Why Science Matters in Deer Hunting

 

“Bull$h1t!!!”

That was one person’s response when we recently posted a video on NDA social channels about how wildlife agencies use science to calculate deer harvest estimates every year. For whatever reason, this individual adamantly rejected the notion that some deer nerd in an office somewhere could do such a thing. 

Interestingly, though, that person wasn’t alone. There were lots of other posts/views in the same vein. There always are. Why?

In this blog I’ll do my best to answer that question and explain why I and many others think science matters. 

Anti-Science Origins

People subscribe to certain belief systems that strongly drive the decisions they make, their actions, and ultimately charts who they are as a person. Experts argue that the general rejection of science comes not so much from a lack of scientific literacy but rather from deep-rooted emotional and psychological ideologies, conspiracist worldviews, or even irrational yet real fears and phobias. I personally believe these reasons and others are why the above kinds of responses are pretty darn common, at least when science is applied to deer hunting. 

Science begets technology begets modernization. Science is emotionally invisible to most, while something as traditional as hunting is tangible. You can smell it. Literally, taste it. Hunting involves family, history, and often spirituality; science is anything but. 

Some pick and choose the science they disagree with while others are simply motivated to reject any aspect of science that doesn’t align with their ideology. Disagreeing with science doesn’t make someone a bad person, as they’re just sticking to their convictions – but doing so does make it significantly more difficult to manage and become better at chasing deer, at any scale.  

Who Cares?

The National Deer Association was actually born in the late 1980s from the combined vision of two wildlife biologists to promote a change in how to hunt deer and organize deer hunters. This effort, known as the QDM philosophy, in essence applied “science” as a means to directly improve herds, habitat and hunting. 

And, it worked. In fact, QDM has fundamentally changed deer and the deer hunting culture across North America.

Science is where this organization came from, and why the NDA will always support science-based information and policy. Politics and opinions are no way to manage a natural resource like deer. When it comes to deciding the best thing to do for the resource, we look to the best available science and let it guide the organization to always doing what’s best for deer, which is not always what public opinion or politicians want.

So, who cares? We do, and my guess is that since you’ve read this far, so do you.

“The” Method

First and foremost, the scientific method involves being a skeptic – just like the original commenter above. It also involves critical thinking, testing theories and ultimately using logic (through the process of elimination) to learn something. In many ways the most productive deer hunters out there use the scientific method every fall to better themselves and to improve success rates in future seasons, whether hunting private or public, small or large tracts. If you’ve hunted for very long, my guess is that you’ve made mistakes and learned from them. 

Science is not scary. It’s not fake. It is human – because we are problem-solvers.

How Science Applies to Deer Conservation

Unquestionably, the application of science has drastically improved our understanding of deer biology, behavior, and management and has made us ALL better hunters. It’s also quickset within the foundation of conservation. To prove that, I’ll profile recent examples of scientific research projects that apply to the four focal points of the NDA mission. After looking at each, it should be basically impossible to claim that science hasn’t positively impacted your hunting, as well as deer and wildlife conservation efforts today:

Education and Outreach – White-tailed deer are literally the most widespread and most studied large mammal on the planet. In the past 70+ years scientists have investigated just about every aspect about them you could imagine. Since I can’t pick just one example from this category, here are the 20 biggest deer research discoveries of the last decade. If you don’t learn something that improves the way you hunt or manage your property from that list, maybe it’s time to pick up golf (or, improve your short game). 

Herd Health – Scientists have been studying practical techniques and information that may help slow the spread of some of the worst deer diseases, like Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) or Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD). Along those lines, just in the last few years experts have discovered that CWD prions on stainless steel can be neutralized by a 5-minute soak in household bleach, and that drought severity is a significant predictor of EHD presence. With results like these, we can maintain hope that cures may be found someday for either ailment. 

Hunter Recruitment – Researchers recently released the results of a nationwide survey on interest and participation in hunting among college students at public universities in 22 states, revealing promising pathways to hunter recruitment and retention. They surveyed 17,203 undergraduates and found that 20% were potential hunters, which meant they said they “might try it once,” or they “might hunt rarely or regularly in the future.” Potential deer hunters were a more diverse group compared to active hunters; 43% were from urban areas, 74% did not have immediate family members who hunt, and 75% were majoring in fields outside of agriculture or natural resources. In other words, we can absolutely reverse the trend of hunter decline and loss of conservation funding. We just need to ask the right people. 

Policy & Advocacy – Earlier this month NDA joined a coalition of the nation’s leading conservation organizations to unveil the largest grasslands legislative effort in history: The North American Grasslands Conservation Act. However, this effort only occurred after science pointed out that more than 50 million acres of grasslands have vanished in the last 10 to 15 years or that grassland birds have declined more than 53% since 1970. Politics may occasionally be a messy masquerade and a there’s certainly no guarantees, but this example shows that when real science is considered and the like-minded work together, we can advocate for positive change. 

Conclusion

The human brain is truly amazing. Through cognitive thinking and time, countless discoveries have led to an evolution of modern living. Our brain and applying science through thinking, knowing, remembering, judging, and problem-solving have been the source of unprecedented technological growth, vastly improving the quality of life for humans today. Because of science we now enjoy more of life’s little pleasures – like medicine, transportation and personal hygiene.

Science is emotionally invisible to most, while something as traditional as hunting is tangible. You can smell it. Literally, taste it.

Although I’m not an apologist for the antis (you know, the science haters), I do try to understand where their hesitancy to believe in science comes from. I encourage you to do the same. It’s important to take a deep breath, think about what’s going on in the minds of people across the divide and find common ground within our deer hunting community. Then, within those conversations, I clarify why I think using science wins the day over any other method of deer management, and hope that they take the time to understand my point of view. 

I always explain that if we didn’t use local data and trends and employing science to calculate population size and harvest goals, we’d be left guessing, relying on hearsay, or perhaps playing games of chance to make decisions. Despite the imagination of the staunchest of anti-science skeptics, deer management isn’t random. Groups of deer biologists do not sit around playing rock, paper, scissors (I can hear it now: “rock, paper, scissors, shoot that deer. And, that deer”) to forecast the future of your hunting seasons and regulations. The reality is that majority of the nation’s deer biologists are hunters, too. They’re simply applying the best information we have at our disposal so that there are deer to see, hunt, and enjoy and make as many citizens as happy as possible. That, in its purest form, is sustainable use of a natural resource under a public trust. 

We know there are inherent dangers when politics, opinions, and deer management all mix. We also know that, unfortunately, that cocktail gets shaken and stirred all too often. Ultimately though, if you have confidence in the human evolution of learning from our mistakes and getting better, smarter over time; then you’re also a believer in science and its place in deer hunting.


About Matt Ross

Matt Ross of Saratoga Springs, New York, is a certified wildlife biologist and licensed forester and NDA's Director of Conservation. He received his bachelor's in wildlife conservation from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and his master's in wildlife management from the University of New Hampshire. Before joining the NDA staff, Matt worked for a natural resource consulting firm in southern New Hampshire, and he was an NDA volunteer and Branch officer. He and his wife Sadie have two daughters, Josephine and Sabrina.