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Hunters Shape Their Future

by Mark LaBarbera

TOMAHAWK, WI.   At a recent conference held at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Treehaven Field Station near Tomahawk, some 30 hunting leaders from across Wisconsin identified strategies and pledged action aimed at reducing the loss of licensed hunters in the state.  The Hunting Future Search Conference, held February 22-24, was organized and funded by the Wisconsin DNR.

“The conference was a huge success with the potential for accomplishing great things in the future,” said Jeff Nass, President of the National Rifle Association’s chartered association in the state. “We look forward to working with this group and representatives from other groups that were unable to attend.”

His group, Wisconsin Firearm Owners, Ranges Clubs and Educators Inc. (Wisconsin FORCE), actively participated at the conference with leaders from Whitetails Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Wisconsin Deerhunters, Becoming an Outdoors-Woman, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, National Wild Turkey Federation, Wisconsin Waterfowl Association, Wisconsin Bowhunters Association, Wisconsin Trappers Association and others, including members of local hunting clubs and the Wisconsin Conservation Congress.

As a Life Member of North American Hunting Club, Safari Club, Mule Deer Foundation and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, I’ve heard fellow members share concerns about the next generation losing touch with nature and wondering what can be done to reconnect youngsters and introduce new ones to hunting, conservation and the shooting sports.

Most people agree that there is no silver bullet.

According to Addison Lee of the Hmong American Sportsmen Club, the challenge is shared by everyone, including communities like his that have long honored hunting traditions.  “We are one generation away from losing the hunting heritage,” he told the group.

DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp’s invitation to stakeholders said, “Though this planning effort is being organized by the Wisconsin DNR and includes some DNR staff as participants, this is not about gathering input from stakeholder groups about what the agency alone should be doing to promote hunting.  This is about what our hunting community determines it too must do to affect our future.  Moving forward will require creative action and partnerships between hunters, government agencies, industry, universities, conservation organizations and landowners.”

DNR Hunting and Shooting Sports Coordinator Keith Warnke helped facilitate the conference, which was conceived and organized by Bob Holsman, from the wildlife faculty at UW-Stevens Point who is also a mentor and volunteer hunter education instructor.

Lil Pipping, Past President of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and Sheboygan County Conservation Association, said she was “very impressed” by the collaborative effort on the issue of hunting’s future in Wisconsin.  “This group sure was knowledgeable and willing to work together,” she said, “and that, I believe, was most important.”

This strategic gathering came at a time when the nation’s hunters and anglers have begun a year-long celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program (WSFR), one of the most significant and successful partnership approaches to fish and wildlife conservation in U.S. history.

The “WSFR 75 – It’s Your Nature” celebration brings together federal and state fish and wildlife agencies; the hunting, shooting, angling, and boating industries; and conservation groups to mark a milestone of partnership success that has led to 75 years of quality hunting, fishing, shooting, boating and wildlife-related recreation, according to its promoters.  The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies said this occasion also marks the beginning of a new era in wildlife conservation, during which the partners will establish new goals for fostering and maintaining partnerships to continue conservation and outdoor recreation into the next 75 years and beyond.

“Through the WSFR program, several innovative and foundational fish and wildlife conservation programs are administered,” they said.  “The first was created on September 2, 1937 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, which raises funds through a dedicated excise tax on sporting guns and ammunition. In 1950, the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act was enacted and added to the WSFR program.”

Through this law, funds are provided for fish conservation and boating and fishing recreational programs in each state through an excise tax placed on certain fishing and boating equipment and fuels.

“Since its 1937 inception, WSFR has provided more than $14 billion to support fish and wildlife restoration and management,” said Hannibal Bolton, the Service’s assistant director for the WSFR program. “The program and its partners, including the sporting arms industry, conservation groups and sportsmen and sportswomen, are coming together for this anniversary to renew their commitment to conserve fish and wildlife and enhance hunter, angler and boater recreation.”

These funds, administered by the Service, are combined with hunting license dollars in each state to fund important state wildlife conservation and hunting programs.

“As paradoxical as it may seem, if hunting were to disappear, a large amount of the funding that goes to restore all sorts of wildlife habitat, game and nongame species alike, would disappear,” said Steve Sanetti, National Shooting Sports Foundation president, who was not at the Wisconsin meeting, but speaks for the guns and ammo industry, including many members in the state.

Hunting generates billions in retail sales and pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into government conservation efforts annually through license sales and federal taxes on firearms and ammunition sales.  Hunters spend about $1.3 billion (up from $1.1 billion in 1996) and 10 million days a year in Wisconsin, according to the last completed National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, which was in 2006.  Results from the 2011 survey are expected this summer.

But fewer hunters return to the sport each year. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates 33 states saw declines in hunting license sales over the last two decades. The national survey for 2006 reported 697,000 unique hunting license buyers in Wisconsin, with 48,000 of them being non-residents.  Together, they averaged 14 days of hunting per hunter.  From 1996 to 2006, the number of hunters went from 665,000 up to 697,000.  While the margin of error in the survey makes the difference in numbers statistically insignificant, a lot of us who pitch in to recruit new hunters and get old ones back in the field like to see this glass as half full. At a time when other states are seeing declines, Wisconsin shows signs of growth, thanks to many hunters and groups promoting hunting in their local communities.

Millions of Americans still hunt, of course, and some states have seen increases in license sales over the last 20 years. But the overarching decline has outdoor advocates worried.

Suburban sprawl has consumed prime hunting land, forcing many hunters to choose between driving for hours to get to the woods or staying home.  Plus, timber companies and other owners of large land holdings traditionally open to hunting, are selling parcels.  The parcelization and fragmentation of habitat not only affects hunter access, but it also affects wildlife populations, their movements and health.

Declining numbers of hunters threatens to reduce funds available from license sales, excise taxes on certain hunting products, and other revenue streams.  Fewer hunters can also mean fewer votes for conservation initiatives, fewer volunteer hours for on the ground conservation projects, and fewer people with a connection to the land. So, it’s understandable why Wisconsin hunters, who are among the most active conservationists, came together to address the challenge.

Jeff Schinkten, President of Whitetails Unlimited, a national conservation organization based in Wisconsin, attended the gathering, and mentioned that his 33-year-old son, Oliver, quit hunting when his baby was born, and after years of seeing no deer.

“I miss hunting with my son,” said Schinkten. “As hunters, we all better be concerned. If it keeps going like this, it’s not going to be good. When we lose hunters, we lose license sales, and it’s a vicious circle.”

According to Larry Bonde, whose son and two daughters are in their 20’s, and who has served on the Wisconsin Conservation Congress for 19 years, the top four priorities agreed on by the organizations at the Tomahawk meeting were (not ranked): Communications, access to hunting land, recruiting under-represented groups and getting hunting, conservation and outdoor skills curriculum into the schools.

Simplifying regulations, promoting small game hunting participation and other subjects received lengthy discussion and shared widespread agreement, but the group chose only the top four topics for immediate attention.  Most people agreed that such subjects were important, but that it was also necessary to create strategies and specific action assignments to focus everyone’s energy and coordinate their efforts.

In some cases, the group agreed unanimously on needs, like helping hunters and groups become better “ambassadors” or spokesmen for our outdoor heritage, societal values of hunting, and other key messages.  Instead of putting such topics on the back burner, whenever possible, they were rolled into other strategies, such as “Improve communications with the public.”  The group agreed that hunters would benefit from training that helps everyone communicate better with non-hunters, the media, and even other hunters, wildlife agencies and conservation partners.

Four sub-committees tackled the four main issues and are creating action plans with specific assignments.  The DNR has offered to help facilitate and, in some cases, fund the actions.  The National Archery in the Schools, Becoming and Outdoors-Woman and Scholastic Clay Target Programs are examples of existing programs that could use more support to accomplish more of what the group said hunting needs.

Rich Kirchmeyer, a hunter safety instructor for 33 years and member of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress for 32 years, knows first-hand that one of the keys to recruitment is mentoring new hunters.  For the last nine years he has mentored new bear hunters, and for eight years he has helped newcomers learn to turkey hunt.  For six years, he has mentored deer hunters.

“I really enjoy hunting and trapping, and sharing those experiences with the youth, being as my children are now 22 and 25 years old,” said Kirchmeyer, who also serves on the boards of Wisconsin Bowhunters and Wisconsin Trappers Associations, and is involved with Kids and Mentors Outdoors (KAMO).

Rick Heisler, Director of Public Works for the City of West Bend, summed up the meeting by saying, “It provided a good sense of direction that we came up with, that I think will help the future of hunting.”  Heisler, who coaches a youth trap shooting team and who has been the lead instructor for the Campbellsport hunter education program for 34 years, has mentored several youth as a way to help others spend time with family and friends, appreciating God’s great works of nature.

Decades later, he still remembers time afield with his dad, and the question that came at the end of each outing, “Did you have a good day?”  According to Heisler, his dad always said, “Anyone who says they did not have a successful day, no matter if your game bag was empty, must have had their eyes shut out there in nature.”

Heisler, like the others, just wants to pass along our hunting heritage and both an appreciation and sense of stewardship for the environment, that helps create healthy families and great memories in America’s Dairyland.

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