September 22, 2010
By Gordon Whittington
Take a chunk of Switzerland, stir in a cup of Hawaii, sprinkle liberally with Great Britain and what do you get? One of the world's truly breathtaking places. And, perhaps, one of the most unusual whitetail habitats that anyone could ever lay eyes on.
We're talking about the island nation of New Zealand, literally on the other side of the planet from where North America's most popular big-game animal evolved. The land that served as the backdrop for the filming of the blockbuster "Lord of the Rings" movies is a world apart in virtually every way.
While it might come as a shock to folks who have trouble telling Hollywood from reality, the landscape that director Peter Jackson transformed into Middle Earth on the big screen isn't really hobbit or orc habitat. For that matter, other than two species of bats, New Zealand has never been home to any native land mammals. Even the indigenous Maori people are basically newcomers, having canoed here from elsewhere in the Pacific perhaps 1,000 years ago.
The roots of New Zealand's unique whitetail history are considerably more recent. Mingled with its human immigration, that history now stretches over exactly 100 years.
RELATED: New Zealand Whitetail Hunting, Pt. 2
Dutch explorer Abel Tasman "discovered" New Zealand in 1642, and British whalers and sealers followed in the 1700s, with the first European settlers coming to stay in the early 1800s. They were fascinated by this odd place, with its spectacular scenery, one-of-a-kind plants and a number of birds that had evolved to be flightless in an ecosystem with no ground-dwelling predators. Some of these earthbound birds, such as the 10-foot-tall moa (think of an ostrich on steroids) had already been wiped out by the Maoris before Europeans arrived; others, including the iconic kiwi, are now endangered, due to the introduction of weasels, stoats, dogs and housecats in more modern times.
A HISTORY OF STOCKINGS
Despite the bounty of unique native species the Europeans found upon arrival to New Zealand, they soon grew homesick for more familiar flora and fauna. And so, along with various cultivated plants, they brought in all sorts of creatures, including several species of trout and salmon from North America; rabbits, wallabies and brushtail possums from Australia; dozens of birds from a number of places; and, yes, select members of the deer family from several continents.
That particular phase of the exotic invasion began in the mid-1800s, when red deer from Scotland were released. Through a series of such attempts, by the late 19th century this European cousin of North America's elk had become entrenched in many locations on both the North and South islands.
Bolstered by the results of their efforts with red deer, the tourism arm of the government went looking for more critters. What followed over the next few decades was a procession of ships bearing other sporting animals from several continents. From Asia came the tahr (a shaggy beast that looks like a cross between a sheep and a goat), plus sika, rusa, sambar and axis deer. From Europe came chamois antelope and fallow deer. North America, for its part, provided elk, moose, mule deer, blacktails . . . and whitetails.
The tahr and chamois quickly found a home on the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps, which form the spine of the South Island. The fallow deer went on to become well established in many woodlands at lower elevations on both islands, while the sika became one of the primary deer species on the North Island. In a few pockets you still can find rusa and sambar deer as well.
Elk readily adapted to some of the same habitat that had proved suitable for red deer. However, the elk interbred so easily with their smaller cousins that there probably isn't a purebred wild wapiti left in New Zealand. As for moose, the jury remains out; some experts think a few still exist in the steep, densely forested backcountry of the South Island's Fiordland region, though none has been documented in a half-century now.
Neither the mulies nor the blacktails fared very well, in part because settlers began shooting them off soon after their release. Perhaps the same fate befell the first group of whitetails. That failed whitetail experiment occurred near the northern tip of the South Island in 1901, but little else is known of it.
MEET ME AT THE FAIR
Now our story shifts back to North America, to the 1904 World's Fair. Held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, this amazing exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, was a sight to behold. Covering more than 1,200 acres and playing host to nearly 20 million visitors over a seven-month span, it was up to that point the most spectacular such event in history, and it remains the largest world's fair ever held. Nearly all of the then-45 states had lavish displays of their resources, as did around 60 other countries from all over the globe.
What makes the 1904 World's Fair relevant to our story is that of the many exhibits on display there, one included a herd of whitetails. Reportedly they had been trapped in deep snow in New Hampshire and then taken to St. Louis, though precisely when, how and by whom they were captured and transported no one today seems certain. What we do know is that at the time there were probably only around a half-million whitetails on earth, and most folks in the crowd likely had never seen one.
Apparently President Theodore Roosevelt decided to give these whitetails to the Kiwis. And so, at some time in late 1904 or early 1905, a ship carrying them headed down the Mississippi River from St. Louis, bound for New Zealand.
Remarkably, of the 22 deer that went onto the ship, 18 of them -- four bucks and 14 does -- made it across the Pacific alive. Even today that would seem a major achievement, so back then it was nothing short of remarkable. Because the Panama Canal was still roughly a decade away from completion, the ship bearing this cargo (which also included some Canada geese and black ducks) had to chug all the way down the east coast of South America and then loop around Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of the continent. By then the deer had traveled roughly 7,000 miles from where their voyage had begun -- and they still had around 5,000 miles to go, across what can be a mighty rough stretch of the South Pacific. The greatest straight-line distance between any two points on earth is right at 12,000 miles, so it's no exaggeration to say this was an epic journey.
By the time the animals reached their destination, it was late March 1905. It was also autumn, not spring. With seasons south of the equator being the opposite of those in North America, the deer found themselves traveling from winter into summer and, finally, early fall.
How confused these whitetails must have been. When they'd left St. Louis, the does presumably had just been bred, and the bucks still had worn their antlers. As they moved south toward and finally across the equator, the days had lengthened rapidly and then shortened at the same pace. When the ship pulled into port in Invercargill, New Zealand, the does were two-thirds of the way through their gestation period, and the bucks had dropped their antlers. Now all they had to do was get their land legs back after months at sea and immediately learn to live on a diet made up entirely of plants they'd never even tasted!
"There was recently imported from America, and brought to New Zealand through the agency of the Tourist Department, a considerable shipment of sporting game," noted a story in the March 29, 1905, edition of the Southland Times, Invercargill's newspaper. "The intention of the Department was to distribute the game over the colony, choosing suitable places for the reception of the newcomers.
A VOICE FROM THE PAST
"The Southland Acclimatisation Society has received its proportion, and during the last few days its officers have been very busy forwarding deer and fowl to their final destinations. The consignment, which consisted of eighteen Virginian (white-tailed) deer, eleven Canadian wild geese [Canada geese], and six American black ducks, was brought to Invercargill on Friday last by Mr. Biggar, the Society's Ranger, assisted by Mr. Bell, who came over from America with the game imported.
"The deer, Mr. Bell says, are really fine representatives of their kind," the story continued, "and although they have traveled thousands of miles by sea and land during the past few months, they are in first-rate condition. On Saturday (March 26) nine of the Virginian deer were sent to Pegasus Sound, Stewart Island, and the remaining nine were forwarded to Rees Valley, Lake Wakatipu. These localities should be in every way suitable for the maintenance of the deer, and as they are prolific breeders a few years should decide whether acclimatisation has been successfully accomplished. The Virginian deer are considerably smaller than the red deer, and the stags have no horns. Their flesh is esteemed rather a dainty, and they provide good sport."
This account, only recently dug out of the newspaper's archives by dedicated New Zealand deer hunter John deLury, sheds some helpful light on the 1905 whitetail introduction. It tells us a lot about the deer, how and why they were transported to the South Pacific and when and where they were released into the wild.
But reading about how North America's favorite game animal found a home on the other side of the planet is one thing; seeing it with your own eyes is another. And so, more than a year ago, close friend Dr. James Kroll and I began planning a trip that would put us in New Zealand in March 2005: 100 years to the month after the deer themselves reached those rocky shores.
FAR FROM HOME
You don't just wake up one day and find yourself in New Zealand whitetail country. Getting there involves flying from wherever you live in North America to Los Angeles and then sitting for another 12-plus hours on a jet carrying you to Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island. From there, you have a choice to make: head a few hundred miles southwest, to the river valleys that feed huge Lake Wakatipu, or go 100 miles even farther down the South Island to Invercargill, the most southerly city in the world and the jumping-off point for the flight or water taxi ride to nearby Stewart Island.
Figuring this would likely be our only chance to investigate the whitetails in either place, James and I elected to go to both. We'd first drive (on the left side of the road, which is interesting in itself) to Lake Wakatipu, have a look at its whitetail habitat, chat with the locals and then drive south for a few days of hunting and observation on Stewart Island.
Fortunately, the plan called for us to be shown around by Dave McCarlie. A lifelong Kiwi, he's one of the partners in South Coast Productions, which specializes in documenting New Zealand's fascinating natural history. Among the company's many unique videos is a highly informative one on Stewart Island whitetail hunting.
After a welcomed night of rest at the Stone House in Queenstown, James and I met Dave on the morning of March 16 and headed west toward the village of Glenorchy, at the head of Lake Wakatipu. The scenery en route was superb . . . and it only improved near Glenorchy, where the Rees and Dart river valleys empty out of vast snow-capped mountains. (Note to "Lord of the Rings" movie buffs: This is where the scenes of Isengard, Lothlorien and Amon Hen were filmed. If you ever make it here, you won't question why the area is labeled "Paradise" on New Zealand maps.)
The whitetails stocked here in March 1905 were transported by several means. After arriving at New Zealand's southern tip on the ship from St. Louis, they presumably were loaded onto a train that ran 100 miles north, to the lower end of Lake Wakatipu. From there they most likely were loaded (in crates) onto a steamship for the run to Glenorchy at the head of the lake, a distance of perhaps 30 miles. But even there the journey didn't end. The travel-weary deer would have gone a few miles farther by horse-drawn wagon, into the lower end of the Rees River Valley, before being released once and for all in their new home.
Eager to see this land the whitetails had colonized, we met up with local hunter Jamie Veint, whose family owns a large "station" (farm/ranch) in the lower Dart River Valley. James and I spent a few hours quizzing him about local whitetail history and how the animals have adapted to the rugged landscape.
"In the summer months (late December into late March), you mostly see them feeding up in the grassy areas on the higher parts of the mountainsides," Jamie noted. "During the rut (late April through May) they move to lower elevations. We see them more in our sheep and cattle pastures in the valley as we start to get snow up high."
These mountains are largely covered with a canopy of several types of beech trees (all evergreen, and with far smaller leaves than beech trees in North America). High on the slopes, timber gives way to grassland dominated by a reddish bunchgrass known as tussock. From the timberline to the top of the rocky crags the countryside would seem better suited to mountain goats than whitetails. So why would deer be hanging out up there?
As is so often the case with wildlife, the answer is food. The beech forest itself has relatively little of it, for this is "crown" (public) land, and over many years the lack of timber cutting has resulted in a relatively old, stable forest. Under most circumstances, that doesn't exactly describe the sort of area in which whitetails would prefer to feed. Conversely, the native clovers and other forbs that lure sheep to the more open high country during the short growing season have great appeal to deer. As a result, in the summer the whitetails tend to bed below their feeding areas, bringing to mind the summer pattern exhibited by many Rocky Mountain mule deer.
Jamie is an avid hunter with a number of good whitetails to his credit. Several would score 130 inches or more on the Boone and Crockett system. However, as he notes, "Anything over about 100 B&C would be considered a good buck here." And this is generally regarded as the better of New Zealand's two whitetail areas in terms of trophy potential. The nation's top-scoring typical buck -- a 10-pointer that would score around 160 B&C -- came from not far away.
You might figure that any area stocked with only two bucks and seven does would have a lot of racks that are almost identical, due to a small gene pool. But that apparently isn't the case. Jamie and his dad, James, note that there are two general "looks" to racks in their area -- one high, tight and heavy, the other wider, lower and more sweeping -- but there's plenty of variation from one to the next.
One characteristic James and I did note on several of the racks was forking of the rear (G-2) tines, particularly on the left antler. It would be fascinating to know if either of the bucks turned loose near Glenorchy in 1905 had that trait -- but unless a late 1904/early 1905 photo of the stocked bucks can be located, we'll never know.
In speaking with Jamie and examining tooth wear on a number of skulls, James and I found that many of these bucks are fully mature. So what limits their antler size? It might be genetics, but marginal habitat appears to be a more likely culprit.
NO LEGAL PROTECTION
While the government was the driving force behind importing whitetails and other game during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and while the nation today has several thousand commercial deer farms, all New Zealand deer living in the wild are officially listed as "noxious species." They're regarded as threats to the native forest and are thus given no legal protection. The government simply wishes it had never imported any deer, and it isn't picky about the means used to control their numbers.
Because of this viewpoint, there is no "season" on deer; it's open all year long, with no bag limits or any real restrictions on hunting methods. Nor are you charged for a hunting license. In other words, if it's legal for killing a rat here in North America, it's for all practical purposes legal for killing a whitetail in New Zealand.
For that matter, there are remarkably few restrictions on the capture of wild deer, even if it involves the use of aircraft. In fact, while glassing the mountains above Glenorchy, we actually watched a privately owned helicopter work back and forth across the high tussock areas, looking for a buck that might be captured with a net gun and then transported to a high-fenced tract for commercial hunting purposes. A Wild Animal Recovery permit is all the operator needs in order to do this.
James and other researchers who use net-guns to capture whitetails in North America borrowed the method from the land of the kiwi, where it originated decades ago for capturing red deer in steep, thick country. It was interesting to watch practitioners of this method scour the mountainsides for potential deer to net. Of course, had we been stalking a buck high on one of those ridges, only to have a helicopter capture him out from under our noses, "interesting" wouldn't quite have been the right word for it. But that possibility is an accepted part of hunting the backcountry of New Zealand, where the helicopter has long been the preferred (though expensive) way to access remote locations for prime fishing and hunting.
At day's end, we glassed the back of a valley pasture that was filled with the Veint family's sheep and cattle. Jamie had been seeing a doe and two fawns come out there to feed in the evenings, and sure enough, we saw them as well. The doe brought her twins out of the beech forest and into the clover and ryegrass pasture just at dusk. True to her whitetail roots, the mother was teaching her young that cover and darkness are their best protection, whether from hunters on land or those in the sky. We were glassing from a public road that winds through the valley, and the deer never came within anything less than howitzer range before darkness enveloped the pasture in which they fed.
Our final day in Glenorchy found us visiting with
Iris Scott and her daughter, Kay, whose family owns a large station in the nearby Rees River Valley. (The Rees and Dart valleys flow on either side of imposing Mount Earnslaw, a towering peak the Maoris called "Pikirakatahi." I'm pretty sure that means "altitude sickness" in their native tongue.)
The Scott family came to the Rees Valley at the same time the whitetails did, just after the turn of the 20th century. The Scotts don't allow hunting on their property, but people still have a great impact on whitetails in the valley. There's no legal way for a landowner to keep helicopters out of the mountains, because as noted, those highlands are crown land. And with a public road winding for miles through the Scott property, it's even a challenge to keep trespassers out of the privately owned valley.
"We've thought about building a high fence," Iris told us, "but it would take quite a lot of it, and that's a very expensive option. We certainly would like to be able to manage the deer more effectively."
The Scotts and Veints are hard-working people of the land, and they appreciate the whitetail's presence in their amazing corner of the world. But in a place where there are far more regulations protecting the woods than the deer living in them, intensive North American-style management is hard to imagine. It wouldn't be impossible, but it will take real commitment, perhaps without any guarantee of an economic return for the landowners' trouble.
Leaving Glenorchy that evening, James and I pondered what we had seen and learned in our short time at Lake Wakatipu. We found a population of deer that had carved out a niche for themselves in habitat nothing like the one in which they had evolved. While they haven't exactly taken over -- by James' estimation, this herd has grown at the very low rate of only around 5 percent annually for the past century -- the deer we saw appeared healthy. That doe and her fawns might not have excited some hunters, but for two guys who'd traveled so far in search of the world's most isolated whitetails, just seeing them was a thrill.
Now it was time to get serious. We were heading even farther south, to observe and hunt whitetails on wild Stewart Island. What the next few days would hold, we obviously didn't know . . . but based on what we'd seen and heard so far, we knew it had a chance to be the most interesting deer hunt of our lives.
Turns out we were anything but disappointed!