A who's who of deer experts got together in Austin last week, and hearing what they had to say left some mixed, but mostly positive emotions.
The National Deer Alliance is at a pivotal juncture. In three years, the organization has seen some adjustments, some alignment, and one big thing: direction.
That is to say, what could and should become the most important deer organization in the country is lining itself up for success, helped in no small part by the 2017 Deer Summit that was held in Austin, Texas and fronted by the NDA and its CEO Nick Pinizzotto.
"This is not your typical deer conference," Pinizzotto told me before the Summit began. "It's designed specifically to get at the really tough issues we face in the deer world across the country. We're talking about things that are related to hunting, related to managing deer, and related to the hunting industry. We wanted to throw the tough questions out there, bring in the top experts, and try to find some solutions going forward."
If that was the mission, I'd say it was accomplished. Apart from a few tangible, actionable things, the biggest outcomes seemed to be a refreshed sense of energy and a fair amount of "Why didn't I think of that?" floating around in the rooms. The Deer Summit was a place to make connections and exchange ideas, and that's what made this event special.
Officials from the ATA, QDMA, Mule Deer Foundation, Whitetails Unlimited, Bass Pro Shops and more showed that the NDA is a true "alliance" in every sense of the word. While there could be a competitive nature to their relationships, it didn't seem that way, and the NDA is to thank for uniting these groups. The 200-odd attendees all seemed to get something out of the event.
Bringing it Together
The full spectrum of topics ranged from general "State of the Whitetail" addresses all the way to CWD-specific discussions with deer program leaders from various wildlife departments around the country. One particular panel addressed the political and social science of deer hunting and management, zooming in on something Pinizzotto mentioned should be a priority:
"Messaging is something that I think, as an outdoor hunting industry, we haven't been great at," Pinizzotto said. "It's always been easy for us to talk about hunting tactics, or how to kill a deer, or how to catch a fish. But we've always struggled with talking about the issues, and talking to non-hunters about the issues and why they matter."
Other panels looked at deer hunting access across the country, a topic near and dear to most hunters' hearts, as well as the Farm Bill, which stands to affect deer hunters and managers more than some realized.
One memorable remark came from Tim Donges, who heads QDMA's Bluestem Branch in Kansas. His dedication to deer legislation leads him to testify at public hearings, working closely with the Big Game Coordinator in his home state. Towards the end of the Summit, he brought up an idea that I think made sense.
His idea boiled down to a Deer Stamp, much like the Duck Stamp, that allows for deer-dedicated fund generation. The deer hunters pay for the stamp, and the money pays for a lot of the collective work that needs to be done. Habitat, legislation, regulation, and education can all be addressed with a single source of clear cut capital.
That's the sort of thing that encouraged some excitement.
The Scary Part
So, what was so worrisome? A few things: The level of CWD-affected deer herds, and the thought that little can be done to slow its spread. Also, although it's somewhat unavoidable, various wildlife departments differ widely in their method of dealing with deer.
While things sometimes have to be done differently in different places, it seems to me like there'd be an advantage in an umbrella group that can help direct the actions of deer and wildlife departments across the board.
One other thing is tough not to notice, but equally tough to bring up. The vast majority of attendees at the 2017 NDA Deer Summit were--get this--older men. This isn't a problem, per se. But it is something worth addressing. Now it's obvious that the stakeholders, participants, and all-around experts in the deer field are in that demographic. At the same time, I (and others around the Summit) thought some more diverse perspectives would have been an asset.
Raising the number of women in attendance, and possibly arranging for a panel of millennials to share their thoughts and opinions, could have really added something valuable. It's hard to try and come up with something that would improve the Deer Summit as a whole, but this might be one hot spot worthy of addressing.
Making a Mark
Without a doubt, the 2017 National Deer Alliance Deer Summit should be remembered as a success. Pinizzotto and his team brought together a good group of people in a welcoming atmosphere. The discussions were meaningful, and even when there was disagreement, discourse was civil and everyone tried to see eye to eye.
Here's the kicker: The National Deer Alliance has a really good thing going, but what's their mark going to be? It's early, and it doesn't have to be immediate, but in order to really make a difference in the deer world, the NDA needs to put something, and ideally something big, on their mantle.
There should be a point in the near future when someone says "What's the NDA?" and we're able to answer "Oh, they're the ones who did..." Whether that's a rule change, a mentality shift, or a solution to CWD remains to be seen. But if the NDA can find that something, they're well prepared to take it to the levels of importance that will affect you, me, and every deer hunter on the continent.
As a reminder, the NDA is completely free to join, and it just might be one of the smartest things you can do as a deer hunter. They're helping keep us all informed and fighting the good fight, so consider joining them. You might just be a part of something big.