Hunting for Beginners

By presenting a fresh vision of the sport to new audiences, a program aims to stem an alarming drop in hunters

LAST FALL I spent an afternoon near Baraboo sitting in a tree stand across from a woman with a rifle. Perched in another crook was our hunting mentor, Karl Malcolm MS’08 PHD’11, then a CALS doctoral student in forest and wildlife ecology. Malcolm was the organizer of that weekend’s Learn to Hunt program, which was the reason I ignored my fear of heights and climbed 15 feet in the air. The woman with the rifle was Kristen Cyffka, a UW–Madison grad student in statistics with an interest in sustainable food. That day would be our chance to shoot a deer—if we saw one. The temperature was unseasonably hot, the deer scarce.

As the sun began to set, the air cooled and the golden light dimmed over the thickets and fields. In the silence, the occasional rustle took on thrilling clarity. This, whispered Malcolm, is the magic hour.

But Cyffka had woken up before 3 a.m. for an earlier hunt, and as the woods grew tranquil, the breeze gentle, I saw her head begin to droop. The rifle remained propped on the armrest of her tree stand. My first instinct was to nudge her with my foot, but then I decided to rouse her in the least startling way I could and instead whispered her name in a soothing murmur. I was learning that you rethink a lot of things when you’re out in the woods in the presence of a loaded gun.

Karl Malcolm has been an avid hunter and angler since his teens, and when he enrolled in the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, he assumed he’d be among fellow hunters.

“I thought I’d meet lots of people with the same feeling I had,” says Malcolm, who is now based in New Mexico as a Presidential Management Fellow with the USDA Forest Service. But when he started talking about his love of hunting and fishing, the other students thought hunting was “barbaric and disrespectful to animals, and that it was all about bloodlust,” he says. “It didn’t at all jibe with my personal experience.” As he began to evaluate and articulate his hunting experiences for others, Malcolm found the initial seed for his interest in teaching others to hunt.

Wisconsin’s Learn to Hunt (LTH) programs have been around since 1997, inspired by the Wisconsin Student Hunter Program, which CALS forest and wildlife ecology professors Don Rusch and Scott Craven had launched in 1993 to ensure that the department’s students gained hands-on experience in hunting and understood its history and role in conservation. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) adapted that into LTH programs designed to recruit new hunters, initially focusing on turkey and pheasant before expanding into deer. The LTH program introduces novices to hunting in a controlled manner by pairing them with mentors on a one-to-one basis. After at least four hours of classroom and field instruction in topics like gun safety, ethical shooting and finding and setting up a hunting site, participants and mentors go out into the fields to experience the hunt firsthand.

Most organizers charge nothing for the course. Mentors must have at least five years’ experience hunting the chosen animal; they also may apply to serve as organizers of an LTH program. Learners must be at least 10 years old and never have received a hunting license for the species being hunted. On paper, Malcolm has organized his programs as an individual, but in practice help comes not only from the DNR but also from the CALS Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, thanks to such hunting mentors as professors Mike Samuel and Tim Van Deelen and engaged students and alumni like Steve Grodsky MS’10, Dan Storm PhD’11 and Mike Watt BS’07 MS’12.

“Other folks who are interested in putting together similar programs should know they can do it and the DNR will be there to back them up,” explains Malcolm.

Now prospective hunters have additional and quite significant support thanks to the Hunters Network of Wisconsin, a joint project between CALS, the DNR and UW–Extension that is dedicated to recruiting more hunters. The effort began with a survey of hunting and conservation organizations conducted by CALS/UW Extension life sciences communication professor Bret Shaw and research associate Beth Ryan, funded with a DNR grant. The survey, which would then inform strategic outreach to mentors and interested non-hunters, identified resources the organizations already used or would like to use more, from assistance in finding interested participants to funds to sponsor LTH events and volunteer education and training.

But perhaps even more significant was the survey’s focus on hunters’ motivations for taking part in the sport. The top reasons people named for hunting were spending time outdoors, being close to nature, using and sharing skills and knowledge, and camaraderie with friends and family. The Hunters Network hopes to use this insight to make mentoring new hunters more appealing.

There’s a compelling reason for all of this outreach. Hunting is an important part of Wisconsin’s history and culture. It also has a $1.4 billion impact on the state’s economy and supports some 26,000 jobs, according to the DNR.

Yet Wisconsin has experienced an ongoing decline in hunting in recent years. A study from February 2011 by the DNR and the UW-based Applied Population Laboratory found that the number of gun deer hunting licenses sold to the state’s residents dropped 6.5 percent, from 644,991 in 2000 to 602,791 in 2010. The report predicts that by 2030, the number of male gun deer hunters (who make up the bulk of hunters, though the number of female hunters is expected to rise) could drop to 400,000.