muscle tissue from the belly. The DNA samples would be stored until a protocol for shipping to the U.S. could be worked out. (At this writing, efforts to set up a system for importing a large number of samples are in progress. James hopes to get testing under way in the near future.)
From mid-morning until mid-afternoon on that second full day we roamed the area around Mason Bay, looking at more deer sign and native plants. Dave knows Stewart Island well, and he shared his keen insights along the way. It was like having our own tour guide in The Land That Time Forgot.
By mid-afternoon we'd reached another dune overlooking the Tasman Sea, this one a few hundred yards south of the one from which I'd taken my doe the day before. Two hours before sundown I saw another doe at a distance, and James got a look at a 2 1/2-year-old buck that was feeding beneath a broadleaf tree on the ridge above us. But there wasn't a good shot at either deer, and we ended the day's hunt with nothing but memories. At least they were good ones.
An hour after dark, as we neared our hut, Dave stopped suddenly. Straining to see in the moonlight, James and I were thrilled to spot two kiwis only a few steps ahead. The chicken-sized flightless birds were probing the ground with their long bills in search of earthworms. For several minutes we watched two of the world's most endangered creatures go about their nightly routine, virtually oblivious to our presence. The Mason Bay area might have more kiwis than any other place on earth, but not every visitor is lucky enough to see one, much less a pair.
The final morning of our hunt, James and I went out for a brief look around. I didn't spot any deer, but my partner saw two. One was a young buck making his way back up through the trees to bed just af-ter sunrise; the other was a doe with an NZDA tag in one ear. (More on that later.) But neither deer offered a shot.
WEIRDNESS ON THE BEACH
After hiking back out to the "airstrip" in early afternoon, we walked along the beach and soaked up more of the scenery. Then James spotted an object the outgoing tide had left behind. It was a blue penguin, apparently dead of natural causes.
As my friend snapped a photo of the 16-inch-tall bird, I could only marvel at this surreal scene. From where we stood, looking down at the world's smallest penguin and waiting on the plane to retrieve us from a beach at the far end of the planet, I could see the bush-covered slope on which I'd shot my doe two days earlier. Finding a penguin while on a whitetail hunt is definitely not something the aver-age hunter can say he's done!
What had the deer stocked on Stewart Island a century ago thought upon seeing that first penguin? How had they learned to live off broadleaf and kelp? How long had it taken them to adjust to the seasons: starting antler growth in October, breeding in May and shedding racks in August? All we know is that enough of them did these things well enough to sow the seeds of the herd living there today.
By the time our plane arrived, the sea was far more restless than it had been upon our arrival. It was March 24 -- the third day of autumn south of the equator -- and in another two days it would be exactly a century since those nine pioneer deer had stepped onto Stewart Island. We would have loved to hang around for the anniversary, but we couldn't. Our whirlwind tour of New Zealand whitetail country was over.
RESEARCHING THE HERD
Once back in Invercargill, James and I spent some time visiting with John deLury. As a serious hunter with several big Stewart Island bucks on his wall, John knows what a unique resource the local whitetail population represents. And he could explain that ear-tagged doe seen near our hut. As it turned out, John and some of his "mates" in NZDA had caught her, along with several other deer, in cage traps baited with broadleaf a few years earlier. Some of those whitetails received ear tags, while others actually were fitted with radio collars before being released.
The NZDA members tried their best to keep tabs on the marked whitetails, to see which ones ended up where. Not surprisingly, the does proved to be homebodies, while the bucks were relatively nomadic. It seems wanderlust is in a buck's blood no matter where on earth he lives.
Because New Zealand's wild deer aren't protected by any regulations, there are no rules against NZDA members -- or anyone else, for that matter -- live-trapping them for informal research purposes. But such experiments are only a tiny part of what NZDA does for the good of New Zealand outdoorsmen. The organization has long been active in building and maintaining huts on Stewart Island and elsewhere in the Kiwi backcountry. Without these shelters -- which are used by hunters and non-hunters alike -- getting to the deer would present even more logistical challenges than it does.
Where the New Zealand whitetail story leads from here remains to be seen. With a liberal government being nudged along by an active en-vironmental lobby, it's no secret that the pendulum has swung toward tightly controlling non-native species, if not eradicating them. This goes for not just whitetails but all other wild deer, along with chamois, Himalayan tahr, brushtail possums, rabbits, wallabies and other exotic wildlife, plus feral pigs, dogs, cats, weasels and more. At the very least, the government wants free-ranging deer controlled to a point that forest regeneration can occur.
"Wild deer will continue to be valued as a recreational and commercial hunting resource," notes DOC minister Sandra Lee on the depart-ment's Web site. "But under the Biodiversity Strategy, the protection of our unique plants and animals and the places they live takes precedence over introduced species. We will not place at risk those things found nowhere else on earth such as our indigenous forests and grasslands, which give New Zealand -- and its people -- a unique identity."
There is at present no overt push by the DOC to wipe whitetails off the New Zealand map. Currently research is aimed at determining how much whitetails and other wild deer are impacting the forest. While John and other Kiwi hunters are understandably skeptical about the future of deer management in their country, they continue to work hard to keep their proud hunting tradition alive.
Here on our side of the Pacific, the next goal regarding New Zealand whitetails is less politically charged. Through DNA samples, we simply hope to learn as much as possible about the genetics of the Stewart Island and Glenorchy herds. For instance, if we can get enough hair and/or tissue samples from NZDA members, James says a test using mitochondrial DNA could reveal how many does from 1905 still have descendants in each herd.
We'd also like to know if those two populations are genetically linked to each other and/or to a known group of deer here in North America. That could teach us some valuable lessons about inbreeding and other potential genetic problems in isolated herds. Of course, it will take time to find the answers to such questions, but James and his staff at the Institute for White-tailed Deer Management & Research at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas are eager to begin the job.
Meanwhile, down in the South Pacific, the descendants of those 18 deer set free in 1905 have clearly found a home. The habitat is a world apart from anywhere whitetails live in North America, and the size of the deer suggests that they lack the food needed to grow big bodies and trophy antlers. And yes, the government now wishes, in the name of preserving native habitat, that a certain ship a century ago had never been allowed to unload its hoofed cargo.
But regardless of where anyone stands on the issue of exotic imports, let's not blame those first deer for doing what was asked of them. They met every challenge in their way and, in the end, figured out how to make a living in one of the most beautiful places on earth. I'd say it's pretty hard to fault them for that
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
For more about Stewart Island, log onto www.stewartislandflights.co.nz. To find out more about deer management in New Zealand, visit the DOC's Web site, www.doc.govt.nz and run a search for "white-tailed deer."
If you want to purchase uniquely New Zealand videos that document everything from Stewart Island's whitetail herd to the early days of capturing various species of deer with helicopters, visit www.videosouth.com. To learn more about the New Zealand Deerstalkers Association, log onto