Frost-covered grass softly crunches with each heel-to-toe step. The sun crests the ridge, and early morning rays cast a welcome warmth across the meadow.
Bow in hand, you suddenly lock eyes on your quarry: a white-tailed deer. Your mind races, yet time stands still as a primal scene unfolds. Adrenaline sets your mind and muscles ablaze as you seize the chance to shoot. The deer turns broadside. You pull your arrow to full draw, aim and send it soaring toward the deer’s vitals, much as countless other bowhunters have done throughout time.
Bowhunters inherit and share an outdoor lore few others know. In fact, hunting is often just that: a family inheritance passed and shared one generation to the next.
But hunters, overall, have done a poor job bringing others into the fold the past generation, especially those who didn’t grow up among hunters. According to a 2016 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, only 8 percent of adults and 1 percent of females hunt in the United States. Furthermore, about 24 percent of today’s hunters are ages 55 to 64, and only about 5 percent of Americans over age 16 hunt. In contrast, about 10 percent of Americans over 16 hunted 50 years ago. The F&WS has surveyed the nation’s participation in hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation every five years since 1955.
Introducing newcomers to hunting isn’t easy, however. It’s a process that involves many social, cultural and skills-based factors that hunters often take for granted.
“As hunters, we should be careful when talking to nonhunters about the finer points of hunting,” said Kip Adams, director of conservation for the Quality Deer Management Association.
For example, seasoned hunters understand the challenges of growing mature, large-racked bucks, and the even greater challenge of hunting them. Therefore, focusing on big antlers can make hunters seem petty to nonhunters. Adams said hunters can better engage nonhunters by focusing on hunts with family and friends, procuring locally grown organic meat for their families, and matching wits with prey animals whose senses are highly tuned to detect and evade predators.
Even if we can’t convert newcomers into hunters, we must help them understand hunting and its vital role in sustaining wildlife and natural habitats. After all, hunters rely on millions of nonhunting Americans to safeguard our hunting privileges. We live in a republic governed by elected representatives, which usually means majority rules.
Fortunately, Americans have long supported recreational hunting, and that support continues today. According to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a recent report found 79 percent of Americans think hunting should be legal, an approval rate unmatched since 1995, but not much different from 1970s studies that found 75 to 77 percent favorable ratings.
Yes, we would prefer even higher approval rates, but it’s still a strong majority, especially when considering true anti-hunting sentiments usually hover at 5 percent and less. As hunter-conservationists, we should strive to retain those who agree with hunting and turn some nonhunters into bona fide hunters.
We can’t forget that most Americans – 95 percent of them, in fact – do not view hunting through our lens. “Be smart about what you share,” said Nick Pinizzotto, president and CEO of the National Deer Alliance. “Don’t be afraid to ask, ‘Do you mind if I share a hunting photo or story with you?’”
Pinizzotto said hunting has some realities we shouldn’t be ashamed to share, but he asks hunters if they would post unflattering photos of themselves online. No, we wouldn’t, so if we want to impress nonhunters, we must use discretion when sharing photos of animals we’ve shot.
The stakes are high. If we keep losing ground in hunter recruitment and retention, it will soon hurt our hunting heritage and wildlife-management efforts. Revenues from license fees and federal excise taxes on firearms, ammunition and archery equipment account for 60 to 65 percent of state wildlife-management funding. As hunter numbers dwindle, the resulting revenue losses mean less conservation work.
Therefore, simply taking our kids and family members afield isn’t enough. We must reach out to nonhunters, too, even though it can be a slow process that requires tact, planning and thoughtfulness. There’s a right way to help nonhunters appreciate and respect hunters and hunting.
To start, we must tell a true, timeless, compelling hunting story that resonates whenever it’s told. We must be able to explain why we hunt and why those reasons remain relevant.
Those reasons include food. And family. Wildlife. Heritage. Tradition. Conservation. All of those things – and more – help explain why we hunt. It isn’t just fun. It isn’t just recreation. And it isn’t just about putting antlers on the wall. It’s a culmination of our unique relationships with Mother Nature. Only by hunting can we appreciate and understand instinctive, timeless predator-prey relationships, and the ancient fireside stories they’ve generated throughout history. Those are insights we must share.
“As hunters, each of us is an ambassador of the sport,” said Matt Lindler, vice president of communications for the National Wild Turkey Federation. “I try to present myself as conscientious, law-abiding, compassionate and respectful of animals and natural resources.”
Lindler said most nonhunters accept hunting as long as it’s done legally and humanely. But nonhunters who scroll through their social-media feeds often misunderstand routine “grip-and-grin” deer photos. If they aren’t familiar with hunters and hunting, they might consider such photos disrespectful bravado that glorifies killing.
Lindler also suggests that hunters make it about the animal, the experience and the challenge; and not so much about themselves. You’ll then be well on your way to being a great ambassador for hunting.
Once you’ve established a rapport with nonhunters, consider inviting them afield. If they accept your invitation, make it about the hunter-nature relationship; and the outdoors’ many sights, sounds, feelings and experiences. Make it about rubbed trees and rutted-up whitetails, the call of lonely bobwhite quail, the drumming of distant grouse, and the thunder of gobbling turkeys.
Don’t make introductions to hunting all about the kill, the guts or the gore. You’ll get to that soon enough, so make sure it’s presented in context. The kill is a necessary part of hunting, but hunters live for everything leading up to that sudden shot and everything that follows.
Carefully and thoughtfully gauge your guest while afield. If someone seems tentative or reluctant, don’t force it. You might event want to refrain from shooting. But if it’s obvious they’re tapping into their true calling, do all you can to bring home the backstraps – and everything else, of course. Better yet, let them do the honors.
Take your time and focus on recruiting one hunter at a time. After all, if every hunter in the nation introduced only one person to the outdoors, we’d double hunting’s ranks. We might even be back on track to where we were 50 years ago. If you can share your experiences in the right light, and make hunting as fun, easy and convenient as possible, you’ll make a difference. You’ll change perspectives for the better, and ensure bowhunting’s heritage.
At all times, of course, be a proud hunter and don’t apologize for who you are. But be tactful, too. Nonhunters are usually open-minded if they’re shown respect. Likewise, we must show the same respect for hunting by presenting it in a good light. It’s our duty and responsibility.
When the time comes to take newcomers afield, don’t be surprised if they’re awestruck on their first hunt. They’ll soon focus on the sights and sounds around them, and realize negative assumptions they once had about hunting simply aren’t true. By taking people afield, we help them weave hunting into their lifestyle one strand at a time.
That’s the hunting story we need to tell.
The next time you go afield, don’t just make a memory.
Make a hunter.