American author Charles Dudley Warner once wrote, “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”
Likewise, many good people and organizations have spent the past 20 years worrying about the future of hunting, but most struggle to do anything about it. After all, much like the weather, hunting is often affected by huge forces we don’t control or comprehend.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t identify issues and try to address them. If you gathered more than 200 people and asked them to pinpoint hunting’s most pressing challenges, they could quickly identify a Top 10 list. But if you asked them to eliminate white-tailed deer from the discussion, you’d soon be frustrated. More than ever, hunting in North America revolves around whitetails.
That fact arose continually when the Quality Deer Management Association held the “2014 North American Whitetail Summit” near Branson, Mo., earlier this spring. Although the Summit was called to address whitetails and deer issues, their fate was repeatedly linked to hunting’s future.
“This was a landmark meeting,” said Jay McAninch, president/CEO of the Archery Trade Association. “Whitetails touch people’s lives in many ways, whether they’re hunters, farmers, foresters, gardeners or motorists. And they’ve been the archery/bowhunting industry’s No. 1 economic asset since the 1970s.
“We can’t take whitetails for granted,” McAninch continued. “They affect every phase of our lives, and go far beyond hunting and the hunting industry. They’re part of our food chain, they impact other species, they’re overrunning some suburbs, and they’re now at the center of significant disease research, some of which have human-health implications.”
McAninch said a good way to gauge the whitetail’s importance is to scan the list of Summit attendees. It included Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Dan Forster, director of Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division and president of the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies; top-ranking officials from 18 state wildlife agencies; research scientists from nine major universities; deer hunters from 20 states and one Canadian province; and representatives from 19 companies, 17 landowner groups and 13 hunting/conservation organizations.
Brian Murphy, CEO of the QDMA, said it was important to attract key decision-makers and stakeholders from across whitetail country. “You see summits convene regularly to discuss ducks, pheasants and wild turkeys, but until now, no one ever met to discuss whitetails,” Murphy said. “We can’t solve 40 years of accumulated issues in one meeting, but this was a first step. We wanted to start that process, and we exceeded our expectations.”
Among those representing the hunting industry was Will Primos, founder of Primos Game Calls. Primos thinks he knows why it took until 2014 to convene a whitetail summit meeting.
“People haven’t put a real conservation value on whitetails because there are so many of them,” Primos said. “Most conservation efforts the past many decades sprang from necessity. And they succeeded because they helped rescue a game animal from decline, whether it was elk, ducks or wild turkeys. Now we’re seeing areas where all those whitetails have changed their habitat. They’re facing disease issues, they have more mouths to feed than some habitats can support and, in some cases, there aren’t as many deer as people want.
“But until this meeting, no one got together to sustain whitetails. We must start paying more attention to them. They’re the driving force in 90 percent of our company’s sales, they’re our nation’s No. 1 big-game animal, and they add more value to rural properties than almost anything else.”
Summit participants ranked these 10 issues as whitetail/deer hunting’s most pressing challenges:
1) Hunter recruitment and retention 6) Deer diseases
2) Education & outreach for hunters 7) Public concerns about deer numbers
3) Access to hunting land 8) Habitat loss/landscape changes
4) Political influences on hunting, deer management 9) Connecting hunters to scientific information
5) Captive deer industry 10) Impacts of predators, feral hogs, invasive species
The participants didn’t always agree on where to rank an issue’s importance although the assemblage ranked recruitment/retention as deer hunting’s top priority.
Fred Pape, president and CEO of Pape’s Inc., gave hunter recruitment/retention top billing but felt all issues were almost equal in weight. Pape, who’s also a past Board of Directors member for the ATA and a current board member of the QDMA, said it’s tough to rank one issue over another because many are intertwined.
“We depend heavily on the long-term health of white-tailed deer populations,” Pape said. “It would be hard to recruit and retain hunters without healthy deer herds, and it would be hard to ensure the whitetail’s long-term health without strong hunter numbers.”
Murphy said the Summit achieved its purpose of determining priority issues, but now the work begins. “We’re evaluating how the different representatives ranked the challenges, and we’ll follow up to see which ones we must pursue,” he said.
McAninch is confident the QDMA can take ideas from the Summit and turn them into action. “Ultimately, a Summit meeting is all about follow-up, accountability and commitment,” McAninch said. “Change won’t come overnight, and challenges won’t stand still. For each challenge you solve, new ones often emerge. But that’s why we need to convene summits and develop partnerships. By the time we meet again, whether it’s 2015, 2016 or 2017, we’ll probably narrow the agenda, identify three or four core issues, and set goals for achieving them. One key is to build on the considerable momentum we all felt at the 2014 Summit.”
McAninch is also confident the QDMA is well-suited to coordinate a comprehensive whitetail management initiative for North America. “The QDMA is grounded in science, and understands the importance of working with hunters and landowners,” McAninch said. “They’re all about quality deer, quality habitat, quality hunting and educated hunters. They touch all the important bases in deer management and the hunting community. Here’s to hoping we can all unite behind them to focus our interests and implement our agenda.”