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. …