Are special seasons recruiting new hunters or just causing a rift among waterfowlers?
Sunset is coming to the future of waterfowl hunting. Don't believe it? Just look at the statistics. About 2.5 million Americans over the age of 16 hunted ducks and geese in 1996. Ten years later, that number plummeted to 1.3 million, an astonishing 48 percent decline. The end may be even closer in Canada, where there are 70 percent fewer duck and goose hunters than just 10 years ago. It's an alarming trend — one with sweeping consequences to future waterfowl and habitat conservation efforts.
To stem that ebbing tide, many state wildlife agencies and conservation organizations are pouring resources directly into the next generation of hunters. Recruitment efforts kicked into high gear in 1995, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allowed states to designate up to two additional days of waterfowl hunting for young hunters. Now, virtually every state offers some sort of special season, relaxed bag limit or incentive to lure kids into the fields or marshes. On the surface, it seems like a great idea. Today's boys and girls who become hunters will not only fund state fish and wildlife agencies through license purchases in the future, but will carry on the conservation ethic that is the cornerstone of modern wildlife management. Without a new generation, hunting as we know is doomed.
But the push to recruit young hunters might be having a negative effect on those who already buy licenses. Not everyone is thrilled to treat boys and girls like virtual duck-hunting royalty and many hunters are beginning to question the value of those efforts.
The Trouble With (More) Kids
One hunter, posting on an Internet hunting forum, insisted the decline in hunter numbers is nothing but good, because it weeds out the "wannabes, slobs and idiots who aren't willing to work for their birds." Most critics aren't quite so harsh, but they are reluctant to speak out against recruitment efforts for fear of sounding greedy.
"It's already difficult to find room to hunt now. When these kids turn into adults and I'm already fighting for a place to hunt it's going to be that much more difficult and I think it will only drive more hunters away than it will recruit," said one Minnesota hunter, who didn't want to be identified because he makes waterfowl hunting products. "I'm afraid we've reached capacity."
That's a dangerous argument, said Delta Waterfowl vice president John Devney, and one that should be dismissed. While some areas near large population centers are at capacity, other regions are far from overloaded with hunters. Besides, he added, as duck hunters continue to decline, our collective voice becomes politically irrelevant.
"Hunters didn't fare so well in the last Farm Bill, but imagine what the outcome for the various conservation programs would have been if hunter-conservationist organizations like Delta weren't speaking out in favor of those programs," he said. "It would have been disastrous. Who else cares so much about the birds and the habitat as duck hunters?"
Too Much, Too Close
More hunters equal more money, and thus, more support for conservation efforts. Clearly there is strength in numbers. However, the methods used to boost youth participation, and ultimately turn them into lifelong duck hunters, are creating a rift between young and old. How? By placing youth hunts in direct conflict with regular seasons. Minnesota's youth hunt is one week prior to the regular opening day. Illinois is as close as four days, and the youth season in Texas is as little as five days prior to the regular season.
"It's like the youth day is opening day, and when I get to go out on the general season opener, the ducks have already been hunted," said the Minnesota hunter.
Success is key to draw kids to the sport.
That's just not an issue, said Steve Cordts, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources waterfowl biologist. Most of the birds harvested during the state's one-day youth hunt likely wouldn't have even been in Minnesota when the regular season opens, he said. Blue-winged teal and wood ducks make up the bulk of that one-day harvest, and those birds are often gone by the general season opener.
Greg Franke disagrees. Since Illinois allowed a youth waterfowl weekend starting in 1996, the state wood duck harvest has dropped from second to third in the number of birds taken by hunters each season. Franke also noted the percentage of ducks killed on opening day on public waterfowl areas has seen a steady decline since the introduction of a youth weekend.
"You can't tell me the birds aren't affected by two days of hunting pressure less than a week before the regular opening day. To me, that's too close and it's having a real impact on our duck hunting," said Franke, a member of Migratory Waterfowl Hunters, Inc., an Illinois conservation organization.
What's The Big Deal?
Why would any adult be concerned about one less duck in their daily take? Most hunters who have been pursuing ducks and geese for a decade or two have moved beyond the body-count phase and are more concerned about the entire experience. Killing matters far less than seeing birds and spending a few hours in the marsh. Parents, even those with little waterfowl experience, likely get far more joy in watching their son or daughter have a great hunt than they get from pulling the trigger themselves.
"If we are selling hunting as just piles of birds, then we've done something wrong," Devney said. "Besides, it's not like these kids are limiting out left and right, but I can guarantee you they are having fun."
There's nothing like watching a boy or girl focused on a flock of ducks circling a decoy spread. The nervous anticipation is almost palpable as young hunters grip their shotguns, waiting for the inevitable call to take 'em. Hit or miss, a kid's all smiles. He's happy to be there, the center of attention and the star of a day dedicated entirely to him. What's not to like about that? Youth days are quite popular in many states, including Minnesota, where an estimated 23,400 boys and girls took to the state's marshes and fields in 2005. Those kids killed about 41,000 ducks and 8,000 geese, according to Cordts.
"Thirteen percent of adult waterfowl hunters took an average of 1.6 kids on the youth day that year," he said.
"That's pretty good and I think it shows how much adults like the season, as well."
How well? Sixty-five percent of the state's waterfowl hunters either supported the youth day or strongly supported it, compared to 23 percent who were either opposed or strongly opposed to the youth-only day.
Do They Work?
After 13 years of set-aside days for hunters under 16, many adults are beginning to take a closer look at these seasons and asking: Are they actually helping boost hunter numbers?
The answer seems to be a resounding "no." The proof lies not just in national statistics, but in the trend of hunters in traditional waterfowling states. South Dakota, brimming with public opportunities and filled with birds, is seeing a decline in hunters. Minnesota, which has one of the highest duck and goose hunter numbers per capita, has also seen a dramatic decrease in the sale of state waterfowl stamps despite the popularity of youth hunts. Cordts said the DNR sold about 130,000 stamps in 2000, but he expects to sell fewer than 100,000 in 2009.
Recruitment is necessary to save our hunting heritage. Reevaluating youth recruitment efforts might be the only way to satisfy waterfowlers opposed to youth seasons.
"We lost 15,000 hunters in 2005 alone," he noted.
More often than not, youth days attract kids who already come from families with a strong hunting tradition and who will probably hunt with an adult during the regular season anyway. Even one-day immersion events that include a conservation program and a morning hunt with a mentor will likely have little overall effect on recruitment efforts.
"It takes much more than a day in a blind to make a hunter," said Bob Norton, a retired psychology professor from the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. A lifelong outdoorsman, Norton conducted a lengthy study for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on waterfowl hunter attitudes and behavior. "Hunting is a learned skill that takes years to hone, and ideally, one that starts with basic woodsmanship before a child is old enough to carry a gun," he said.
Cordts insists doing something to promote hunting to boys and girls is better than doing nothing at all, especially if those kids have a lot of shooting opportunities they might not get during the regular season.
Fish In A Barrel?
A lot of shooting, however, is exactly why many hunters don't like set-aside days, particularly in states where the youth season falls before the general season opener. With so many birds that have never seen a decoy spread or heard the unmistakable pop-pop-pop of a 12-gauge autoloader aimed at them, the hunting can be downright easy.
"Too easy," said Dave Woods, a 34-year-old Oakdale, Minn., waterfowler. Easy ducks can lead to unrealistic expectations rarely fulfilled during the regular season.
"Beginning hunters need to be taught what it's really like duck or goose hunting during the regular season when there are other hunters out in the marsh and the birds aren't like fish in a barrel," he said. "When these kids go out during the regular season, they get discouraged and end up giving up because it's never as easy as it is on youth days, especially if they are hunting on a refuge."
Not so, Norton said. Based on his study, which spanned nearly 25 years, he identified five stages hunters go through as they mature.
The first stage? Action.
"A beginning hunter needs action in order to advance to the other stages," he said. "Without successfully fulfilling the need for lots of shooting, even if they don't bag anything, they often won't advance to the second stage and ultimately turn into lifelong hunters. A special youth day may contribute to the first stage because they often get to shoot a lot."
In other words, without prime opportunities, beginning hunters tend to get discouraged, rather than encouraged. That's just the way kids are. From a wider perspective, getting as many kids as possible into a duck blind will serve a higher purpose in the long run, whether or not they kill any birds or plan to hunt again. Any boy or girl given an opportunity to hunt ducks in a supportive environment will likely have a positive image of the sport, even if they never touch a duck call or pick up a shotgun again.
"In 20 or 30 years, when they are at a cocktail party or some social gathering and someone tries to put down hunting, you can be sure they will defend hunting because they will at least know what it's about and how much hunters actually care for the resource," Devney said. "Non-hunters can be our best allies."
The first of the five stages a hunter goes through is "action."
Equal Opportunity Hunting
Franke understands the need for allies, and has no problem promoting waterfowl hunting to new hunters of any age. He plans to take his grandchildren to a marsh during the youth season, even though he is opposed to the way Illinois runs its youth hunt. Woods is also eager to get new hunters into the sport. One of his fondest memories was the look on a friend's face after he killed his first goose. His partner had never hunted before and Woods was more than happy to introduce him to the highs and lows of a typical waterfowl hunt. His friend is now a serious hunter.
"We don't need a special day for anyone because I can take a new hunter anytime I can hunt myself," Woods said.
Supporters of youth days agree that simply offering kids a free day isn't the ultimate answer to rescuing the hunting tradition. It's going to take a conscious effort by all hunters to bring new blood into the sport, no matter the ages of those new participants. The good news is many hunters are actually bringing new hunters afield, even if license sales don't reflect it yet.
According to an unscientific online survey of Delta Waterfowl members, 91 percent have introduced at least one non-family member to hunting. Delta and other groups are also ramping up efforts to reach out to adults.
Delta recently held a hunt for students from university wildlife and biology programs in Canada because many students who are pursuing degrees in wildlife biology don't come from a hunting family. Some have no background in hunting at all. Biologists who hunt will have a far better understanding of the role of hunting and hunters in wildlife management.
Franke agreed that recruitment efforts need to be reevaluated. He wonders why the age limit for youth hunts is set at 16 in Illinois. Seventeen and 18-year-olds ha
ve the means to hunt on their own and are more likely to buy licenses and equipment than a 12-year-old, he argued.
However, even if various recruitment efforts work, Franke and Woods would like to know where those new guns will go. Minnesota has lost a huge amount of huntable land to development in the past 20 years, and other states are also dealing with public wildlife areas that don't have room for more hunters. That's why Woods thinks states should put more emphasis on creating new opportunities before they push to increase participation.
Even the most enthusiastic kid will eventually give up if he doesn't have a good place to go.
If nothing else, Franke would like to see a change in the season structure, allowing more time between the youth season and the regular season. That would give local birds time to return to normal preseason habits before opening day, and it would afford everyone equal opportunities. He would also like the second day of the youth season moved to the end of the regular season so kids get a taste of hunting under tough conditions. Arkansas actually holds both youth days at the tail end of the regular season. So does Mississippi and Tennessee. Other states set youth season between splits, giving kids their own day or two, but not until all hunters have had at least a short season first. However, it's unlikely Franke and other concerned duck hunters in Illinois will get their wish any time soon.
"The DNR has no interest in making any changes even after we made a pretty strong case for doing so," he lamented. "It's almost like adult hunters are being pushed aside for the sake of kids."
David Hart is a waterfowling enthusiast from Rice, Va.