On the hunt for hunters
The times, they are a-changin’. Cities are growing and fewer people are hunting. That’s a bad thing.
A Colorado Division of Wildlife report notes a “significant decline” in active hunters since 1996, both statewide and nationally. That’s why CDOW started its Hunter Outreach programs in 2002. In 2007, the agency also changed the age of adult hunting licenses from 16 to 18, making a license cheaper – $1 and $10 for small and big game, respectively – and more accessible to youths.
“About 70 percent of CDOW’s income is from the sale of hunting licenses, so money is part of it. Hunters are also one of the best ways to manage wildlife,” said Jim Bulger, CDOW’s Hunter Outreach Coordinator.
In short, having fewer hunters means less money and fewer predators to manage wildlife. Without predators to thin populations, herds of animals such as deer and elk can increase to the point where disease and starvation become problems.
“For years, now, there’s been a decline in hunters as areas have become more urban,” Bulger said. “Also, instead of one parent in a family earning the income, both parents are working, which means less free time. Folks have less leisure time these days because they’re working harder. Often, parents in their mid-30s don’t hunt. Their kids might have an interest but they don’t have access to that knowledge – there isn’t a tradition of hunting anymore.”
With its Hunter Outreach programs, CDOW hopes to introduce families to an activity they can enjoy together, Bulger said.
The Division currently offers programs to youth, women, families, college students and disabled military veterans, said Randy Hampton, CDOW’s media spokesperson.
CDOW selects participants from an application process and takes them on hunts geared toward education as well as experience. (Skill seminars and shooting clinics are also offered.)
“It’s basically a ‘teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime’ kind of program,” Bulger said. “Not every hunt gets a harvest but we consider each outing a success toward our goal of educating potential hunters.”
Regarding the cheaper youth licenses, Bulger said “it’s about teaching them to go buy licenses so that they’re more inclined to do so when they’re older. We’re not making any money on youth licenses, that’s for sure.”
The bottom line is that the outreach program is working. More people are hunting.
“The first year, we had four hunts and 25 kids,” Bulger said. “This year (2010), we had 100 hunts and 1,300 to 1,400 youth days in the field.”
To participate in a “mentored hunt,” first-time or beginner hunters with Hunter Education cards submit applications to CDOW. Those selected are contacted by one of the four regional coordinators and invited on a hunt.
The hunt is free except for a reservation fee, which is returned at the time of the hunt. CDOW provides equipment such as hunting rifles and camping equipment, and qualified volunteers provide leadership and instruction.
Ideally, a parent will accompany a child on a hunt so that he or she will also learn and be able to go hunting with the child in the future, Bulger said.
Participants need to have a Hunter Education card. Children usually don’t obtain a card before age 7 or 8, Bulger said.
“Part of the issue is how well a young participant can handle a gun,” Bulger said. “It they are scared of the recoil of a 20-gauge shotgun, they’re not going to have fun and fun is one of the main goals.”
Age 12 is more common for children hunting big game, Bulger added.
“If children aren’t comfortable firing a gun, sometimes they are still able to participate and learn,” Bulger said.
“We’re not outfitters. We don’t just take you out hunting. We also teach camp chores like setting up a tent,” Bulger said.
Education is the goal. Bagging an animal just happens to be a possible outcome.
Bulger recalled a recent mentored hunt with three girls. They encountered 35 bull elk but the girls didn’t have any bull tags.
“We still saw an opportunity to educate them,” Bulger said. “We unloaded the guns and taught them how to stalk. They got to hold and aim the rifles, experiencing the process right up to the point where they could make a kill – what it feels like to be calm while adrenaline is pumping. Now, after everything they learned, those girls will have more opportunities for successful hunts.”
There are five elements outlined for each hunt: positive experience, access to the resource (land), access to equipment, access to a guide/mentor (someone who understands how to teach) and social support (a mentored hunt should have at least two participants). The reason for the fifth element is to boost chances of participants becoming hunting buddies who will go on future hunts together.
“Another reason the number of active hunters is declining is because people move or lose contact with friends who hunt with them,” Bulger said. “People who move to a new place usually take about eight years to get back into hunting, if at all. They forget what a sunrise looks like on a frosty morning and how much they enjoy it. People who have someone to hunt with are more likely to go hunting.”
The outreach programs currently depend on 160 volunteers to make the hunts possible around the state. A specially certified volunteer, called a Huntmaster, plans, coordinates, manages and leads each hunt.
“They are not reimbursed in any way. They do it from the goodness of their hearts and some of these guys spend almost $1,000 in gas doing these hunts,” Bulger said.
Stacey Sorensen has been a senior Huntmaster for nine years. He got involved in the program’s first year when he accompanied his son on a mentored hunt. He simply enjoys introducing kids to something new and the gratitude he receives. He puts in close to 300 hours a year.
“My favorite thing is to take youth out, teach them how to track and get them in the outdoors,” Sorensen said. “It’s not all in the harvest – it’s about getting out there.”