If you don’t have shooting,you don’t have hunting… If you don’t have hunting,you don’t have conservation… If you don’t have conservation,you don’t have wildlife…
Rob Keck, former executive director of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), is credited with those words. And the words are true because the connection between sportsmen and women and the wildlife we all enjoy—whether or not we hunt game animals and birds—is now more than 100 years old.
But there is a problem. We need more hunters to keep this synergy alive. In 2011 the median age of the American population was 45, but for hunters it was 46. Even more telling is the fact that only six percent of Americans hunt.
Help is on the way. Several states, including Michigan, are developing programs that will bring more sportsmen and women into the hunting fraternity. The programs will help retain those that already hunt and will spark former participants to sign up again. The program, partly funded through the recent increase in license fees, is called R3 for “recruit, retain and reactivate.”
Another recent source of funding is the Hal & Jean Glassen Memorial Foundation (full disclosure: I’m the current foundation president), which provided matching funds with the DNR, NWTF and Pheasants Forever to hire an R3 coordinator for the state of Michigan.
Last month, the NWTF announced that Steve Sharp, from Sunfield in Eaton County, is the new coordinator. Sharp, 62, is no stranger to getting people involved in hunting. During 21 years as the state NWTF director, he helped raise $6.2 million after costs associated with holding 607 banquets in Michigan, a key reason he won the R3 coordinator job over 25 other candidates.
For the new program to keep going, Sharp’s next goal is a daunting one: Within 12 months, he needs to introduce 3,500 new shooters through 40 events in Michigan and to certify 30 hunting mentors, each of whom will pair with 10 new recruits. That total of 300 new hunters will grow to 1,675 people in the second year and grow exponentially from there. The 10-year goal is to increase hunting participation in Michigan by 200,000 people.
The road to “I have hunted” to “I am a hunter” is a long one that may take several years. Most new hunters have to learn gun safety and shooting skills and pass the DNR Hunter Safety Certification program (young apprentice hunters, however, are exempted for two years). They must be able to buy or borrow firearms and specialty clothing. Most importantly, they need a place to hunt.
The key to success lies in a strong mentoring program. To illustrate, Sharp, who has introduced many neophytes to wild turkey hunting, tells the story of Gordon Russell, a 30-ish man from Jamaica, who was interested in learning about the sport. One spring morning a couple years ago, Sharp took Gordon on a turkey hunt. While they waited in their blind, dawn crept into the woods. An owl hooted, birds sang and a gobbler sounded off.
“I’ve never seen the woods wake up like this,” a fascinated Gordon said. “When it comes down to it, though, I don’t know if I can actually kill a turkey.”
“Gordon, I’m bringing you to the experience,” Sharp replied. “What you do with that experience is up to you.”
The tom was hot for a hen, and Sharp succeeded in calling him in. When the magnificent bird strutted into range, chest rumbling and fan opening and closing like a card trick, an excited Gordon changed his mind. “I can do this!” he whispered. And with that he shot his first wild turkey.
“It’s experiences like that,” Sharp admitted, that got me excited about the R3 coordinator position. The pilot program we’re starting in Michigan is one the whole nation can follow. The millennial generation (those people 35 and under) is such a large group, the possibilities for growth are endless.”
It’s also the most daunting. Keith Warnke, R3 Coordinator for the Wisconsin DNR, put it this way at the recent Midwest Fish & Wildlife Conference in Grand Rapids: “Millennials don’t come to us (experienced hunters) for our expertise. They are the experts. We can’t speak to them with authority because they already measure success by what they have accomplished. We have to change our approach to them (if we want to make a connection).”
One way is to capitalize on activities like camping, which is already popular with many people. An idea being considered is called Turkey Thursdays where campers at Michigan state parks can shoot BB guns at paper targets in the afternoon and then learn about turkey hunting around a campfire that evening.
Last year “mentor demonstration days” at four DNR shooting ranges (Pontiac, Rose Lake, Ortonville and Sharonville) were popular. Sharp invited the top 10 shooters to compete at the Demmer Shooting Center on the MSU campus. A total of 168 people, including parents, came and were willing to pay $35 each for the event. Sharp hopes to increase activities like these as well as actual hunting opportunities.
By the time you read this, for example, a squirrel hunt in Eaton County and a rabbit hunt in Lapeer County will have already taken place, and more are scheduled.
For the latest developments go to www.NWTF.org, click on Michigan and look for Learn to Hunt Days and Mentored Hunts.
Michigan has a large population of fox squirrels and Eastern gray squirrels, both of which are legal to hunt from September 15 to March 31. Rabbit hunting is also legal during this time.
Want to help or participate? Sharp is the go-to guy for readers interested in becoming mentors, volunteers willing to help him organize events and open their land to new hunters, as well as those eager experience something new: (517) 930-0947; firstname.lastname@example.org.
When I interviewed Steve for this column, his 2009 Chevy Colorado had 235,000 miles on it. Given his new responsibilities and knowing how hard he works, I think he is going to need a new truck.