You may have seen a flurry of articles and news releases floating around lately referencing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s latest national survey. The survey reported a 16 percent decrease in hunting participation over the past five years, which is a monumental issue for wildlife conservation and the future of our hunting heritage. This is likely in part due to a shift the in the rural traditions, values and beliefs that have formed the foundation of hunting in the United States.
Georgia has many excellent hunter-recruitment programs, but the majority of them focus on youth. When actually trying to recruit and retain new hunting participants who do not come from traditional backgrounds, adults are arguably a more efficient audience. Adults have decision-making authority, financial resources, transportation and may currently or one day have children of their own.
Colleges are excellent places to recruit adult hunters given that during this time, recreation levels peak and activities adopted often contribute to an individual’s identity as they progress through life.
The University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources was the perfect place to pilot a program where we offered hunting to students. Students in Warnell already have background knowledge of how hunting supports conservation, many will be working with hunters throughout their future careers, and a large portion of them have never been hunting.
Hank Forester, Quality Deer Management Association’s (QDMA) Hunting Heritage Programs Manager, and I set up a few meetings to get things rolling. Before long we had built a partnership between the Georgia Wildlife Federation, QDMA, Georgia DNR and the student chapters of The Wildlife Society (TWS) and the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF). This partnership-based approach provided us the capacity to kick off the first phase of the Warnell Learn-to-Hunt Program.
The initial focus of the program was a squirrel hunt this past February. Small-game hunting often gets overlooked, but it can be excellent recreation for everyone from novice to the most experienced hunters. Squirrels are plentiful, taste excellent, provide a relaxed hunting environment, property access is easy to acquire, and they generally yield more shot opportunities than many other species. With these small-game hunting benefits in mind, we selected an excellent group of students with little or no hunting experience, provided hunter education and then began the program.
The classroom training sessions came first where we taught participants about squirrel biology, how it relates to hunting strategy and conducted a hands-on squirrel cleaning lesson.
The following weekend, we got everyone out in the field for firearms training. Thanks to the Cabela’s Outdoor Fund, we were able to purchase shotguns for use in adult programming in Georgia, and they had their first outing with this program. Each participant received firearms safety training and went through a course of stationary clay pigeons.
After completion of the training sessions, we recruited students with hunting experience to serve as mentors for the program and held the hunt on Redlands WMA. Everyone was paired with a mentor and set off to their respective locations. Using a combination of stalking and still hunting, the mentor-mentee pairs worked their way through the creek bottoms and across the hardwood ridges.
After the first morning hunt, we were all slated to meet back at the check station at 10 a.m. One by one the mentor-mentee pairs started to trickle in with reports of squirrel sightings, missed shots and armadillos, but not a single harvested squirrel. The last group to arrive consisted of Nathan, a master’s student on his first hunt, and Spencer, his mentor. As they got out of the truck we all eyed them with anticipation. Nathan looked at us, lifted the lid to the cooler and pulled out one of those bushy tailed rascals. We all cheered, the first harvest of the program!
The rest of the hunt weekend picked up a little bit, and we ended up with enough harvests to host a follow-up dinner to sample some squirrel pot-pie and fried squirrel.
The initial phase of the program was certainly successful with 88 percent of the participants reporting they planned to hunt again and many taking us up on follow-up opportunities.
To ensure the program is sustained, we appointed Seth Cook and Tim Miller as the Student Hunt Coordinators for the TWS and NWTF chapters, respectively. The coordinators have hit the ground running and are taking on the bulk of responsibility for planning and implementing these hunts.
Seth and Tim have already helped with a sporting clays tournament, including a new shooter component, hosted a dove hunt as a follow up to the squirrel hunt, and they are in the midst of planning a deer hunt for this fall. This initial model of a college learn-to-hunt program is looking quite promising, and we are looking forward at replicating it at other schools in Georgia. If you live in a college town or are part of a college chapter focused on conservation and are interested in starting a learn-to-hunt program, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author: Charles Evans earned his bachelor’s and master’s in wildlife biology from the University of Georgia and now works for the Georgia Wildlife Federation as the Georgia R3 Coordinator. His position—which is also supported by Georgia DNR-WRD, QDMA, NWTF and Safari Club International—was created to increase hunting participation and societal acceptance of hunting in Georgia.