By Mark Kenyon

Whitetail hunters in America are at a crossroads today. Where we go from here will either spell our demise or lead to our continued good fortune.

Over the past few months, much has been discussed regarding falling whitetail populations, disease, habitat loss, declining hunter numbers, predators and a number of other doom and gloom situations impacting whitetail hunters across the country. These concerns recently were taken to a higher court, as the first-ever North American Whitetail Summit was held earlier this month, with various hunter-interest, industry, government, and environmental groups convening to discuss the future of whitetails. Coming out out of that summit, a poll was conducted to determine what the Summit attendees believed were the biggest issues facing whitetails and whitetail management in America today.

The third biggest issue? Hunting land access. Directly related to that were issue’s #1 – hunter recruitment/retention and #8 – habitat loss.

Over the past 6 months or so, I’ve ran an unofficial poll on Wired To Hunt as well – asking all of our email subscribers what their biggest challenge is currently as a whitetail hunter. The overwhelmingly most common response? Hunting land access.

In my opinion, nothing is more important to the future of whitetail hunting in America than preserving whitetail habitat and opening it to hunter access. With this one endeavor we can help keep whitetail populations healthy and plentiful, we can help current hunters better enjoy opportunities afield, and we can keep hunters from giving up or never even starting because of having nowhere to hunt. Unfortunately though,  I don’t see a whole lot of people or groups doing anything about it.

That’s why I believe, it’s the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation that can best help us save whitetail hunting.

What Does The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Do?

Before I can explain how the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation can help save whitetail hunting, we must first examine who they are and what they do. For those unfamiliar, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) is one of the largest wildlife conservation organizations in the country, with over 200,000 members. Its mission is to “ensure the future of elk, other wildlife, their habitat and our hunting heritage.” What that looks like in action though is most notable in how they have preserved habitat for elk and opened it up to hunters. Get this. Over the lifetime of the RMEF, they have acquired, protected and enhanced over 7.6 MILLION acres of land for elk, and they have opened up/secured public hunting access on an additional 707,000 acres! On top of that, they’ve overseen more than 8,600 projects focused on preserving land, improving habitat, restoring elk and much more. 90% of their budget goes to projects such as these.

Take for example a recent project completed in northeast Oregon, explained in RMEF’s Bugle magazine. The “RMEF headed up a successful collaborative effort to permanently protect and open access to 13,082 acres of prime elk country in the head waters of the John Day River in northeast Oregon. As 2013 came to a close, the RMEF purchased the land and conveyed it to the United States at a bargain sale price. The transaction secures and improves access to tens of thousands of acres of publicly owned national forest system lands.”

Wow.

How Can The RMEF Help Whitetails?

So how can the RMEF save whitetail hunting? By continuing to be the perfect example of what whitetails and whitetail hunters need today. These types of actions, preserving habitat and opening up properties for public access, are exactly what we need from our whitetail organizations.

Obtaining access to hunt whitetails is getting harder and harder every day, as habitat is being developed, private properties are being gobbled up and closed to hunting, and limited public lands in the midwest and eastern US are being overran with hunters. We need more quality habitat and more access if we hope to continue to enjoy thriving populations of whitetails and hunters in the US. But who’s going to do it?

My Proposal

My proposal is this.

We need our whitetail organizations (I’m talking to you Quality Deer Management Association and Whitetails Unlimited) to help facilitate three things:

1. Purchasing (or accepting donations of) properties to be sold back to the government (with use stipulations) and placed into protection programs like national forests, parks, etc (or to be held and managed by the purchasing organizations) and then…

2. Opening these properties to public hunting, and/or other public access. And additionally, working on programs to secure hunter access on other private properties through various incentive programs, possibly in collaboration with the government or state fish/game agencies. And then…

3. Improving habitat for whitetails on these properties and on other public lands through the work of volunteers.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has proven that this model and these kinds of actions A.) are possible and B.) can make a huge positive difference on wildlife and hunters. I know that various organizations have dabbled in these types of projects for whitetails, but nothing at the kind of scale we need. I think organizations like QDMA and Whitetails Unlimited are doing awesome things, and I’m a huge supporter of both. But it’s time for the whitetail community and our organizations to really take things to the next level.

Imagine The Possibilities

I can’t help but imagine the possibilities of this kind of action. Thousands of acres of prime habitat preserved for whitetails, hundreds of volunteers improving fawning cover, planting food plots, reclaiming old mines or agricultural lands, and new properties opening up for hunter access across the country.

This would help whitetails. This would help whitetail hunters. This would help you and me.

Coming out of the North American Whitetail Summit, Quality Deer Management CEO Brian Murphy explained, “The cooperative energy generated at the Summit was impressive, but it means nothing if the whitetail community fails to turn this opportunity into action.”

Murphy is 100% right, we need action. And I’d suggest that we need our whitetail organizations (along with support from the hunting industry and us) to take that action on the biggest problems directly impacting whitetail hunters today. Hunter retention, access, and habitat.

These organizations need to look no further than the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation for ideas on how to do it.

What do you think? Is this a good idea? Is it possible? Practical? Would you be more likely to join the Quality Deer Management Association or Whitetails Unlimited if they began focusing more on these types of efforts? Would you volunteer to help on something like this? Do you have any other ideas? Let us know in the comments!