Hunters as endangered species? A bid to rebuild ranks.
Youth hunt days in several states attempt to attract young people to a fading sport.
Along Indiana's highways, 50-foot billboards pitch: "Take a Kid Hunting Day." They depict father and son ambling down a country road - two dead ducks drooping from one of the boy's hands, a shotgun in the other.Skip to next paragraph
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Trying to appeal to youths' instincts for fun and family, Indiana state officials and national hunting advocates are banking on a phalanx of sophisticated promotions to lure a new generation of would-be hunters into the fields, or woods.
Indiana's first statewide youth hunt is one of many state and private initiatives emerging this fall that aim to ensure that hunters don't become an endangered species.
With the urbanization of America, there's simply less nearby land available for hunting. Moreover, competition for kids' time - from cellphones, television, and other modern diversions - has diminished ranks of young hunters. The result: Few kids learn to hunt and go on to hunt as adults.
To reverse the trend, state and private efforts range from trying to repeal laws that limit youth hunting to psychology-based campaigns aimed at getting young people familiar with gun use.
Such moves are setting off alarm bells with hunting watchdog groups. Long-established safeguards governing the sport are being undercut, they say, and state agencies are aligning with the hunting industry as never before.
Anxious to reverse the decline in the sport - and the resulting drop in state revenues from hunting licenses - hunting and gun groups and state wildlife and conservation departments are pursuing several initiatives.
• The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a trade association representing the firearms industry, is funding new hunting programs in 25 states, part of its Hunting Heritage Partnership with state wildlife agencies. Fruits of that program, which began in 2003, are being seen this fall in Indiana's first statewide youth hunt and other efforts.
• The National Rifle Association is developing a campaign to begin early next year to open more public land in all 50 states to hunting. It will use model legislation from South Dakota, NRA president Wayne LaPierre says. Easing access is generally aimed at increasing retention rates by keeping hunters more active.
• The National Wild Turkey Federation's new Families Afield program is targeting 33 states that currently make it illegal for youths to go deer hunting before age 12. It also is deploying new youth programs like Xtreme Jakes, which combines elements like rock climbing and mountainbiking with target shooting in triathlon-style events.
"We're just starting a new generation of programs based on solid research - not just things that feel good," says Mark Damian Duda, executive director of Responsive Management, a Harrisonburg, Va., opinion research firm serving wildlife agencies and hunting groups.
These programs - built on the research of psychologists like Jean Piaget, who pioneered the study of children's intellectual development, focus on the psychological requirements to build an inclination toward hunting starting at an early age.
Hunting groups have gotten the message. "We decided to use those [extreme sports] as a hook to get them interested first, then involved in the outdoors - and then tell them about hunting," says Mandy Harling, Xtreme Jakes program manager for the Wild Turkey Federation.
Hunting and gun groups are active for a reason. Between the mid-1990s and 2001, the number of hunters dropped 7 percent to about 13 million, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. By 2025, that number is projected to drop 24 percent to about 9.9 million, according to a recent study conducted for pro-hunting organizations.
Without serious changes, "the future for hunting is bleak," says the study conducted for the NSSF and the Wild Turkey Federation.