Wisconsin warden Chuck Horn first met Billy a couple years ago through a Learn to Hunt (LTH) duck hunt. Horn was a hunting mentor and Billy was then a 12-year-old participant. Billy liked the experience so much, he returned for LTH turkey and pheasant hunts, and he and Horn struck up a friendship.
"He began calling me all the time with hunting questions," Horn said, chuckling. "He's hooked!" A 30-year veteran of the state's warden service, Horn used his hunting acumen to become an LTH mentor, a program started by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in the late 1990s to offer mentored hunts to novices. Usually, a local sportsman's club hosts the LTH event. First-time hunters over the age of 10 participate without a hunting license or hunter-education certification. Over the years, Horn's mentored dozens of young people.
"Back when I was growing up," said Horn, "you had church on Sunday morning, but if you played your cards right, you could get in a morning shoot on ducks, go to church and get back out and finish the hunt in the afternoon. These days I've been kind of disturbed by the trend where we're seeing fewer kids involved in the outdoors. For the sake of the environment, I think we need to do everything we can to encourage them to at least try hunting."
Reason for Alarm
Hunting participation is in decline. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (USFWS) numbers reveal that in 2006, 12.5 million Americans 16 years old and older hunted. Compare that to the 19.1 million people who hunted in 1975 and you realize there's been a steady decline.
As 2008's seminal report "The Future of Hunting and the Shooting Sports" notes, "The number of active hunters and sport shooters has decreased in the U.S., and fewer young people are entering these sports."
How do we get young people involved in hunting? All the research and in-field experience points in the same direction, notes Mark Duda, executive director of Research Management, the outdoor-recreation firm that wrote the report. Duda said, "It takes a hunter to make a hunter." In the past, the patriarch of a family was a hunter, and he took his sons and, less frequently, his daughters, afield. So is the real problem, then, today's single-parent household trend? "While some people may think this is a cause for hunting decline, it isn't," said Duda. He notes that there is no negative relationship between growing up in a single-parent household and hunting participation; in fact, if the mother in a single-parent home hunts, there is usually a higher hunting participation rate for both her sons and daughters.
The real hurdle is an increasingly urbanized America. The report notes that in 1950, 36 percent of the population called rural America home. That dropped to just 22 percent by 2000. The report explains: "This demographic trend is important because hunting participation is positively correlated with living in a rural area. To compound this factor ... hunter recruitment was down sharply among urban residents."
YHEC and Beyond
Because providing hunting opportunities is key, the NRA developed the International Youth Hunter Education Challenge (YHEC). Started in 1985, YHEC has been experienced by at least 1.2 million young people, and is currently offered in 33 states and two Canadian provinces.
"The traditional hunter-education courses are invaluable," said YHEC spokesperson J.R. Robbins. "But a lot of them don't have a provision for live firing. They just don't have the facilities, so the NRA saw a need to make what might be considered an advanced hunter-education course." Set up as a competition, YHEC tests marksmanship skills and hunting knowledge. Only conventional sporting arms are allowed, and life-size game or NRA-approved action targets are used. Participants in the International YHEC compete for both team and individual prizes in two age classifications, senior (15-18) and junior (14 and under).
This "graduate" course in hunter education is extremely successful in encouraging new hunters, too.
"Eighty-three percent of kids in YHEC go on to buy hunting licenses," said Robbins. "And there are a number of YHEC kids who have turned their interest in hunting into careers in wildlife management."
Meanwhile, the NRA's Women on Target program offered 270 instructional shooting clinics across the nation in 2009 alone. Guided Hunt Excursions are held annually, too, for a wide variety of game species. Ann Marie Foster, coordinator for the Women's Hunting program, said, "We try to break down some of the barriers and offer a supportive environment, so women do get out there."
Another major effort to bring young people into hunting has been the Families Afield program, founded by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the National Wild Turkey Federation and the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance to eliminate barriers to hunting. Since its inception in 2004, Families Afield has brought more than 283,000 new hunters afield. The program has grown fast, thanks to NRA-ILA lobbying muscle.
For example Melissa Schilling, NSSF's manager of recruitment and retention, said, "In Ohio, they looked over a couple-year period once Families Afield was in place and found that 50 percent of the apprentice hunters went on to take the hunter-education class."
In the 29 states where it has been passed, most Families Afield legislation seeks to reduce or eliminate minimum age barriers to hunting, and allows new hunters to forego hunter education until after they experience a mentored hunt, a kind of "try-before-you-buy" concept.
Consider Wisconsin: It had a 12-year-old-age minimum for hunting, plus mandated completion of hunter education before that first hunt. But in August 2009, Senate Bill 167, a Families Afield legislative initiative, created an apprentice hunting license, allowing people 10 years and up to hunt with an experienced mentor prior to the completion of hunter education. Chris Dolnack, NSSF's senior vice president, said, "There's also a huge focus on computer games and television. Children tend not to be encouraged to go outside. We're working in every state to change that."
Staying with the Times The Internet can help bring new hunters on board. In Colorado, for example, Mark Cousins, the state's hunter-education coordinator, said, "We are accepting the International Hunter Education Association's hunter exam online courses. Students are required to attend another class with an instructor with at least four contact hours that include firearm safety, hunter ethics and responsibility and a review of Colorado game laws, then they complete a live-fire session and finally they take a written exam."
Online, students complete class-preparation work from home instead of attending an all-day Saturday class.
Kerry Moher, of www.hunterexam.com, said, "Over the last few years, you've seen more and more game agencies reaching out with the online model because it allows instructors to focus more on hands-on evaluation and administering of the test."
In less than two years, www.hunter exam.com has been accepted by 20 states and two Canadian provinces. Students can use and review all materials free, but pay to take the test.
Randy Stark, Wisconsin's top warden, has been very involved in the Learn to Hunt program. Many of the LTH mentors, he notes, encourage their young hunters to bring along their cell phones so they can send text messages and even pictures of their hunt to friends and relatives. Doing so, said Stark, lets these new young hunters create a sort of e-hunting social network.
"You can either fight the technology or try to use it," Stark said. "I try to use the technology to get kids involved in the outdoors."