December 02, 2022
If you’ve watched even a single episode of Swamp People, you know South Louisiana is a world unto itself. A uniquely hybridized French-Canadian-Caribbean culture ensures that fact, but the environment also plays a key role. Very little of the thick, damp real estate here lies as much as 50 feet above sea level. In fact, as the world learned during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, parts of New Orleans actually are below it.
This nearly flat topography, combined with so much water draining toward the Gulf of Mexico, makes parts of the region much easier to navigate by boat than by car. But there are a few major highways. One is century-old U.S. 90, which runs southward from Lafayette before hooking east Just before that bend, in the town of New Iberia, let’s turn right onto State Hwy. 329 and head toward Vermilion Bay. To this point, the scenery is pretty much as you’d expect. But then, before we can catch sight of salt water, we see something totally out of place: what looks like a “plateau” rising roughly 150 feet above the surrounding salt marsh, bayous and sugar cane fields.
Is it a heat mirage hanging over the steamy flatlands? No, it’s real. And it has a name: Avery Island.
This isn’t an island per se, but it’s easy to see why locals call it one. There’s plenty of water in every direction, and the 2,200-acre chunk of ground is quite different from everything around it. Avery Island is actually the eroded tip of a massive underground salt dome some scientists claim is roughly the height of Mount Everest. Its highest point stands 163 feet above the nearby bay. If this island’s name sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve read it while cooking dinner, sitting in a restaurant or walking a grocery aisle. “Avery Island LA.” is prominent on the label of Tabasco Original Red Pepper Sauce, a condiment enjoyed worldwide by fans of spicy cuisine. Every bottle of it is produced at the end of this country road.
Home To An Unlikely Empire
Although you wouldn’t think of a mountain of rock salt as a likely hotspot for agriculture, Avery Island is just that. Over the eons, enough wind-driven silt settled atop it to support fields of the island’s famed peppers, along with other crops. Massive, moss-draped live oaks and other lush native vegetation offer no hint that millions of tons of salt lie just feet below the land’s surface.
In the early 1800s, this patch of fertile ground lured a handful of farmers looking to grow assorted crops. Eventually, during the Civil War era, local landowner Edmund McIlhenny planted some pepper seeds from Mexico, and soon thereafter he began bottling his spicy condiment. Over the next few decades, the Tabasco brand transformed remote Avery Island into the home of an American empire.
A Vision For Conservation
You might think this lengthy discussion of salt and hot sauce is leading up to some flavorful venison recipe, but Cajun cooking isn’t South Louisiana’s main connection to deer. Of greater relevance is the fact it’s home to a unique subspecies of whitetail: Odocoileus virginianus mcilhennyi. Many of the 30-plus subspecies were identified during the 19th century.
However, this particular strain, widely known as the Avery Island whitetail, didn’t receive attention from researchers until early in the 20th. Even then, it took the efforts of Edmund McIlhenny’s son, Edward, to get it noticed by science. Born in 1872, Edward quickly rose to be in charge of the family business and overall operations on Avery Island. He was an expert in several areas of conservation, too. Having traveled widely in early adulthood, including exploring Arctic Alaska, he was an avid hunter with great knowledge of nature and a passion for wildlife.
Edward was especially an authority on birds, including the ivory-billed woodpecker, which he warned was declining due to rampant timber harvest. But the young naturalist didn’t just talk about the need to save wildlife habitat — he also took action. In the 1890s, when the hat industry’s demand for feathers of snowy egrets was endangering that species, Edward brought a handful of the birds to Avery Island to establish the world’s first artificial rookery. He called this refuge Bird City, and it likely. saved the egret from extinction. Fellow hunter and conservationist Theodore Roosevelt later called Bird City “the most noteworthy reserve in the country.”
The landowner didn’t stop there, though. Along with developing 700 acres of Avery Island into spectacular Jungle Gardens, he persuaded a number of other wealthy Louisianans to join him in buying up vast tracts of nearby marshland to form a refuge for conserving wildlife. In the midst of these projects and running the Tabasco business, Edward even found the time and energy to band waterfowl and other birds. Between 1912 and 1933, he attached leg bands to 21,996 ducks and geese, and he ultimately received them from waterfowlers in 33 states.
Obscure Deer In A Unique Place
In 1914, Edward provided some specimens of wildlife from Avery Island to the state museum of natural history for its taxidermy display, among them several whitetails. Yet despite his many connections in the world of natural history, at the time no scientist looked at these local deer as being “different.” In 1925, Edward shipped five freshly harvested Avery Island deer to researcher Frederic W. Miller of the Colorado Museum of Natural History. After studying the bucks and does and comparing them to specimens of the Virginia subspecies, in 1928 Miller described them in Journal of Mammalogy. He felt the Louisiana specimens were of a previously undescribed subspecies and proposed the scientific name Odocoileus virginianus mcilhennyi in honor of Edward.
What about the deer struck Miller as unique? It seems he relied mainly on a couple physical traits. First, the skulls of the Louisiana deer were age for age significantly smaller than those of the Virginia skulls he had on hand for comparison. Despite being smaller, though, the teeth of the Avery Island deer were noticeably larger and more massive. The hooves also were much larger than normal for a whitetail.
Proposing a new strain after examining only five specimens might seem a bit dicey. However, this is how taxonomy often operates; for various reasons, it isn’t always possible to assess many specimens of the animal or plant being studied. Miller was a respected mammalogist with many other namings to his credit, and perhaps that helped get this description accepted. Regardless, soon afterwards South Louisiana officially had its very own kind of deer. Some biologists later questioned if the small-skulled Avery Island whitetails were genetically unique or merely malnourished. There’s no record of how many deer lived in the area back then, but surveys done in the 1970s and ‘80s showed the herd exceeded the forage supply.
Also, some biologists over the years wondered if the enlarged hooves were just a temporary adaptation to life on marshy ground, rather than purely a product of their DNA.
Despite such questions, the Avery Island whitetail now is widely considered to be a separate strain. And whether they recognize it as all that unique or not, thousands of sportsmen up and down the Gulf Coast hunt it. To the west, the subspecies is gradually replaced by the better-known Texas race (O.v. texanus); east of Avery Island, it eventually gives way to Florida’s even more obscure Osceola whitetail (O.v. osceola). To the north, the subspecies fades into the range of the Kansas whitetail, O.v. macrourus.
Experts point out that North American range maps of nearly all whitetail subspecies are debatable, mainly due to restockings over the past century. On Avery Island itself, though, native genetics might well remain intact; to my knowledge, there’s no record of outside deer ever having been released locally. In terms of behavior, perhaps the one notable trademark of this subspecies is rut timing. Breeding can begin in late August, just after bucks emerge from velvet, though the bulk occurs from September into early October. An adult Avery Island doe McIlhenny provided Miller back in 1925 contained a 6-inch-long fetus. She had been shot on Nov. 28, suggesting conception in early September.
Elsewhere in Louisiana, other gene pools tend to have much later ruts; in fact, some deer in the state don’t breed until January or even February. The difference in rut timing sometimes can even be seen on the same piece of coastal land, such as where Avery Island and Texas whitetail ranges abut. For example, the Bar J Ranch near Beeville, Texas, (featured on several episodes of North American Whitetail TV) has both subspecies. Their ruts are separated by a couple months, if not more.
The Avery Island whitetail rarely displays the body or antler size that excites traveling hunters or outdoor writers. And with the deer’s lowland range being hot, humid, buggy, snaky and difficult to access, it’s easy to see why the outside world is largely unaware of it. Only by touring the Tabasco plant and Jungle Gardens do most people even learn this animal exists. A century ago, Edward McIlhenny helped the Avery Island subspecies find its place in the whitetail world.
Without his efforts, perhaps it never would have happened. So, the next time you sprinkle a few drops of Tabasco onto a bowl of venison chili, reflect on how this legendary landowner used his business acumen and love of nature to blend them into a single story.