Whitetail deer dominate hunting in America. A species whose population was estimated at less than a half million continent-wide in the 1930s now numbers about 30 million, and some days it can seem like every one of them is in your neighbor’s food plot.
The abundance and ubiquity of deer make them–by far–our favorite game to pursue. We see their popularity in the aisles of hunting stores, where we spent $18.1 billion on deer gear last year. We see whitetails dominate the pages of magazines like this one. And we certainly see it in hunting-license sales. Nearly 16 million Americans hunted deer last year, and some days it seems like every one of them is hunting the same public property as you.
Compare that to the 4 million turkey hunters. Or the 1.5 million of us who hunt ducks and geese. Or the 1 million U.S. elk hunters.
Popularity is a flimsy thing, though. Despite the number of deer hunters, and the passion and resources we devote to whitetails, we are lousy advocates for the resource. Here’s one way to measure that: Ducks Unlimited has nearly 600,000 adult members, meaning that nearly half of all waterfowl hunters in the U.S. belong to that single conservation organization. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation just topped 200,000 members. The Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA), the most active and credible whitetail organization on the continent, has around 50,000 members.
Instead of joining a wide community of enthusiasts, deer hunters are more likely to segregate themselves by subset. If you are a traditional bowhunter, you can find a group to join. If you are a trophy buck hunter, there’s an organization for you. If you are a left-handed, crossbow-shooting Southerner obsessed with non-typical antlers, you can probably find a club of deer hunters just like you.
But why isn’t there a single organization of millions that’s advocating for all deer hunters?
For starters, there hasn’t been the need. Those other species-specific groups were created to restore their namesake critter.
Plus, we deer hunters can’t agree on proposals to ban baiting or high-fence shooting operations, and we are divided by antler-point restrictions and CWD containment.
There’s a risk to all this balkanization. Farm Bureaus are keen to reduce deer populations. Sharpshooters are replacing hunters as the tool to remove nuisance deer in municipalities. And public acceptance of hunting–the only reason we get to hunt in America–could vanish without constant care and attention.
We need a national group with political influence derived from its millions of members, a gravitational pull that can direct resource-management decisions, and lead education and outreach efforts to promote and defend deer hunting.
I don’t care what it’s called–the Deer Association, Whitetails Forever, Flagtail Nation–but it’s high time we deer hunters, on a national basis, started working together instead of apart.