Are Hunters Disappearing from Wildlife Management?

There was a time when it was virtually unheard of for an employee in a state game agency not to be a hunter.

The same could be said of students who enrolled in wildlife management programs in colleges and universities across the country. They chose that curriculum because they wanted a way to turn their passion for hunting or fishing into a career.

Today, however, roughly half of students graduating with wildlife management degrees have never hunted a day in their lives. Many students have never handled a firearm, never been around hunting, and have no idea of hunting’s importance as either a management tool or a cultural tradition. These new students are more likely to be backpackers, bikers and wildlife watchers than hunters.

The severity of this problem, and what it means for hunters and game management, is commonly characterized by angry comments like this one, from the online forum www.hunting-washington.com:

The WDFW (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) has too many employees who do not hunt or fish and are actually trying to reduce opportunity for hunting and fishing…. The biggest problem is that universities have anti-hunting professors brainwashing the students (future biologists) they teach to think that predators do not need to be managed and that animals will self maintain [their] numbers. The reality is that the WDFW should be maximizing all hunting opportunities rather than trying to figure how to make wildlife self regulate. There are simply too many greenies running the system.

Less angry but nonetheless disturbed, state and federal wildlife agencies have actually acknowledged the problem. At the 2000 North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference, state agency administrators identified the influx of prospective hires without a background in hunting as one of the key issues facing hunting and the future of wildlife management in this country.

As the director of one state agency put it, “It’s a problem when our staff elevate to policy-making positions and begin regulating hunting and they’ve never been a participant themselves.”

Professors Take Action

Also recognizing the problem were some university professors, who have taken it upon themselves to develop special programs to better prepare their non-hunting students for careers as wildlife managers.

“We were seeing that, as time passed, fewer and fewer of the natural resources majors, and particularly wildlife majors, were hunters,” said Gary San Julian, professor emeritus of wildlife resources at Penn State University.

One of the first attempts to address the lack of hunting experience exhibited by this new breed of wildlife student was a hunter education program developed by wildlife ecology professor Scott Crave at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The goal of this program, developed in the mid-1990s, was to help students understand hunting and its role in wildlife conservation.

Inspired by Craven’s work and with support from university administrators, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, and the Wildlife Management Institute (WMI), San Julian introduced a similar hunting immersion program at Penn State 10 years ago. San Julian said he launched his program with the purpose of educating non-hunting students about hunting so they could interact with hunters knowledgeably and make educated management decisions after graduation.

“The goal is not to make them hunters, but to help them understand how hunting fits into the fabric of our culture, how hunting decisions are made, and the passion of hunters,” said San Julian. “One of the things we ask them to do is start off drawing a picture of what they think a hunter is. And we look at that and discuss it. Then there is a pre-test and a post-test to find out if attitudes have changed.”

San Julian recognized early on that his students’ lack of hunting knowledge was handicapping their chances of success when they entered the work force.

“Without understanding the passion hunters have and the hunting language,” San Julian said, “students may not be able to have a reasonable conversation with them. It’s important that these students make on-the-job decisions based on knowledge, and by taking part in this course, they learn enough about the hunting culture to give them the tools they need to be successful in their future.”

The Need for a National Program

In 2004, WMI surveyed university wildlife departments to determine what percentage of wildlife majors were hunters. WMI’s findings showed that roughly 50 percent of students graduating with wildlife degrees were not hunters.

A follow-up survey of federal land management and state game agencies confirmed this trend, and officials indicated that it was indeed a cause for concern.

In response, a two-year pilot program was launched–funded by the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation and administered by WMI–for non-hunting students in wildlife management disciplines. The new program, named Conservation Leaders for Tomorrow (CLFT), was modeled after the course developed by Craven and continued by San Julian at Penn State.

Dick McCabe, former vice president of WMI and a former instructor at the University of Wisconsin, was instrumental in getting CLFT off the ground and currently serves as the program’s senior advisor. He said of the prospective students, “We wanted them to understand the important role hunters and hunting plays in their chosen field. And we wanted, especially, to influence them, wherever possible, early in their studies or careers.”

The program was launched in October 2005 with 39 students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and Penn State University. Just seven years later, CLFT now involves 42 colleges and universities, 19 state game departments, and three federal agencies. Twelve workshops are held annually at seven different facilities across the country. The workshops are taught by conservation officers, biologists and wildlife professors from across the nation who themselves are seasoned hunters.

CLFT workshops last four days and are designed to accommodate 16 students. The participants engage in roundtable discussions about hunting–covering such topics as who hunts and why, the biological basis of hunting, and the role hunting has played in the development of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Students also learn gun safety, shoot clay birds, and engage in mock hunting exercises that teach such skills as how to follow a blood trail and how to move quietly through the woods.

At the end of the workshop the students go on a pheasant hunt.

“It’s an amazing thing. They come in on a Thursday and by Saturday morning they’re hunting safely,” San Julian said. “It’s a pretty intense four days.”

San Julian said the program has even changed some vegetarian students’ attitudes about eating meat.

“We always have a wild game dinner, and people say to me, ‘You know, I’m a vegetarian, but if I decided to eat meat it would only be the meat that I collected myself.’ So there are a lot of attitude changes that take place,” he said.

What Does it Mean?

While the value of programs like these is certainly significant, their very existence is proof of the problem–students pursuing careers in wildlife management reflect the trend of an increasingly urban society, one where hunting opportunities and traditions are threatened.

There’s also the issue of shifting agency priorities. What were once called “Departments of Game” have morphed into “Departments of Natural Resources” and “Departments of Fish and Wildlife,” indicating their broadened scopes. Some agencies today are quick to point out that they manage all wildlife for all citizens, not just game species for hunters. In 2010, a spokesperson for the California Department of Fish and Game went so far as to say, “In the 140 years that DFG has been around, our constituencies have grown. They now include animal rights groups (emphasis ours), other law enforcement agencies, business and industry, farmers, boaters, local governments, essentially all Californians.”

Of course, such a view gives influence to non-hunting citizens, or anti-hunting citizens and organizations, which becomes evident any time a state agency tries to initiate a new or expanded hunting season. Whether a season is proposed for wolves, black bears, suburban whitetails, sandhill cranes, etc., anti-hunters’ outcries have delayed them all–and are putting agencies in the impossible position of trying to please both hunters and anti-hunters. The worst consequence is that it subordinates what is best for the game species. Wildlife management decisions must be based on science, not on whether some zealots oppose hunting.

While it is true that state game departments still count many hunters on their staffs, and roughly half of the seats in wildlife management programs are still filled by hunters, hunter distrust of state game agencies is a growing issue. The reason we have abundant wildlife populations in this country is because of hunters. Hunters still foot the bill for these departments, yet hunters are increasingly feeling that some officials responsible for managing game no longer speak the hunting language–or even care what we have to say.

Ultimately, such a disconnect between hunters and agency staff puts wildlife management and hunting–as we know it today–at risk.

After all, how can someone effectively manage an activity they’ve never experienced, or one they have no personal connection with?

This article was republished with permission from NRAhuntersrights.org.

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