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Instagram Cancels Renowned Wildlife Researcher’s Account

Updated: 5 days ago

By all relevant standards, Horicon native Jim Heffelfinger is a smart, honest, peace-loving man you can trust with your wife, wallet and Irish whiskey.


Heffelfinger, 58, is also a respected wildlife researcher at the Arizona Game and Fish Department, and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Arizona. And because Heffelfinger routinely works 30-hour days, eight-day weeks and 56-week years, he’s also an author and magazine scribe. He writes about 20 articles annually, and this summer released the third printing of his authoritative book “Deer of the Southwest: A Complete Guide on the Natural History, Biology, and Management of Southwestern Mule Deer and White-Tailed Deer.”


Heffelfinger graduated from UW-Stevens Point’s College of Natural Resources in 1986, and has since made the school recognize feats far beyond his undergraduate beer-can collection. His labors in Arizona even made him a “distinguished alumnus” of UW-SP, an award the school bestowed in 2017. Professor Christine Thomas, the CNR’s dean from 2005 to 2020, said Heffelfinger represents “the quintessential example of what (the school) hopes to turn out in its graduates.”


Heffelfinger (deernut.com) also appears regularly on the “MeatEater Podcast” with Steven Rinella. In fact, Rinella recently called Heffelfinger “the smartest man on the planet,” given his academic breadth and witty insights into deer, wildlife genetics, mammalian diseases, fellow researchers, and “other things that are not sexy to talk about.”


Heffelfinger also chairs the Western Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies’ “Mule Deer Working Group,” overseeing muley experts from 24 Western states, provinces and territories. He even won the 2011 Wallmo Award as North America’s leading black-tailed and mule-deer biologist, and earned the 2011 “Director’s Meritorious Citation” from Arizona’s Game and Fish Department.


Hmm. So, given all his brainy friends, academic credentials, and peer-reviewed cheesehead goodness, how did Heffelfinger get his Instagram account canceled this summer? I mean, one day he’s posting his regular stuff to @JimDeere, and the next day his page vanishes as certainly as Amelia Earhart or Ambrose Bierce.


The leading theory is that an Instagram bot short-circuited over a Heffelfinger post it disliked, automatically deleted his account, and dispatched a vague, scolding note about “violating our terms.” In other words, he was dumped via post-it note.


Instagram ignored Heffelfinger’s two-month efforts to appeal, seek reinstatement, or simply learn how — specifically — he desecrated the genie’s lamp. Heffelfinger felt jilted, not shocked. After all, Meta Platforms Inc. is a busy company, and even an army of bots can’t be pen-pals with all 1.3 billion Instagram users, whatever their genius, grievance or inconvenience.


And so the self-described “deer nut” finally abandoned his “@JimDeere” account in late August and started over as @cervidnut. That’s no easy concession, given that Heffelfinger had nearly 4,000 “followers” of his original account. He’s since regained 10% of them as @cervidnut, but remains wary of getting shot again from his Instagram saddle.


After all, this issue likely involves Heffelfinger’s gun hobbies. But he can’t prove it. He just knows most of his posts shared silly memes, wildlife insights, hunting selfies with his family, suit-coat selfies with fellow researchers, sales promotions for his deer book, cool research about antler growth, and other vanilla stuff only deer geeks could love.


The other 30% of his posts featured competitive-shooting videos, which basically showed his forearms and two extended hands aiming and firing his Dan Wesson 1911 in .45 ACP. He’d been sharing those videos about 10 years, first on Facebook and then Instagram. Heffelfinger took up competitive shooting in 1990 during graduate school, and suspects Instagram flagged his videos as “violent content.”


He said most “Practical Pistol” targets have a torso shape and head box, which possibly looks “humanoid” to artificial-intelligence filters. “But my Instagram videos are just one of thousands showing people shooting at targets, so I’m speculating,” he said. “I could maybe understand removing specific offending videos, but why my entire account?”


Still, Heffelfinger knows he’s not the first gun-owner disciplined or vaporized by Instagram. Aleckson Reuben, 34, a dealer training/customer-experience manager at Vortex Optics in Barneveld, has shot nationally in high-level firearms competitions for 12 years. In fact, he fires an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 rounds annually.


Reuben honors Instagram’s policy of not selling or buying ammo and firearms on the platform. Still, he’s had posts vanish for such offenses as a photo showing him with a rifle while thanking a manufacturer for its sponsorship.


“I’ve had friends get in trouble for just mentioning ‘gun’ while posting about a riflescope or other firearms accessory,” Reuben said. “The scrutiny seems to increase as you get more followers. It’s not just bots and artificial intelligence. Some people don’t like a post, and file a complaint. A friend in Oregon with a military background had 30,000 followers for his gun-training information. Without warning or explanation, he was suddenly off Instagram.”


Doug Duren, 63, of Cazenovia, also knows something about accidentally angering Instagram. His www.DougDuren.com website sells conservation-driven products like hats, patches, coasters, stickers and T-shirts for the “Sharing The Land” hunting initiative and his “It’s Not Ours, It’s Just Our Turn” land-management ideas. Instagram deleted a post this summer that advertised game straps and gun slings bearing the “Sharing The Land” brand. Duren simply reposted the ad after removing “gun” from the sling description.


“I don’t have an advertising budget, so Instagram is a nice way to advertise what we’re doing,” Duren said. “But there’s no arguing with them about a misunderstanding. That’s the world of social-media advertising. On Facebook Marketplace, you can’t sell a live animal, but it’s OK to sell its meat once you grind your cattle into hamburger.”


Duren finds such restrictions, cancellations and unexplained bans ridiculous, but thinks those moves suggest we need better dialogue between gun-owners and gun-foes. “Maybe they’re holding up a mirror that shows how others view us,” Duren said.


Heffelfinger doesn’t disagree. “I also try to preach that the future of hunting rests in how we present ourselves to the 95% of Americans who don’t hunt,” he said. “It would be nice if everyone talked about this stuff reasonably, because the far-left and far-right poles are getting further apart. That makes the vast majority in the middle feel silenced.”

Wisconsin native Jim Heffelfinger has won national acclaim as a wildlife researcher after graduating from UW-Stevens Point’s College of Natural Resources in 1986. His credentials, however, meant nothing to Instagram this summer when it canceled his account without explanation. — UW-Stevens Point photos

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