April 15, 2021
By Andrew McKean
America’s deer hunters are a notoriously cantankerous lot. We find a way to squabble over methods and management, our expectations of what makes a good hunting season, and even what qualifies as a worthy buck. Our fractious nature is one reason deer hunters have been unable to get behind a common approach to deer conservation, even as species-specific efforts have successfully advocated on behalf of other critters from wild turkeys and ducks to ring-necked pheasants and elk.
The Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) changed some of that by coalescing whitetail hunters around the idea that if we carefully manage herds, we can help Mother Nature produce older and larger bucks. But the QDMA was mainly limited to the South and never escaped the perception that it was a club for large landowners, who had adequate acreage with controlled hunting pressure to enact management strategies.
Whitetails Unlimited has its roots in the Midwest and claims more than 114,000 members nationwide, but it functions mainly on the local level. The group hosts fundraising events and awards grants that support county and state conservation projects and educational programs rather than advocating for national deer policy.
Then there was the National Deer Alliance, which was born in 2015 out of a recognition that individual deer-advocacy groups don’t have the national clout that America’s 11 million deer hunters should wield. The Alliance was created to be the voice on policy issues of the QDMA, Whitetails Unlimited and the Mule Deer Foundation.
That’s all a backdrop for the biggest news in whitetail country since Jim Crumley introduced his Trebark Camo in 1980: the establishment last fall of the National Deer Association (NDA), created out of parts and pieces from the QDMA and National Deer Alliance. It’s noteworthy because the new NDA knows what it wants to be—a membership-based deer-advocacy organization that remains lean and focused on threats to deer hunting, deer health and deer habitat.
We sat down with Pennsylvania deer hunter Nick Pinizzotto, the president and CEO of the NDA, to learn what the organization is, what it is not, and how it intends to give America’s deer hunters the voice they deserve.
Game & Fish: How is the new National Deer Association different from the National Deer Alliance? They have pretty similar names.
Nick Pinizzotto: Their names are similar, but their missions are different. The Association was formed from QDMA and the parts of the National Deer Alliance that realized America’s whitetail hunters need a voice. While there’s no doubt the QDMA was 100 percent focused on whitetails, the National Deer Alliance was always concerned with all North American deer species on a policy level.
The National Deer Alliance was 100 percent policy-focused whereas QDMA focused more on education, boots-on-the-ground conservation and hunter recruitment through the Field to Fork program. The other difference was the National Deer Alliance did not have a paid membership and instead considered anyone who signed up for its e-newsletter to be a member. The new organization brings the best of both groups together.
The merger makes the new NDA an organization for all deer, but we retain a lot of the boots-on-the-ground work from the QDMA, including Deer Steward certification, the Field to Fork hunter recruitment efforts, a focus on healthy habitat, etc. We think that’s right, because we have the Mule Deer Foundation working on deer issues and habitats in the West.
G&F: Why do we need a National Deer Association in the first place?
NP: Seven out of every 10 hunting-license buyers in America pursues deer. No other species is close. The money generated by deer hunters when it comes to license sales alone is impressive, and when you consider how much deer hunters spend on items that support the Pittman-Robertson Act, which benefits all wildlife, then it becomes clear that deer hunters are funding most wildlife conservation in America. And that’s just in terms of dollars.
Now think about what an increasingly educated deer hunter is doing on the ground. We’re doing conservation on private lands at a scale that’s unprecedented, and I’m not talking about putting in a food plot here and there. Hunters are improving the landscape for all wildlife, even if their motivation is deer and killing big bucks.
G&F: That’s great, but you still haven’t convinced me that deer hunters need a National Deer Association in order to continue our work.
NP: Good point. Deer hunting is more than grip-and-grin photos over cranker bucks. When you are hunting, you might not appreciate all the work that put that deer in front of you. It’s decades of work by people to establish seasons and educate non-hunters to support the system that allows hunters to fund our own passions, through hunting licenses and federal excise taxes on sporting goods. We can’t take that for granted.
We need a National Deer Association to continue to lead education efforts so we have more of the above, not less. Equal to our impact on education is our impact on policy that affects deer and deer hunters. Diseases like chronic wasting disease, habitat impairment and anti-hunting sentiments are all issues that affect our ability to hunt deer, and all are topics that we’re actively fighting every week.
G&F: Don’t state agencies advocate for deer hunters?
NP: State wildlife agencies do a great job, but we know through research and reality that groups like ours are more trusted by sportsmen and -women than state or federal agencies. These agencies are less effective at reaching sportsmen or policy makers than we are, and going forward I see us doing more of their work, simply because we are trusted more than they are.
G&F: Why does the policy level matter to an ordinary deer hunter?
NP: I’m not asking all deer hunters to become experts on policy matters, but they should at least be aware and be willing to make a phone call or send a letter on things important to them. They need to learn about chronic wasting disease in particular and understand what they can do to help slow its spread, while also listening to the guidance of their state wildlife agency.
They should also know that there is an increasing problem with deer hunters being elbowed out where they can be helpful, particularly on the edges of cities and in the suburbs where local officials are turning to things like vasectomies and contraceptives instead of hunting. It’s not just happening in the big urban areas like most would suspect. I see unwillingness to manage overpopulated herds through hunting in my own community, and I live in a rural western Pennsylvania county where you’d least expect it.
G&F: How can a deer hunter make a difference in these issues?
NP: We want to make it as easy as possible for them to act. We use a grassroots advocacy program that allows people to send letters to their elected officials with just a few clicks of a mouse, or even their phones. We also provide weekly policy updates and other important information in our free weekly newsletter, which you don’t have to be a member to get.
Our long-term goal is to create a movement for deer to raise awareness of their importance to all wildlife conservation, and also to educate people about how hunting is an important element. I said early on during our merger process that we are a conservation organization and we should endeavor to have people join us who may have no intention to kill a deer themselves. The caveat is they have to support hunting and understand why it’s important. When people think about deer, we want them to think about us.
G&F: How will you know you are successful?
NP: In terms of big-picture success, we want policy wins annually and we want to have more educated elected officials. We’re already making progress there. Five years ago I doubt you could find five congressmen that knew what CWD was and probably half of them couldn’t pick a whitetail out of a lineup. But I don’t ever want our success to be measured by how many paying members we have. Our mission is to ensure the future of wild deer, wildlife habitat and hunting, and our progress toward that is what’s most important.
G&F: We started talking about all the things that deer hunters disagree about. What do we agree about?
NP: A love for deer. It’s our most iconic game animal. Hunters lead the way in that regard and I’ll always argue that nobody cares more about deer than hunters do. But we’re a passionate group. We can become easily divided when it comes to hunting methods, population goals, antler-point restrictions and what camo pattern is the best. We stay out of those arguments and stay focused on the biological and political science so we can educate as many hunters who are willing to listen. When someone decides to become a member I want them to consider that they’ve just made a decision to be more informed about the issues that impact deer and hunting, and I hope they plan to take it even further by participating in our mission.
Editor’s Note: For information on joining the National Deer Association, visit nationaldeerassociation.com. Annual membership dues are $35.