As a youngster, Casey Setash loved moose more than any other animal. Her uncle, knowing this, took her one day to a big-box outdoor store to show her one of the mounted moose on display.
“He was so excited to show it to me, but I saw it and burst into tears,” Setash told MeatEater, laughing.
An “Animal Planet, wildlife kind of kid,” Setash did not grow up hunting. She was a vegetarian throughout high school and earned a Wildlife Science degree from Virginia Tech. Today, she’s in the midst of a Ph.D. in Applied Ecology at Colorado State University.
Setash isn’t what most would consider a prime candidate for hunter recruitment programs. However, a growing chorus of outdoors organizations and state wildlife agencies are developing campaigns targeting students just like Setash.
These collegiate outreach efforts take many forms, but they all operate on the same principle: college kids are prime candidates for hunter recruitment, retention, and reactivation (R3) efforts. While traditional R3 campaigns have targeted children and adults, these organizations believe that the 18- to 25-year-old demographic offers unique, previously untapped potential.
Setash is proof positive that these programs are onto something. While writing her master’s thesis on waterfowl, Setash decided she should learn about waterfowl hunting “if for no other reason than just to have conversations with some of the old-timers in the field.”
Her boyfriend took her duck hunting a few times, but she fell in love with the sport after participating in Delta Waterfowl’s University Hunting Program. She went on a goose hunt that she described as “amazing,” and since then the former vegetarian has expanded her hunting repertoire to mule deer.
Setash credits her experience in Delta’s program with helping change her perspective on hunters.
“It’s not just a bunch of old bruisers trophy hunting,” she said (though she added that she doesn’t necessarily have a problem with trophy hunting). “It’s people who care about the resources and the food that they’re eating.”
Hunter recruitment, retention, and reactivation efforts have taken on new importance in recent decades as the number of hunters in the U.S. and Canada has decreased dramatically. Fewer hunters mean fewer dollars for conservation efforts, not to mention diminishing political clout for hunting and outdoor advocacy groups. To combat this decline, R3 efforts have focused on children rather than young adults. This start-em-young approach makes intuitive sense: if you can hook a kid on hunting at a young age, he or she will be a hunter for life.
The problem, as many of the collegiate program directors we spoke with point out, is that children have a tough time following through on that enthusiasm. Kids can’t drive, so they have to rely on their parents to take them out in the field. They also don’t have any money, which forces them to ask mom and dad for the cash to purchase their gear. If those parents are ambivalent about hunting, the kid is often out of luck—no matter how much they want to get in the deer stand.
“Most [youth] programs are one-and-done,” said Joel Brice, VP of waterfowl and hunter recruitment programs for Delta Waterfowl. Brice runs the University Hunting Program in which Setash participated. “If we’re really interested in recruiting new hunters, most of the time [youth-only programs] miss the mark.”
College students don’t face those obstacles. They can drive themselves to the field, pay for their own equipment, and don’t need their parents to purchase their tags.
“If you can teach 18- to 35-year-olds to hunt, they can recruit their peers and teach themselves after that initial introduction to hunting,” Brice pointed out. “The rate of recruitment and retention is much faster. Plus, they get to recruit their own kids [once they have them].”
College students also tend to be more open to trying new things and having new experiences.
“They’re at a time in their life when they’re open to new educational opportunities or searching for community on campus,” said Kylie Schumacher, the collegiate club coordinator for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.
“It’s a great demographic to be targeting. Oftentimes, what they experience in college will shape who they are later in life,” Schumacher said.
College students, in addition, are more diverse, which Mike Worley believes is essential to maintaining the number of hunters necessary to fund wildlife conservation in North America. Worley is President and CEO of the Georgia Wildlife Federation and helps organize Academics Afield, a college outreach program currently operating at three universities in Georgia with plans to expand to five other states next year.
“When you look at some of the hunt-and-learn programs, they’re primarily white male, even for the young folks. Academics Afield is 50 percent female,” he said. “This program is reflective of the student population, which is much more diverse, and we’re really excited about that.”
“We’ve got to expand the tent,” he continued. “The country doesn’t look like it did 50 years ago, hunting doesn’t look like it did 50 years ago, and our hunting recruitment efforts can’t look like they did 50 years ago.”
Collegiate outreach programs by Delta Waterfowl, the Georgia Wildlife Federation, and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers are relatively new, but they’re already showing results. Brice told us that Delta’s University program operated in 24 schools reaching 600 students last year. Of the students who had never hunted before, a full 93% reported hunting on their own after the conclusion of their time with Delta.
“I haven’t scoured the literature looking for something better, but I haven’t heard of anything that rivals that,” he said.
Academics Afield has been operating for less time, but their results are similar: 98% of the participants reported they were likely to hunt in the future and 93% reported they were confident they could hunt on their own or with limited guidance after the event.
“A Generation of Wildlife Professionals”
Each program approaches college students from a slightly different angle, but all three focus on non-hunting students majoring in wildlife and conservation degrees.
If you know anything about the traditional makeup of wildlife students, this should surprise you. As recently as 25 years ago, the majority of these students would have come from hunting families and been dedicated hunters themselves, Brice said.
“The same decline that has been documented in overall hunting participation…applies in wildlife and natural resources degrees as well,” he said.
In the late 1990s, about 80% of wildlife students were hunters. Today, those numbers have flipped: 70 to 80% of wildlife students enter college programs without significant hunting experience.
Today’s wildlife graduates aren’t anti-hunter, Brice said, but “they don’t have a well-formed perspective of hunting.”
Without a background in hunting, these up-and-coming state wildlife biologists and policy experts risk alienating themselves from the population that provides the main source of their agency’s revenue. As Delta Waterfowl points out on its website, there’s also a risk that non-hunting wildlife professionals will prioritize protecting endangered species over game species.
“I don’t think you can possess a fully developed opinion about hunting until you’ve tried it yourself,” Brice said. “They can truly understand it firsthand. Otherwise it’s just academic.”
That’s why Delta Waterfowl focuses on students in wildlife degrees in their University Hunting Program. They work closely with a professor in the school’s fish and wildlife department to organize four events: a hunter safety course, a shooting skills day, a weekend waterfowl hunt, and a post-hunt meal.
Academics Afield, led by the Georgia Wildlife Federation, also targets wildlife students, though they offer hunting opportunities to any of the school’s graduate or undergraduate students. The program is run by a paid student intern (often from a wildlife program) in conjunction with a professor, and they organize four hunts throughout the course of the year for dove, deer, waterfowl, and small game.
Backcountry Hunters & Anglers’ Collegiate Club Program reaches out to college students by adding a conservation component to hunting opportunities. Student leaders help organize work-service and stewardship projects, educational meetings and film nights, and conservation advocacy activities.
“Our R3 efforts start by recruiting conservationists. In my opinion, that’s the most important part of being a hunter,” Schumacher said.
Collegiate club members also have the opportunity to participate in a weekend hunting workshop called Hunting for Sustainability. Students learn about wildlife identification and biology, hunting ethics, firearms safety, scouting, butchering, and cooking. They also have the chance to either shadow a hunter or actually go hunting themselves.
These hunting education weekends have been offered through universities in Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, Montana, and Arizona, and the program is offered for course credit at the University of Montana. Before COVID-19 hit, BHA ran clubs at 26 schools nationwide, though today that number is difficult to determine.
We asked the leaders of these programs what messaging resonates with non-hunting college students, and the No. 1 answer was unanimous: food.
“When it comes to the hunting-specific messaging, we try to connect to the local, organic food component. That’s a huge motivator for a lot of students,” Schumacher said.
Brice and Worley echoed this observation, which is why they always include a cooking element to their outreach efforts.
“One of the most important aspects is that ducks are great table fare. We teach them how to simply and tastefully prepare the birds that they harvested and celebrate that through a game feed,” Brice said.
Getting to harvest and cook wild game is partly what motivated Ashlyn Halseth to participate in Academics Afield. Halseth is graduating this year with a fisheries and wildlife degree from the University of Georgia, but she’d never been hunting prior to college and had even considered becoming vegan.
“I had considered going vegan a handful of times because of how the animal market industry is set up. I don’t think it’s fair. I just decided that if I can’t get my meat ethically, I don’t want it at all,” she said.
But her boyfriend was the University of Georgia’s coordinator for Academics Afield, and she agreed to volunteer for the program as a photographer. Though she was initially uncomfortable around guns, being around her fellow students as they harvested doves, squirrels, and deer convinced her to give it a try.
She asked her boyfriend to take her deer hunting and she got a doe. Then, she decided to join Academics Afield as a participant rather than a photographer.
“I had a lot of hesitancy at first. You are taking a life. You have to be comfortable doing that. That’s why it took me so long. But after learning about it, the more I realized that there are more benefits than harms,” she said. “And I know that I’m personally going to consume that animal. It’s probably the best meat that you can eat.”
She loves the communal nature of dove hunting, and this season she shot her first buck, a picture of which is her Facebook cover photo.
There is no silver bullet that will magically increase the number of hunters in the U.S. and Canada (Alberta’s successful, multi-faceted hunter recruitment strategy proves that point). But college students offer unique advantages, and the diversity of that population may be what sustains hunting in the United States moving forward.
To those students who find themselves interested in hunting but unsure about joining a collegiate R3 group, Halseth has simple advice: just do it.
“If they have any inclination about going into a natural resources field or just the outdoors, I say just do it,” she said. “The best that can happen is you shoot a monster buck and you get to celebrate with your friends and family and eat amazing backstrap. The worst that can happen is you got a great afternoon to look at an empty sky.”
Feature image via Georgia Wildlife Federation.