The first week of March I had the honor of attending the first North American Whitetail Summit held at Cedar Lakes Resort near Branson, Missouri.
I had interest in the Summit for several reasons. First, I served on the steering committee and was committed to seeing this conference succeed. Second, whitetails are the “cash cow” of many state wildlife agencies and without healthy deer herds the many wildlife and ecologically-sound activities of our state wildlife agencies could not be done. Yes, it is that simple. Financially, whitetails pay a ton of the funds we use in wildlife conservation and hunting brings in $18 billion a year to the US economy. No question, deer are the backbone of our hunting heritage. Third, there are many different stakeholders involved with deer, and I hoped this Summit would create dialogue between them.
Why hold a whitetail Summit at this time? Simple. Although we seem to have lots of deer, there are serious issues facing the future of whitetails. For example, in recent years deer numbers have plummeted in certain areas. We’ve also seen extended droughts and nasty winters affect deer and diseases and predation are way up in some areas. Deer game farming and genetic manipulation of captive deer are on the rise and are a potentially huge negative factor for wild deer. We’ve also seen a recent increase in politics taking precedent over science relative to deer management in some states. Short term gains, long term disasters.
And so it was that with financial backing from Bass Pro Shops, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Pope and Young Club and others, the Quality Deer Management Association hosted this 4-day summit. The Summit was attended by representatives from 19 companies in the hunting industry, 18 state wildlife agencies, nine Universities, 17 landowner groups, 13 hunting and conservation organizations, deer hunters from 30 states, and media representatives. I was there representing Bowhunter magazine but also sat in on sessions representing West Virginia University.
In breakout sessions each of the stakeholder groups identified their top issues of concern relative to the future of whitetails. They then listed ways to address each issue, and discussed what each of the other stakeholder groups should do to guarantee a strong future for whitetails.
OK, then what were the key issues? Space doesn’t permit me to list issues from each of the six stakeholder groups, but there was significant overlap, so let me summarize the top issues. Hunter access was a key issue. Urbanization and land conversion was another and this links to hunter access as well. Converting woods and fields to housing developments, football stadiums, golf courses, Walmarts, airports, Interstate highways, etc., seriously impact where deer can live as well as where deer hunters can hunt. Private forested tracts are getting smaller all the time. Someone dies, and the heirs split up the property. Development occurs on some of that, and deer find refuge on other small tracts of land. More importantly, these smaller tracts of forests become off limits to hunters. Areas you once hunted are gone or posted by new owners or the heirs to the people who formerly owned the land and allowed you to hunt there. Not any more.
All of this leads to fewer hunters. No place to hunt means fewer new hunters and the dropping out of other hunters. These are major issues for the future.
Though hunter numbers have increased in recent years, hunter recruitment and retention were also major issues. Another big issue was the loss of university programs that do not produce applied management training. This could be a killer. For various reasons (maybe I’ll do these in another column) schools with big wildlife management training programs have gone away from applied training. Add to that the fact that fewer and fewer wildlife students no longer hunt. Thus, when it comes time for a state or federal agency to hire a wildlife manager, wildlife biologist, deer biologist, etc., the chances are that such students will have more training in conservation biology than applied wildlife management. In fact, this is occurring and will continue to get worse over the coming decade.
Another issue is the fact that politicians are more and more, influencing wildlife decision-making. Science is being ignored and politics takes over. The captive cervid industry is a prime example of this, as many states are now moving to allow agriculture to control them by removing control from the wildlife agency. Part of this problem relates to the fact that in the past 3 years, 30 states have replaced the directors of their wildlife agencies. Whoa. That is a huge turnover. It is hard to maintain a strong link to your state legislature when your directors aren’t there very long.
What did the stakeholders propose to deal with these issues? Let’s do that in my April column. Meanwhile, watch for the creation of a Whitetail Coalition to tackle the problems facing our whitetails. There were lots of positives came from the Summit and the Quality Deer Management Association did an outstanding job in organizing this event. Johnny Morris from Bass Pro Shops deserves a special pat on the back for his role in helping the Summit take place.
As developments from this Summit take place, I’ll bring them to you. Meanwhile, we’ve taken a big first step to insure the future health of our great white-tailed deer. Other than the drive in crazy weather, it was fun being there.
For more please go to: The Future of Hunting