In 2014, I was invited to attend the first North American Whitetail Summit. I thought it was because of my extensive knowledge of, and experience with whitetail management and biology. It turns out that I was just there to report on the proceedings. The principle purpose of the Summit was to bring all the stakeholders focused on whitetails to a single gathering.
Given that whitetails are North America's single most important wildlife species in terms of participation (11 million deer hunters), economics (spend about $1,700 a year, collectively amounting to $18 billion) and conservation in general (that supports countless other wildlife programs), it was surprising such a coordinated effort had never been attempted before.
Attendants were tasked first with identifying issues they felt most threatened the future of deer conservation, and then with prioritizing those issues and identifying strengths and opportunities. Much was accomplished at the Summit, not the least of which was a unanimous acknowledgment of the need for a national organization dedicated to uniting deer hunters, managers and enthusiasts in the conservation of North America's wild deer populations.
Out of that, the National Deer Alliance (NDA) was born. The Quality Deer Management Association was first handed the reins and charged with developing the concept. They then involved Whitetails Unlimited and Mule Deer Foundation. By 2015, the NDA became an independent entity and had a full board of directors and an interim director, Craig Dougherty. The next step was to recruit and hire a permanent president and CEO, an honor eventually bestowed upon Nick Pinizzotto.
I recently had an opportunity to talk with Nick about the NDA, starting with how he became involved.
"On a personal level was my passion for deer and deer hunting," he said. "I was an outdoorsman from a very young age, having grown up in Pennsylvania where deer hunting is like a religion."
That passion grew into a career eventually involving leadership roles with several outdoor conservation organizations like Delta Waterfowl and the U.S. Sportsman's Alliance (now just Sportsman's Alliance).
"It's not every day you get a chance to start a national deer organization. I was flattered they were interested in me."
At the time Nick was being considered for the position with NDA it was still unclear what this organization would look like and how would it be different from the existing deer organizations.
"For me it became clear to me during the recruitment process," he said. "It was impressive that the existing three national deer organizations were the ones starting NDA cooperatively and they were doing it to be a bigger help to all deer species across the country, primarily on a policy level. These other groups do a lot more on-the-ground conservation but recognize a much greater need for work on the policy level. So the NDA was to be a policy umbrella, a unified voice for the three deer groups and all deer hunters."
I next asked Nick about some of NDA's current objectives and priorities
"One of the first things we did was to develop a comprehensive strategic plan, relying on deer leaders across country from various disciplines for help."
They then established NDA's top priorities. First is wild deer conservation, and Pinizzotto emphasized that this immediately separated them from the captive deer industry. Next are things like diseases, hunter access, predators and competitors and state and federal land management, all of which were identified as key issues in previous deer summits.
Pinizzotto added, "We also have an internal strategy for communications and growth as we need to spread the word about who we are and what we do."
Then it was time to go to work.
"We immediately launched into working on those issues and I found out very quickly there would be more than enough work to go around. This is a critical time for the NDA because we've never before seen politics so involved in deer hunting." He added, "I wish NDA had been created 20 years ago because we'd be more mature and prepared for this tidal wave of issues affecting the deer hunting and management community.
In our first year we dealt with 39 different issues that affect deer and we'll fly right past that in 2017. For example, there are probably over 100 bills or regulation changes that affect deer hunters right now across the country that people are unaware of because they're not focused on it every day."
Obviously, the NDA can't address every bill and potential rule change so they have to prioritize.
"Annually I revisit our overall priorities and write an action plan," he said. "This year one our key focus areas is going to be diseases, with a heavy focus on CWD. I've probably been in 20 different CWD meetings already this year. To this point there's been a lot of effort directed toward CWD but it's been spotty. It hasn't been focused or coordinated. We're not the ones trying to solve the problem; we're not the science experts but we're trying to be the glue that brings different groups like NGOs (non-government organizations), state agencies and top scientists together to work on it."
Another focus issue is hunter access.
"It continues to be a problem on the national level, particularly with the recent push to transfer federal land to states, and the impact that could have on hunters. We're also looking at state programs to provide more access because we know not having a place to hunt is one of the biggest deterrents to hunters."
I then asked Pinizzotto to look into his crystal ball and tell me what the NDA might look like in five or 10 years.
"In our brightest day, when we're clicking on all cylinders, I don't ever see us being more than a $1-1.5 million budget organization with maybe three or four full-time staff. There's no need for us to grow a giant organization that requires a lot of money to keep us fed. I'd rather be small, flexible and effective. I think we're going to grow organically and let the needs and issues dictate our growth."
And how will the general hunting public view you?
"Hopefully they'll see that we are the policy arm of deer hunting. We're the group that represents the front line in terms of working on the political end of things. It's not the most exciting thing, especially for the average hunter, to be involved with but they have to understand the importance of it," he says.
And NDA tries to make it easier for those who wish to get involved.
"We have our NDA Grassroots Advocacy Center where you can see what the state and federal issues are and send a letter to your legislator. That's all we ask of the deer hunter is to be aware of the issues and be willing to act on them when you get the opportunity." They don't even ask for dues. Membership in the NDA is free.
That made what Pinizzotto told me next even more sobering. Owing largely to the numbers cited at the beginning of this piece, deer hunters should have the biggest and the loudest voice in wildlife conservation, yet less than one percent of deer hunters are members of the national deer groups. It's free, and it's THE advocacy group for our nation's 11 million deer hunters. For more information, check out the NDA right here.