FOR THE LAST two years, Tom Kalahar, a conservation technician for the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District in southwestern Minnesota, has helped organize a spring turkey hunt for kids. Young hunters attend a safety class, and then, the day before the hunt, three-person teams comprised of a young hunter, a parent, and a guide review the basics of scouting, calling, and hunting. With just a single shotgun between them, they head out early on opening day. ¶ “Most of these kids have never been in the woods at 4:30 in the morning,” Kalahar says. “It’s amazing if you’ve never sat out in the woods and watched the sun come up and truly listened and looked at what’s going on around you.”
Of 10 kids who participated last year, six took a shot. Most missed. “We had one dead turkey,” Kalahar says. But he still counts the event a success: His primary goal isn’t to kill birds; it’s to forge a link between the hunting tradition and would-be hunters.
Kalahar’s turkey chase is just one of many programs sponsored by hunting organizations and state wildlife agencies nationwide to recruit new hunters. Why? Because these groups fear that hunters are going extinct.
Nationally, the number of hunters declined 11 percent from 1991 to 2006, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The falloff looks even more precipitous if you consider the population grew nearly 20 percent in that same interval. In Minnesota, hunters have maintained their numbers, but the percentage of the population that hunts continues to decline. Hunters are getting older, too: The average age of members of the conservation group Pheasants Forever has risen from 40 to 50 since 1990.
The reasons for hunting’s decline are various and hotly debated. Some researchers have blamed our collective disinterest in outdoor pursuits on our growing preoccupation with the Internet, TV shows, and video games. Demographics have also played a role: As rural populations have declined and urban communities grown, many people have lost their connection to the outdoors, wildlife, and the hunting tradition. Mentors, too, are especially important in passing the hunting tradition from generation to generation: Nearly all hunters hunt because their fathers did. According to the Fish and Wildlife survey, in families without an adult male who hunts, fewer than 3 percent of boys pick up the sport, and less than 1 percent of girls do.
To which many nonhunters would reply, so what? Why should anyone—anyone other than the 13 percent of Minnesotans who hunt—care if hunters go extinct?
“Hunters are and historically have been one of our strongest conservation advocates,” says Jay Johnson, hunter recruitment and retention supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “If you have a decline in hunter numbers, you’re going to have a weaker voice when it comes to preserving open lands and spaces, and preserving that quality of life we’ve come to expect here in Minnesota.”
Much of the wildlife habitat remaining in urban and heavily agricultural areas consists of state wildlife-management areas—in Minnesota, that’s 1.2 million acres, an area larger than the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. These vital wildlife havens are paid for largely by state hunting license fees, and a federal tax on sales of guns and other hunting equipment. Money from sales of federal duck stamps (required of all waterfowl hunters) help buy land for the large national wildlife refuges throughout the state. In Minnesota, hunter-generated funds account for 80 percent of the state wildlife budget, with benefits accruing to many kinds of critters.
So the state depends on hunters. Indeed, several years ago, the DNR became so alarmed at the decline of hunting that it created Johnson’s job to stem the loss and try to lure more teenagers, women, and immigrants to the sport. It developed a shooting sports course for public schools through the National Archery in the Schools Program, which, Johnson says, has boosted youth archery license sales. The DNR has cooperated with groups like the Wild Turkey Federation and Minnesota Deer Hunters Association to encourage youth hunts. It’s gearing up a new mentor program for kids. The state has long promoted Becoming an Outdoors-Woman, a program aimed at recruiting women into the male-dominated ranks of hunters and anglers. Most fundamentally, the state continues to buy public state wildlife-management areas—protecting habitat and maintaining places to hunt.
I have a dog in this fight, as they say. Growing up, I was a poor bet to become a hunter. My dad didn’t hunt, and I lived in a suburb. Yet somehow, after years of following my grandfather on his trap line each Thanksgiving and reading Sports Afield and Gun Digest (which I inexplicably found fascinating), I became a hunter. And when I gave it up for a short while, it was my wife, who took up hunting with one of her girlfriends, who reintroduced me to the sport.
As a hunter, I’d like to see hunting survive, even flourish. My concerns, however, are not centered on getting revenue from hunting license sales to preserve wildlife habitat. If conservation were just a matter of money, the state could probably squeeze it from other sources—such as dedicating a portion of a state sales tax to wildlife and natural-resources preservation: In fact, when they go to the polls this fall, Minnesotans will see a proposal to amend the state constitution to do just that.
Money is important, but it’s not possible to support wildlife unless people have the kind of passion for wildlife that comes from intense and enjoyable experiences outdoors. This passion translates into political and financial support for conservation, but it also does something more. Consider this: Dave Garshelis, the DNR’s lead bear biologist and a University of Minnesota researcher, has studied bears all over the world. He has noticed this paradox: In places where local residents can hunt bears legally, the bruins prosper. Where hunting is illegal, bears fare poorly.
“In China, it’s okay to poach bears because no one likes them,” Garshelis says. “It’s totally illegal to poach bears, but nobody gives a rip.”
But in the United States, bears are game animals. With that status, bears gain value to hunters, attention from the relevant conservation agency, and respect from the public. “Because there is an agency and because we try to be law-abiding citizens,” Garshelis says, “the general public is actually a watchdog for poachers.”
Making a connection with the natural world requires immersion. Looking at a picture of nature in a book or on a computer screen is no substitute for a slog in the heat and mud and cold and snow of the outdoors.
In his book Last Child in the Woods, journalist Richard Louv says we have “scared children straight out of the woods and fields.” Actually, parents have scared themselves, with inflated fears of strangers and the dangers of unsupervised play. The result is that kids suffer from “nature-deficit disorder,” and develop a relationship with the outdoors and wildlife that is largely intellectualized. “Kids today can tell you lots of things about the Amazon rain forest,” Louv once told the online magazine Salon. “They can’t usually tell you the last time they lay out in the woods and watched the leaves move…. It’s one thing to read about a frog. It’s another to hold it in your hand and feel its life.”
If it is instructive and inspiring to experience a live animal at close range, it is doubly thought-provoking to take to the woods with the intent to kill dinner. Hunting brings into focus the beauty of the outdoors, much like canoeing, camping, or bird watching. But it also offers a perspective on the fundamental struggle for life that exists in nature. Hunting illuminates the essential relationships of humans to nature around them. We destroy to eat. We may kill an animal. We may plow under its habitat to plant a crop. There is no other way. Catching a casual glance of an animal is not the same as confronting the paradox that our lives necessarily intersect with its life in a fundamental way.
In the act of hunting, hunters come to understand the animals they hunt, their habits and habitat. Sitting in a deer stand listening for the crush of leaves, or walking the last few feet of a corn row in pursuit of an animal, hunters become focused. And a good, disciplined, and thoughtful hunter must act in a way that is ethical, at a moment when he or she alone is witness to the act. It’s in the act of killing that the hunter measures his or her own skill and ethics.
That is why we need hunting. To understand the hunted, and to understand the hunter within us.
Greg Breining is a St. Paul–based freelance writer.