Shoot locally

Kill any green deer lately?

Chances are you have, if you followed the prime directive of ethical hunting — that you eat what you shoot.

A wild deer, with its bulk built from acorns and clover, supplies some of the most environmentally-responsible protein a person can eat. It's a source that requires less water, fossil fuels or carbon emissions than the meat and even the vegetables Americans typically consume.

Hunters often claim to be the original environmentalists. In the case of their diet, a back-of-the-bar-napkin ESPNOutdoors.com analysis suggests they may have a point.

The short version — if you don't want to plod through the math below — eating a pound of wild venison instead of a pound of beef may keep roughly a gallon of gas out of industrial food production.

If you figure that the average American eats almost half a pound of meat per day, that's potentially a huge savings of carbon going into the atmosphere (to say nothing of the national security implications of saving oil).

"If you think of the average hunter as a guy who hunts around his area, a lot of venison comes from a block away," says Steven Rinella, a hunter and author of "The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine" and, forthcoming in a couple of weeks, "American Buffalo."

He said that as a kid, he used to bowhunt deer right around his house, "before anyone had any idea about this 'eating local' garbage."

Yes, "eating local." That would be the premise that an eater — e.g., you and everyone you know — can conserve natural resources almost passively, simply by eating food produced close to home. Pick the farmer's market blueberries instead of those flown in from Chile, the thinking goes, and you spare the Earth a heapin' helping of exhaust fumes.

To give an idea, look at Michael Pollan's essay, "Farmer in Chief," published in the New York Times Magazine in October. He cites a study that says as much as 37 percent of the greenhouse gases America emits comes from our food production, and not just from your driving to Safeway. Tilling fields releases carbon; fertilizers and pesticides are made from fossil fuels; and big machines harvest and transport our food.

"[A] system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used [turned] into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food," he writes. "Put another way, when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases."

He advises the incoming administration: "You should support hunting as a particularly sustainable way to eat meat — meat grown without any fossil fuels whatsoever."

You may not want to drive a Prius, but if you hunt, you can sure eat like one. Think globally, shoot locally.

Now, our breakdown, as you'll see, makes a boatload of assumptions.

For one, it neglects the huge freezer (powered by electricity likely derived from burning coal) a hunter will probably use to store the meat. It ignores any trips back and forth from a target range for shooting practice; it ignores the burden of making and using trucks and off-road vehicles that otherwise wouldn't be needed for a hunt.

It leaves out extravagant hunting trips like the ones Rinella takes to Alaska, in which he and a companion will charter a plane to his cabin on Prince of Wales Island to shoot sheep. "Insanely consumptive," he calls it. But he has a neighbor there who kills four blacktails a year hunting from a skiff, dragging shrimp pods with him as he goes. "Talk about low impact," Rinella says.

This tally also ignores the impact of burning firewood in your deer camp's potbelly stove, of making an extra beer run to town once you kill the deer, and of the fumes from the after-dinner cigar. Certainly, we could get all Quicken with our calculations, but maybe we should leave it at this: Hunting, done simply, deserves a place in any conversation about sustainable food production.

There are so many variables here — size and type of the deer, the distance traveled to kill it, whether a deer is corn-fed — that the environmental cost of an "average" deer is impossible to ascertain.

But let's take a reasonable guess. First, we wonder, how much meat does a dressed-out deer yield, and how many calories does that meat contain? Then, how does that compare to the investment of resources required to produce a comparable nutritional yield from beef?

Actually, the beef question is the simplest. David Pimentel, a professor of ecology and agricultural sciences at Cornell University and an expert on energy inputs and benefits in food, cites the Department of Agriculture's figure of 40 kilocalories (a kilocalorie, or kcal, is 1,000 calories) of fossil fuels in each kcal of beef protein. "It's not insignificant," he says.

A kilogram of raw ground beef contains about 2,540 kcal, with 880 kcal of that coming from the protein, and a gallon of gas contains roughly 30,000 kcal. Our math says that kg of beef (about 2.2 pounds) requires a calorie transfer from fossil fuels equal to about 1.2 gallons of gas.

Wild game venison, by contrast, requires only that a deer be allowed to roam freely until such time as he or she is shot. Unless you're feeding it corn, the net fossil fuel input to raise a doe or buck is zero. But how many kcal will that deer provide a hungry hunter?

Again, that number will vary tremendously, so ESPNOutdoors.com called deer processors in Colorado, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Ohio for their guesses. According to those processors, a typical ratio of edible meat from a dressed carcass is 50 to 60 percent, depending on the size of the deer and the skill with which it was shot and field-dressed.

Reached at Warner's Deer Processing in Richwood, Ohio, second-generation processor Charles Warner said he had butchered a large deer that morning that yielded 66 percent of the carcass weight as meat.

"That was exceptional," Warner said. "You could figure roughly 60 percent would be average. We've had them as low as 35 pounds and as high as 208."

So figure on 60 percent of a good-sized deer carcass — which, to pick a realistic round number, might weigh 100 pounds. Sixty pounds of raw, ground venison, at the Department of Agriculture's listed 214 grams of protein per kg, would yield nearly 6 kg of protein for the dinner table.

The equivalent amount of protein from ground beef would require 26 kg of meat. Each of those kg, remember, requires the fossil fuel equivalent of 1.2 gallons of gas to manufacture — or about 30 gallons of gas for 58 pounds of beef.

In other words, as long as you're burning less than a half-a-gallon of gas for each pound of wild venison you harvest instead of beef, you're conserving petroleum — and the carbon emissions and other environmental degradations that come with its use.

"It's not a big leap mentally to see the extension from gardening and farmer's markets to hunting local foods," Rinella says. "I think that's going to be a big part of hunting in the future is going to be that mentality. That'll be something that people give as an example of why they hunt. Ten years ago, no one would have said, 'Because it uses less resources and because it's a sustainable source of protein.'"

That attitude may have been a while in coming. But so long as you're not driving or flying all over creation to take a deer — or an elk, or a moose, or a turkey — that trophy buck in your sights makes for some highly prudent protein.