Most hunters or their families know someone who loses their common sense or credibility over deer hunting or management.

Deer. They make people stupid.

Some deer hunters and wildlife professionals are immune to the disorder, though that’s rare. Far more yearn for a cure, but usually for a dear one, not themselves, because this ailment can’t be self-diagnosed. It has no vaccine, it often strikes without warning, and it’s impervious to “information and education” campaigns. For most, it’s a lifelong condition.

Conservation wardens, of course, can write books detailing how deer cause hunters to act stupidly. Tim Lawhern spent more than 30 years with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as a game warden and special investigator. He said he never knew what to expect once the annual firearms deer season opened the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

“For 356 days out of the year, most citizens who hunt in Wisconsin display good common sense,” Lawhern said. “Then our nine-day gun deer season opens. Suddenly it seems most of those same normally law-abiding, God-fearing people forget their manners and good thinking, and toss everything out the window.”

Questioning the Credentialed
This ailment, however, isn’t unique to Wisconsin nor does it vanish in the offseason. It simply shifts form, turning even scientists and other bright experts into imbeciles. Or so it seems to deer hunters. Those attending public hearings or wildlife agency forums see the disease weaken, and sometimes incapacitate, highly trained biologists and researchers.

Twenty years ago, for example, Wisconsin hunters cheered and quoted DNR biologists who explained why a well-regulated hunting season wouldn’t harm the state’s robust mourning dove population, including the 4 to 5 million doves migrating through each fall.

Despite loud opposition from birdwatchers, assorted hunters, and many nonhunters, the state’s hunting organizations rallied behind “the best available science,” prevailing upon policymakers to open the state’s first mourning dove season in September 2001.

Two decades later, the annual dove season is a low-key event few even notice. Science-based wildlife management delivered a reliable, sustainable result. Wisconsin’s recent dove-harvest estimates vary from 56,000 to 80,000 annually, with asterisks noting that actual kills might vary plus or minus 20,000 to 33,000, depending on annual data.

When questioned about those asterisks, DNR and university biologists explain it’s difficult to pinpoint small-game harvests, given that registration and special licenses aren’t required. Instead, their scientifically-crafted postseason mail surveys historically deliver 95% accuracy, plenty good enough to ensure responsible hunts and harvests. Hunters nudge each other and nod agreeably. Few question the state’s biologists, nearly all of whom hold master’s or doctoral degrees from prestigious universities.

That respects flees when those same credentialed experts step from tall-grass fields into deer woods. When discussing herd estimates, deer habitat, carrying capacities, and other deer-management basics, experts are routinely ridiculed. They’re even scorned and called “stupid” in discussions of annual deer harvests, even in states with mandatory registration and 90% compliance rates.

That fate awaits biologists even where deer herds generate record-book bucks named for hunters who killed them. After Wisconsin gun hunters registered a record 171,891 antlered bucks in 1995, for example, only 39% of those hunters rated the season’s quality “high,” and 21% rated it “low” in the DNR’s postseason survey.

But, five years later, satisfaction sunk 11 percentage points further even though gun hunters registered 171,753 bucks, the second best in state history and less than 1% below the 1995 record. In fact, even though gun-hunters in 2000 shot a record 528,494 deer, 32% said the herd was down. Only 28% of gun-hunters rated the season’s quality “high” and 31% rated it low.

What’s a deer biologist to do? They might take heart in knowing deer have long plagued our psyche. Robert W. Wells, in his 1981 book “The Milwaukee Journal,” wrote about a 1957 incident involving the newspaper’s outdoor writer, Mel Ellis.

After filing his article through Western Union telegram on a deer management meeting in Phillips, Wisconsin, Ellis was shocked the next day when reading the afternoon paper. The article beneath his byline reported conclusions opposite of what he filed. Ellis confronted the telegrapher, warning him: “You could get fired for doing a thing like that!” The man replied: “I don’t give a damn, Ellis. I wouldn’t send a story like that for no man.”

Deer can even sway elections. John Wyngaard, a Green Bay Press-Gazette columnist, wrote this in September 1948: “In northern Wisconsin voters are fully capable of making a selection for governor according to his stand on deer.” And in 2010, candidate Scott Walker used “Scott’s Plan” on deer hunting to help win Wisconsin’s gubernatorial election and hold the office for eight years.

Humbling a Legend
Deer also give conservation legends feet of clay. Consider Aldo Leopold, author of “A Sand County Almanac,” who was anything but invincible throughout Wisconsin’s 1930s and 1940s “Deer Wars.” Leopold was the world’s first professor of wildlife management (at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) and the father of North America’s science-based wildlife management system. He also served on the conservation commission, which sets Wisconsin’s hunting regulations.

Leopold routinely called for antlerless-deer hunting to reduce the Northwoods herd. Just as routinely, hunters called for Leopold’s firing, or worse. As Susan L. Flader reported in her 1974 book “Thinking Like a Mountain,” a critic named Waldo Rinehard suggested this solution in 1944: “Perhaps the big mistake (is) that we do not have an open season on experts.”

Leopold recognized the problem, however, writing that no wildlife commission could raise a program above “popular ethics and intelligence” unless the public is neutral or indifferent. He wrote: “Where the public has feelings, traditions, or prejudices, a commission must drag its public along behind it like a balky mule, but with this difference: the public, unlike the mule, kicks both fore and aft.”

A Leopold colleague named Stan DeBoer, a forester trained at Massachusetts’ North American School of Conservation, felt that kick after recommending a doe-only season at a 1943 public hearing. As David Gjestson reported in his 2013 book “The Gamekeepers,” a hunter responded: “We don’t need no book-learnin’ Easterner telling us how to hunt our deer! Any man who would shoot a doe would shoot a woman!”

Leopold—a Yale-educated forester—pressed on, writing in 1946: “An issue may be so clear in outline, so inevitable in logic, so imperative in need, and so universal in importance as to command immediate support from any reasonable person. Yet that collective person, the public, may take a decade to see the argument, and another to [accept] an effective program.”

A Science-Defying Identity
Leopold was being optimistic. Seventy-five years later, hunting constituencies still kick wildlife agencies “fore and aft” over deer. Professor emeritus Tom Heberlein, a UW-Madison rural sociologist and author of “Navigating Environmental Attitudes,” says changing behavior with information is neither fast nor simple. More often, it’s futile. In fact, Heberlein titled his book’s fifth chapter, “Educating the Public…and Other Disasters.”

Heberlein discusses deer hunting often in his 2012 book and agrees with Leopold that it’s easier to “educate” people who are neutral or indifferent. Heberlein wrote: “When an attitude is part of who you are—your identity—it has many beliefs, considerable stability…and a strong emotional basis…Strong attitudes resist change because they’re based on direct experiences…and many…values.”

When it comes to deep-seated identities based on beliefs, emotions, traditions, and direct experience, deer hunting has few equals. “Deer are important to our identities as hunters, and as members of hunting camps and hunting families,” Heberlein told MeatEater. “Hunters have really strong emotional ties to deer, often going back two or three generations. They often spend decades hunting deer in the same woods or farmlands, so they’ll reject biological data that are scientifically sound regionally, but don’t match what they see on their back 40.”

The challenge increases further when a large group shares an identity. “Many people self-identify as deer hunters, which can create an immovable object in policymaking,” Heberlein said. “But nobody has a skunk-trapper identity or blunt-nosed lizard identity. Most people are willing to learn about skunks, and they’re fascinated to learn a blunt-nosed lizard will regrow its tail if someone pulls it off.

“The same people who dismiss deer science will defer to expertise and follow the science on skunks and lizards,” Heberlein continued. “But don’t try to convince deer hunters the statewide herd is at record highs when they don’t see record numbers where they hunt. They’ll reject all biological data thrown at them if it didn’t come from people on their property.”

Hard-Wired Resistance
Rich Stedman, a rural sociologist at Cornell University and chairman of the school’s Department of Natural Resources & the Environment, thinks the “deer hunter identity” could be hard-wired to our core. More specifically, our heart.

Stedman teamed with Heberlein in 1993 to study such possibilities. The researchers began by attaching chest monitors to 10 hunters to learn how their hearts reacted when they saw, shot at, and sometimes bagged ducks, geese, deer, and upland birds.

The resulting data helped Heberlein and Stedman document why hunters experience “buck fever,” not “duck fever,” when encountering prey. The hunters’ heart rates jumped an average of 33 beats per minute above their baselines after spotting and shooting a deer. In contrast, the heart rate increase was 28 bpm for goose hunters, 22 for duck hunters, and 10 for upland hunters.

“A lot goes on in the act of predation,” Stedman told MeatEater. “I doubt it’s coincidence that stress, anxiety, and excitement increase with the prey’s size. I’m sure Cro-Magnon hunters got hit much harder by ‘buck fever’ when spotting a mammoth than when seeing a mouse, even though they ate both. Performance anxiety is a huge part of it. The risks, stakes, and pressures to perform are far greater with big game, especially when your family and tribe need to eat, and a mistake can kill you. You don’t want to screw this up. All those nerves, all that anxiety, all those expectations, all those fears of failure stayed with us through time.”

Stedman said another factor is that predatory acts tend to play out in deer hunting, further increasing those pressures. In contrast, shots at upland birds typically occur milliseconds after the flush. And even though waterfowling opportunities can play out when calling birds to decoys, many shots are more spontaneous.

Deer Hunters Define Hunting
Meanwhile, deer hunting in the new century has increasingly defined hunting itself in the United States, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveys. Their analysis of American hunters in 2011 found 10.9 million (79%) of the nation’s 13.7 million hunters were deer hunters. The survey didn’t distinguish muley from whitetail hunters.

To match those nearly 11 million deer hunters, you must combine the country’s 3.1 million turkey hunters, 1.7 million squirrel hunters, 1.5 million rabbit/hare hunters, 1.5 million pheasant hunters, 1.4 million duck hunters, 870,000 elk hunters, 526,000 bear hunters, and 325,000 raccoon hunters.

Deer hunters dominate those 2011 numbers, too. Of the nation’s turkey hunters, 88% also hunt deer. In addition, the deer hunting rate was 95% for bear hunters, 81% for squirrel hunters, 78% for rabbit/hare hunters, 75% for raccoon hunters, 74% for elk hunters, 63% for duck hunters, and 47% for pheasant hunters. In addition, 5 million hunters (36.5%) targeted only deer, nothing else.

Heberlein said deer hunting’s identity was already strong nearly 45 years ago when he conducted a survey of Wisconsin hunters with Robert Baumgartner. They found nearly 60% of deer hunters in 1977 reported few or no recreational substitutes for deer hunting. In contrast, only 18% of goose hunters gave that answer.

When asked what would happen if they couldn’t hunt deer, 67% of deer hunters said they would miss it more than most or all of their other interests. Only 21% of goose hunters felt that way. In fact, 35% of goose hunters said they could probably replace their activity with something equally enjoyable. Only 8% of deer hunters thought that was possible.

Stedman thinks that preference for deer has hardened ever since. “So much of hunting today starts and ends with deer hunting,” he said. “A generation ago, baby boomers typically started by hunting squirrels and rabbits, and some upland birds and waterfowl. Deer hunting was big, but hunters seldom started there. Hunters today start with deer, and sometimes turkeys, but deer are ‘it’ for many of them.”

In effect, deer now represent the exclusive, pinnacle pursuit for many hunters, super-charging and firmly fixing their identity. Therefore, Stedman isn’t surprised when deer hunters reject science, dismiss ecological arguments, and behave more territorially or irrationally while protecting their “deer hunting world” from change.

Inflexible Passions, Adaptable Prey
Lou Cornicelli spent much of the past 28 years as a wildlife agency biologist, researcher, and supervisor in Indiana, Utah, and Minnesota before taking a job in the private sector in January.

Cornicelli credits deer hunting passions for sustaining hunter numbers more consistently than other hunting activities, especially small game hunting. He also sees less “site and schedule fidelity” among waterfowlers and upland bird hunters than with deer hunters. He said deer hunters tend to cling to specific properties, cabins, and deer stands, with multiple generations consistently focusing their efforts on opening weekend.

The downside is that strong loyalties create inflexible patterns and behaviors. “In general, people don’t like change, and that’s especially true for something as tradition-bound as deer hunting,” Cornicelli said. “But managing something as flexible and adaptable as whitetails requires constant change. That’s a challenge, but hunters also have widely varying goals for antlers and herd sizes, even as more states confront chronic wasting disease and all of its challenges.”

Cornicelli worries what lies ahead, given today’s focus and reliance on deer for recreational hunting. “We’ve put a lot of change on deer hunters in recent years,” he said. “We loosened restrictions on antlerless hunting, increased restrictions on buck hunting, and then reversed those buck restrictions when CWD showed up.

“We try our best to explain changes and reversals, but it irritates people,” Cornicelli continued. “They think you’re messing with their traditions. It causes hard feelings and triggers conspiracy theories. One day I’m too dumb to find my way home, and the next day I’m masterminding clandestine payoffs from insurance companies by selling bonus tags. I often joked that I’m either a moron or a mad genius, but I can’t be both.

“Unfortunately, I’m not sure they believed that, either.”

Feature image via Matt Hansen.