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Leaders of Conservation: MDF President Miles Moretti

Leaders of Conservation: MDF President Miles Moretti

This interview with Mule Deer Foundation President Miles Moretti is part of OutdoorHub’s Leaders of Conservation series, in which we sit down with leaders of the North American conservation movement to learn more about the stories behind their organizations.


Early in the 1980s, record snowfall pummeled the American West and devastated populations of mule deer. On top of that, funding to state wildlife agencies that managed the animals was cut, and it seemed that mule deer had dropped from their position as the West’s premier game animal. Then in 1988, a hunter named Emmett Burroughs founded a small organization that he called the Mule Deer Foundation (MDF). The group had a singular purpose: to protect mule and blacktail deer.

“One of the things about sportsmen is that we’ve always stepped up to wildlife in need,” MDF President and CEO Miles Moretti told me in an interview.

Miles joined the organization in 2006, bringing with him more than 30 years of experience as a wildlife biologist and the expertise of a lifelong hunter. The MDF today may have the same goal that Emmett Burroughs envisioned for it back in 1988, but it is now burgeoning with 40,000 registered members and more than 150 local chapters.

“Mule deer continue to struggle for a variety of reasons, and how we’ve changed as an organization is how we now approach business. We’re looking at things in a much larger scale today, we’re looking at larger landscapes, we’re seeing the pressures of development in the West on mule deer,” Miles said.

That is a challenge that Miles is well-equipped to handle. Before he took the reins of leadership at the MDF, Miles served as the Deputy Director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR). Before that, he was in the field as a biologist. Miles commented that he was young back then, along with many of his friends and coworkers.

“A lot of the people I worked with back then are now the heads of state organizations or have retired, like myself, and are working on conservation,” Miles explained. “The conservation community is a small one. Relationships are vital to building partnerships between groups to further our missions.”

Along with his expertise, Miles brought over those connections when he joined the MDF. He emphasized to me that the greatest gains in preserving America’s wild places and animals are made when organizations work together.

“None of us have enough money to do it all by ourselves so between partnering with other conservation groups and partnering with our sponsors, we can all leverage our dollars,” Miles said. “There are a lot of the species-specific groups out there, and we share some of the same goals.”

Species-specific groups such as the National Wild Turkey Foundation, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and many others—and like those groups, the MDF faces many of the same challenges.

“Because we are a much larger organization than we were before, we have to think of innovative ways to make the MDF still relevant, and to promote passion in our members,” he said. “One of the things I hope I’ve brought to the MDF is a renewed focus on our mission and to do it with integrity. The organization as a whole should be credible and when we say we’ll do something, we’ll do it.

“The main function of a president of a conservation group is you have to be mindful of the balancing act you’re in. You have to keep your overhead low and ensure that you have enough money to accomplish your mission. You want to be a good steward of those conservation dollars that donors send in, so you want to keep mission accomplishment high.”

Miles set two goals when he joined the MDF: to leave mule deer in a better position for future generations, and to grow the organization into a healthy, vibrant leader of the conservation community.

“I grew up in rural Wyoming and I’ve been hunting all my life,” Miles said. “But I didn’t really understand conservation and what it meant until later in life. In Southwest Wyoming, we have an abundance of wildlife and at the time, I would say that I grew up in the golden age of mule deer. When I got older I realized that there were other issues and places out there. I wanted to make a difference. That’s one of the reasons I became a biologist, because I was a hunter and I was constantly outdoors.”

It is Miles’ need to make a difference that led him to the MDF, and although similar in many respects, Miles says his current position is much different from when he worked for the DWR. As a biologist, he dealt with local issues and a smaller scope. Now he deals with issues that concern wildlife nationally. People often make the assumption that single-species groups work towards preserving just that one animal, but Miles said that is incorrect. What is good for mule deer habitat can benefit numerous other wildlife, and vice versa.

“When I’m finished here someday, I hope to look back and say that in my time we made a difference. We made a difference in deer populations, that we were able to not only stabilize the population but reverse the trend of decline for one of the icons of the West.”

One important step towards that is increasing the ranks of hunters and conservationists in North America. Earlier this year, Miles asked OutdoorHub founder David Farbman what he thought was one creative way of encouraging more non-hunters—and even anti-hunters—to buy into the sport.

“I think it’s hard for non-hunters to understand why we hunt,” Miles mused. “They think it’s all about the kill, and it’s not. It’s about the experience. Some of my best memories was back in Wyoming hunting with my family. Just being out in the field and being together. That’s what it means to me. The kill is a very minimal part of it. We use everything that we hunted for food, and that’s what I still believe. The trophy should always come second.”

Miles continued that anti-hunters never touch on—or are aware of—the fact that hunter-conservationists have done more to protect wildlife than any other group in North America.

“If we can get a non-hunter in the field, watch the sun rise, sit in a treestand or a blind, and all those things, maybe they’ll understand,” he concluded.