Many of us recall childhoods spent in the tracks of seasoned mentors who led us to bluegill beds, duck marshes, deer blinds, and secluded camping spots. In most cases our woodland role models were family members, and our lessons resulted directly from growing up in rural communities. Simply stated, we are more likely to learn about nature when we have it at our doorsteps and when we have families excited to teach us.
This pattern plays out clearly on the national stage where hunter numbers decline toward the coasts, in places where development and higher population densities dominate the landscape. Take away access to nature or the guidance of a good mentor and the perceived obstacles to becoming a hunter are daunting. With over 80% of the American population living in urban or suburban communities today, plenty of kids grow up to be adults who are detached from the land. The children of environmentally illiterate parents stand less chance of engaging nature with each subsequent urbanized generation.
For those of us who have unexpectedly shared our favorite duck spots on opening morning, yelped in another turkey hunter, or spotted blaze orange from our stands at pre-dawn, the idea of fewer people competing for the sweet spots may seem just fine. Most of us would be thrilled to hunt our whole lives without encountering a stranger in the woods, and I’d give up treasured parts of my anatomy to draw a tag with every application. From a political standpoint the dream of having the forests and marshes for our personal enjoyment is, of course, a nightmare that would be short-lived. The conservation successes to our credit historically and the ground gained today are products of passionate, concerned, and numerous individuals contributing to the causes of land and wildlife stewardship.
In response to the declines in hunter numbers (not to mention other forms of outdoor recreation), states have issued special tags, seasons, regulations, and educational programs aimed at getting more young hunters out in the woods. While these efforts are absolutely worthwhile, there are other effective ways to introduce people to the outdoors and hunting. Mentoring new adult hunters needs to be a bigger part of the conversation.
Contrasting youth hunters, adult first-timers are generally able to transport themselves to hunting grounds and have some expendable income – two of the biggest barriers to younger counterparts. Furthermore, research has shown that the majority of participants in youth hunts are from hard-hunting families, where they may have learned to hunt regardless of a special season. Without a mentor, often lacking within their families, most non-hunting adults will not learn.
For many adults, including some inhabiting the concrete jungle, the spark is there but opportunities to learn are not. Growing interest in eating local, sustainable, healthy foods coupled with desires to reconnect to the natural world are common motivations among new adult hunters I’ve met and mentored.
More states are now providing programs that get interested adults on the road to joining our ranks. For example, Wisconsin now holds special hunts through their “Learn to Hunt Program.” Participants, who receive free tags, one-on-one mentorship, and hunt during special seasons, can be adults as long as they never hunted the species featured in the program. Wisconsin also passed a “Mentored Hunting Law” that allows interested hunters to purchase a license and hunt before completing Hunter Education as long as they are under the direct supervision of an unarmed, adult, Hunter Education graduate. This is a great way to take a newbie, young or old, out for a day to get them the taste of the experience they may need to invest their time in Hunter Ed.
Supporting similar programs in other states is a step in the right direction. A leap in the right direction would be for each of us to invite a coworker, a buddy from college, a cousin, a neighbor, an in-law — anyone with a shred of interest — to join us in the woods. We’ve all heard that it’s great to take a kid hunting, and it is. It’s even better if you take a parent who learns why our lands, waters, and wildlife are our greatest treasures, and teaches those lessons to their family.