Hunter Recruitment | Growing a Culture of Hunting
By Todd Helms
We’ve all seen the statistics. Hunter numbers are down, way down. There are fewer than 12 million hunters in the United States as we speak. To put it another way, that’s less than 5% of the roughly 325 million people living in the U.S. Five percent, for crying out loud, the percentage of Americans who don’t own a car hovers around 9%, there are more Americans who have foregone automobiles than who hunt! That is a problem on several counts, but the funding of conservation is the most pressing as things with no value are quickly done away with in our modern world and hunters value wildlife and wild places more than any other segment of our population.
The North American Model of Conservation rests squarely upon the shoulders of outdoorsmen, most specifically hunters; tax dollars and license sales are the primary sources of funding for wildlife management and habitat work. So, the wildlife are the ones who truly suffer when fewer hunters take the field each year. With the number of American hunters dwindling how long will it be before there is no longer a science-based conservation model in place? When that happens I fear for the future of our wildlife.
So, what can be done? I’ve drilled you with facts that most of you already know and scenarios that most of you have already contemplated but I will now challenge you to pick up the gauntlet thrown down before us all and do your part to infuse new blood into the ranks of the American hunting community, and by American, I mean North American, as this is a fight without a DMZ.
Who first took you hunting? For an awful lot of us it was a family member; father, mother, uncle, aunt, grandparent. The point is that it was someone whom you likely respected and had a close personal relationship with. My dad began letting my brother and I tag along at very tender ages to make sure we fell in love with hunting. I’ve already had my three-year-old and two-year-old daughters on pronghorn hunts and in duck blinds. They, like their father before them, are learning early to appreciate the hunt, the special place wild animals have in our lives and the meat, antlers, horns, hides and feathers that nourish us physically as well as mentally.
Introducing loved ones to hunting is almost an instinctual act for hunters, we love it, so we desire those whom we love to share our passion. That’s natural, it’s human. However, when was the last time you asked someone from outside your comfortable little sphere to accompany you on a hunt? Especially someone who does not hunt and is perhaps trying to make up their mind about hunting. When I was teaching and coaching I was fond of telling my students and athletes that “nothing grows in a comfort zone…” and it is growth that we need in the fight to maintain our privileged status as caretakers of the wild, as hunters.
Our task then, must needs be to look beyond kith and kin to broaden our ranks in the future. I’m not saying to neglect friends and family, my challenge to us all is to look beyond those familiar to us for our next hunting partner and instead find the folks on the fringes of our sport.
Being a teacher and coach for the bulk of my professional life I have had the privilege to introduce many young people to the joys of hunting. There was always a kid who desperately needed to spend time in the outdoors learning the disciplines only afforded to hunters. While not all of us have such tremendous influence as teachers and coaches we all have the opportunity to help kids who need hunting as much as hunting needs them. Non-hunting friends, church, 4-H, Game and Fish agency youth programs – each of these groups are loaded with kids in need of mentorship. In fact, I’m surely forgetting some places where youngsters may be recruited. Use your imagination.
Some thoughts on this…. If you’re a male and have an opportunity to mentor a young lady or girl make sure you do so in a group setting, or better yet, drag her parents/guardians along with you, you may just hook them too. The same goes for adult females with young men and boys… I know, I know but it’s the world we live in. Keep in mind that kids have limited means; too young to drive, no personal income, etc. This equates to you providing gear, food, transportation as well as your knowledge, time, patience and long-term dedication. Kids are a tricky demographic because an awful lot of them who are introduced to hunting don’t stick with it as they grow. This is due to lack of opportunity mostly but is augmented by societal pressure as well. If you’re going to commit to being a mentor for kids understand that it’s often a lifelong commitment. I have mentored kids who are now adult hunting buddies and the reward is beyond words.
The Non-Hunting Adult
In today’s world the ever-growing trend of deliberate consumption (knowing where your food comes from) can throw the door wide open for a conversation about the original way this was done… hunting. There is little argument that a growing segment of hunters claim the main reason they hunt is to obtain organic, wild, sustainable protein. Whatever the buzzwords may be or how you personally feel about this field to fork movement the truth is that it can be a powerful motivation to tip a non-hunter into our 11 million-member family. Take game to work, church/social functions and share it! Not raw either, as the prospect of cooking an elk roast can be daunting for the uninitiated. Jerky, sausage, stew, soup, burgers, all of these can be used to entice open minded non-hunters to go afield themselves and procure their own game.
A note on this… I’ve observed a unique phenomenon with this type of hunter. A person who at first is only interested in a doe/cow or two for the freezer, once successful, quite often ups their game to taking a buck/bull, which then leads to a certain type of buck/bull and ultimately this person winds up being a selective, mature hunter who holistically values the hunt as more than simply the making of meat. After all, antlers and horns provide memories long after the meat has been consumed and the belly is rumbling for more. Animals are more than just meat in the freezer and responsible hunting seeks balance in nature through management.
Being part and parcel of this transformation is a tremendous honor and a massive undertaking. I figure that helping an adult become a proficient, self-reliant hunter requires several years of mentorship that will span everything from woodcraft and wildlife behavior instruction to weapon safety and proficiency modeling and instruction. The point is that this process will make you both teacher and student while helping someone else lead a richer life and ultimately become a participating member of the North American Conservation Model.
Open to All
Twenty years ago, hunting was a male dominated past-time. That trend is changing, women now make up one of the fastest growing segments of the hunting population. I say, “good and welcome!” Not only do we need their numbers if hunting is to continue into the future, we are better for their presence and participation. I introduced my wife to hunting before we were married and the amount of enjoyment I’ve personally gotten from that move has been life-changing, I’d honestly rather hunt with her than anyone else… don’t tell my buddies though. I’m also raising my daughters to be hunters and look forward to the day they can actively participate instead of just observe. I don’t think there are many guys out there who would deny women their place in the hunting world anymore, but I do think we can be a bit intimidating at times and can all do a better job at welcoming the ladies into the fields and mountains.
There has never been a time when what we do personally is so easily scrutinized by the public. If you participate in social media, gone are the days when your life was your own, by choosing to post on Instagram or Facebook you open yourself up to millions of people who may or may not share your personal worldview and passions.
You may be wondering what this has to do with hunter recruitment? The answer is simple, as hunters we share a responsibility to comport ourselves as ethical, responsible socially conscious human beings who value wildlife and its wellbeing to the utmost. We know ourselves to be this but there are many who would paint us otherwise and when one of us falls the foundation of hunting crumbles a little leaving our traditions on tenuous footing.
What I’m driving at here is that we are all ambassadors for hunting’s future and we need to be aware of the image we portray to non-hunters who may be on the fence about hunting. The majority of the public supports hunting whether they participate or not and it’s our job to not only make sure that support remains but to tip the scales in our favor by attracting new brothers and sisters.
In closing, we can no longer sit idly by and hope that a hunting revival occurs, we must actively recruit new blood to replace our aging vanguard and we must do so by looking past where we have traditionally sought recruits. Look around you, there are most likely kids and non-hunting adults who would love to become hunters, love to spend more time outside, and once planted and growing love to pass along the gift you have bestowed to others. We can be the tide that raises the ship, but we must start now!