Future of Wildlife Programs Depend on Youth

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

After years of seeing t-shirts with sayings things like “I’d rather be...” with an illustration of a fish, pheasant, duck or deer, implying the person wearing it was an avid outdoor sportsman, we saw one this past weekend that gave insight into where too many young people’s passions are today. It said, “I’d rather be…” and was illustrated with video games.

Minnesota’s waterfowl season starts this Saturday. The archery deer season is already underway and the pheasant season starts in just a couple weeks. It’s a time of year those who love the outdoors and the challenge of hunting anxiously anticipate.

But a challenge the state and member-supported programs that work for a healthy wildlife environment in Minnesota face is declining interest in outdoor activities. Fewer young people are hunting and fishing these days. That means fewer licenses sold to support and fund habitat restoration programs

How serious is the concern? “Unless Minnesota reverses well-established declines in hunting and fishing participation among young people, license sales will crash and endanger the state’s priceless outdoors identity,” the Star Tribune’s Tony Kennedy reported last month. “The worst-case scenario…is that fishing and hunting fade so badly that those two historic institutions lose sway with policymakers.”

But the fears go well beyond a concern over influence with state and federal lawmakers who set policy for land use and habitat protection. It goes to society’s very connection to the land and wildlife.

“The consequence feared by outdoors leaders nationwide is a society with less awareness of the natural world, less fish and wildlife research and less protection for forests, prairies, rivers, lakes, wetlands and all other game and nongame habitat,” Kennedy writes.

State wildlife officials as well as hunting and fishing organizations are concerned enough about the falling participation that they have been organizing annual Angler and Hunter Recruitment and Retention Summits. The most recent one was Aug. 26-27.

Further, to help boost local efforts to increase interest in hunting and fishing, the Angler and Hunter Recruitment and Retention program is offering $5,000 to $50,000 grants to organizations that will help with the effort. The types of activities eligible for grants “could include fishing and hunting educational programs, clinics, workshops and camps, and funding for fishing and hunting equipment and transportation.” The program gives priority to efforts that are ongoing rather than one-time events. Organizations getting the grants have to match them with dollars, labor, materials or services.

“Staying connected to the outdoors is important for the future stewardship of our natural resources,” Jeff Ledermann, supervisor of recruitment, retention and outdoors education for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), told Kennedy.

When the Wildlife Management Institute was established 115 years ago in 1911 its formation was centered on the deep concern of sportsmen and businessmen for the dramatic over-hunting of wildlife. There was no better example than the American buffalo, which once had a North American population of nearly 30 million, yet was on the verge of extinction as the 20th Century started.

But as we entered the 21st Century the institute realized that it faced another challenge – a growing scarcity of young people involved with wildlife, whether through hunting or in other areas. For almost a decade the organization has been working on a national level on recruitment, retention and reactivation efforts.

In its 2013 report, DNR’s Council on Hunting and Angling Recruitment and Retention wrote that two “unprecedented generational challenges are negatively affecting Minnesota hunting and fishing participation rates: 1) Younger Minnesotans are not participating in hunting and fishing as did previous generations; and 2) a large cohort of older hunters and anglers are at or near the age at which they will stop participating because of health, mobility or other  age-related lifestyle choices. The net result will be an increasingly smaller percentage of the state’s population that hunts and fishes.”

The report also lists five main reasons why hunting and fishing involvement are declining in Minnesota:

- Behavioral: Believing that hunting or fishing is not safe or is cruel to animals or simply not having an interest in hunting and fishing because of other higher personal priorities.

- Institutional/structural: Never receiving the kind of information that sparks an awareness or interest in trying hunting or fishing.

- Economic: Not having the means to purchase equipment and pay for costs associated with these activities.

- Physical: Not participating because hunting and angling are too physically demanding or handicapped accessible opportunities are unavailable. (Recent studies have shown that young people today are not as physically fit as their parents or grandparents were at the same age because they are not as active.)

- Access: Not participating because of lack of place to hunt or fish.

Hunters used to stream westward toward the Benson area every fall to hunt pheasants and ducks, but that stream is a trickle today.

A challenge a growing number of families with kids who would like to hunt face today is a lack of the basics to do it – they don’t have a hunting dog or connections to rural land owners on whose land they can hunt. It is true that there are a growing number of acres that are owned by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the DNR. Organizations like Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited are constantly working to expand the number of public acres available for not just habitat, but for hunting as well. However, public lands can see a lot of hunting pressure.

One successful way in which young people are being drawn into an interest in hunting is the growing popularity of high school shooting clubs. Benson has one as do a growing number of schools around the state.

But we need to do more as our part in ensuring the next generation has a greater connection to the land that it does today.

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