An Aspiring Hunter Reflects on Potential Barriers to Recruiting New Sportsmen and Women
Whenever I tell people that I grew up in Montana, the first question I’m always asked is whether I hunt.
Up until this year, I’ve always sheepishly answered “no,” thinking that my reply in the negative would undermine my credibility as a Westerner.
Growing up at the base of the Rocky Mountains, I was surrounded by big antlers on the wall, game meat on the table, and camo attire at weddings and funerals. But I didn’t hunt.
I was intimidated by the sport. I didn’t have anyone in my family who could teach me. I didn’t own a gun. I didn’t have any of the right gear. I didn’t know how to get a license or what I might need one for.
But I knew I needed to learn when I began working at TRCP. If I wanted to talk the talk, I had to walk the walk. And with an office full of potential mentors, there was no excuse not to give it a shot.
After asking a few of my co-workers how to get started, I discovered I could take a online hunter education course, which would then allow me to purchase a hunting license in any state.
Given my current residence in Washington D.C., I signed up for the Maryland web course, which took about four hours to complete. After passing the online portion, I had to spend an afternoon at a face-to-face class where an instructor would teach us how to handle a firearm, identify ethical shots, and navigate the complexities of landowner permission.
It sounds relatively easy, but there were several barriers that needlessly frustrated the process. And, because I know the statistics surrounding hunting’s declining rates of participation, they troubled me.
For instance, because there were no opportunities to take the class near my apartment in the city, I had to rent a car and drive three hours to complete my certification. Meanwhile, the location of the course had been moved and I had no way of knowing until I showed up to the wrong building, just 10 minutes before the class was supposed to begin. The change in venue might not have been a big deal to someone familiar with the local community or who hadn’t needed to carefully plan their travel that day, but for me it presented another hurdle that could have been easily avoided.
When I arrived late, I was one of two female students in a class of 20 led by all male instructors. One man, clearly amused by the D.C. license plate on my car, asked “Why would a city girl come all the way up here to learn how to hunt?” Another man quipped, “Don’t hold that gun like you’re scared of it.” While not intended to be mean-spirited, these words and others throughout the day clearly implied that I was out of place.
These challenges did not stop me from passing the course, but I can imagine for some they might. How would a prospective new hunter without easy access to transportation get there? Can we make it easier to reach new hunters where they might be found? How would someone with less self-confidence respond when they walk into that room or when they encounter skeptical gazes and teasing? Can we find ways to understand how underrepresented groups might feel as they learn about hunting?
We have to ask ourselves these questions as we watch the number of hunters decline year after year.
The Road Ahead
Thankfully, at the end of 2019 Congress took a major step forward in addressing some of these problems. They passed the bipartisan Modernizing the Pittman-Robertson Fund for Tomorrow’s Needs Act allowing excise taxes on firearms and ammunition to be used to improve the recruitment, retention, and reactivation of hunters.
As this law gets implemented, states should take a hard look at the hurdles that people have to jump over and work to address them so more people feel comfortable learning about the sport and joining our community. Reversing the trend of declining participation will require us to think seriously about what we can do better to make hunting more accessible to all, no matter where they live or what they look like.
This blog is part one is a series. Tune in next week to hear more about Marnee’s bird hunting adventure.