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.
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.
Besides their youth-marketing initiatives, the firearms industry and hunting organizations are also assisting many recruitment efforts run by state wildlife agencies worried by declining revenue from hunting license sales.
"It has been a red flag," says Michael Ellis, spokesman for Indiana's Division of Fish and Wildlife. "Youth hunting has been declining, and if they don't hunt, neither will their sons and daughters."
Although cooperation between state wildlife agencies and pro-hunting groups has long been the rule, growing urgency over declining numbers of hunters is fueling closer alliances and more intense efforts to protect a $20 billion industry, observers say.
"We're seeing a lot of things that indicate to us an erosion of the public interest," says Heidi Prescott, a spokeswoman for the Humane Society of the United States in Washington. "It's an increased effort, like a final gasp of desperation."
Public agencies should serve a wider constituency, including far more wildlife watchers, some 66 million participants who spent $38 billion in 2001, and quit catering to the hunting industry, antihunting advocates say.
"What we find so objectionable is that these public-service agencies are involving themselves in recruiting hunters and now, in some cases, have even made it part of their strategic plans," says Ms. Prescott.
Industry and state officials, however, are unapologetic.
"We have an interest in building commerce for the future for our members," says Steve Wagner, a spokesman for the NSSF, based in Newtown, Conn. "As commerce and participation builds, so do the ties to conservation funding."
Indiana's Fish and Wildlife Division, for instance, received an $18,110 grant from the NSSF to create and promote an "annual small-game hunting day." Those funds paid for billboards and posters. Indiana officials say there was no undue influence involved.
"The efforts done with those dollars are for nothing other than to promote hunting and shooting - there's no advertising or manufacturer involvement," says Kyle Hupfer, a hunter himself and director of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the division.
The state's youth hunt, in which kids accompanied by adults were permitted to shoot a "bag limit" of five squirrels and 15 mourning doves in a day, is the first step with programs like next year's youth deer hunt.
Animal preservation groups say more than 100 million animals are needlessly killed for sport annually nationwide. But agencies and hunting groups say that hunting license sales fund vital efforts to maintain habitat programs, including those that aided the resurgence of the bald eagle and wild turkey.
Indeed, state efforts to recruit new hunters has less to do with managing surging wildlife populations, such as deer, though it is a factor, and much more to do with maintaining budgets, state officials say.
"We need the revenue from hunting licenses to ensure that our conservation efforts succeed," says Susan Langlois, administrator of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife's Hunter Education Program. "A lot of people try to be supportive," she adds. "But hunters are truly the ones that support us in trying to manage for biodiversity."
The situation is especially dire in Massachusetts. Hunting-license purchases have dropped by more than half over two decades. So the state is now recruiting young hunters and, with a $19,000 NSSF grant, officials hope to double their youth hunting programs this fall. In Alabama, some $26,000 in NSSF funding saved the state's "youth dove hunts," threatened by state budget cuts.
"If we're not growing we're losing ground," Gary Moody, chief of wildlife at Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, wrote in a statement citing the NSSF program as a boon. "Our job is to improve and strengthen hunter numbers."