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Guest Author Alex Davis

November 9, 2022

In the Arena: Ramiro Juarez

TRCP’s “In the Arena” series highlights the individual voices of hunters and anglers who, as Theodore Roosevelt so famously said, strive valiantly in the worthy cause of conservation 

Ramiro Juarez
Hometown: Rolling Meadows, Illinois
Occupation: U.S. History Teacher 
Conservation Credentials: Sparking a deep appreciation for the natural world in his children and sharing the importance of having safe places to test oneself and mentor others in the outdoors 

Growing up as a second-generation Mexican American just 40 minutes outside downtown Chicago, Ramiro Juarez had very few opportunities to learn to hunt. Ever since he was 11 years old, however, he knew he wanted to try it. At age 39, Juarez found his opportunity, igniting a passion that has changed how he and his family interact with the outdoors.  

His experiences help to shed light on the factors that may limit the accessibility of hunting to many Americans and what opportunities now exist for beginners to get involved and find access or mentors.  

This is his story. 

I grew up in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago where there were not many opportunities to learn to hunt or even to interact with people who did hunt. Still, I was around 11 years old when the idea of hunting first came to my mind. My dad brought home what I thought was sausage, but it turned out to be venison. I thought it was delicious and asked my dad if we could try hunting. But he didn’t see the appeal, and that was the end of that.  

For my father, an immigrant from Mexico who came to the United States in the 1960s, being here was about working, providing, and trying to live a more comfortable life than where he came from. Much of my family life while growing up revolved around work. Not only did my dad not have much time for recreational activities, he also would have had nowhere to take me hunting. I understand now that my circumstances as an adult, in contrast, allow me more free time and the opportunity to pursue things I have wanted to do for a long time. 

I no longer see hunting as an extracurricular activity only for myself, however. Now more than anything, I want my children to experience hunting and to create lasting memories together. This is what made me decide to finally pursue hunting as an adult.  

But how does one become a hunter? Hunting is a recreational activity that many participants first become exposed to at a young age through an older family member or mentor. Hunting knowledge and traditions are often passed from one generation to the next, and many hunting families own their own land. This provides both a place to hunt game and the opportunity to learn and practice without outside pressures. 

Taking up hunting can be a lot harder for individuals like me, who did not grow up around it or have a place to go. This is particularly true in Illinois, where 97 percent of land is privately owned.  

For many hunters, even seasoned ones, finding a place to hunt has become more difficult. While Illinois has public land for hunting scattered throughout the state, finding a place to go that isn’t already saturated with other hunters can feel like a daunting task. This can be felt even more so by people who might be interested in hunting, but who lack the experience or the confidence to try it for the first time in a crowded, public setting. 

Luckily, a buddy and I came across an Illinois Learn to Hunt Program workshop on waterfowl hunting. The Illinois Learn to Hunt Program is an extension program through the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign that provides free education and training workshops to teach adult participants how to hunt a variety of game. We went to the event, which eventually led to me participating in my first deer hunt.  

Having decided that hunting was something that I enjoyed and wanted to continue doing, my next goal was to find a place to take my children hunting. As a parent, my primary concern was safety. I’ve been to places that are open to the public and where there are 20 to 30 people all in a relatively small area. I’m not comfortable with that kind of environment for my children.  

Fortunately, the Illinois Learn to Hunt Program had some information about the Illinois Recreational Access Program. IRAP is funded through the federal Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program—authorized by the Farm Bill—and is maintained through partnerships between the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and other conservation entities. The program’s goals since its inception in 2011 has been to increase public access, provide outdoor recreational activities, improve habitat on private lands, and contribute to the recruitment, retention, and reengagement of hunters. 

IRAP leases over 27,000 acres of private land in 52 counties in Illinois for youth turkey hunting, adult spring turkey hunting, archery deer hunting, youth shotgun deer hunting, upland game hunting, waterfowl hunting, and rabbit and squirrel hunting, as well as pond and river fishing.  

I contacted the program and learned about the opportunities available for first-time hunters and youths. So far, I have only taken out my two sons, Arturo, 12, and Diego, 10, both of whom have already developed a lot of enthusiasm for hunting. Diego was so excited when he harvested in his first buck, and Arturo loves being able to get up close and personal with wildlife. He was so thrilled when a coyote passed only yards away from where we sat quietly watching turkeys.  

Although both boys have a lot of energy and enthusiasm, they are very different from one another. Diego is extremely active, so I can take him anywhere and he will push through if something is difficult. My other son, Arturo, is autistic, and he has a couple learning disabilities and more significant needs. Arturo likes to do the same things his brother does, so I want to make sure I can take him with me when we go hunting. One of the reasons I appreciate IRAP is because it seeks to take needs like Arturo’s into consideration. The program tries to accommodate the specific needs of its participants when assigning properties. If it did not do this, it would be very hard for Arturo to participate in hunting sometimes.  

My wife Xochtl and I also have two daughters, Natalia, 6, and Annabelle, who is 3. I plan to take both of them hunting when they around age 7 or 8. Natalia already wants to go goose hunting, and while I will take her with us, she is just going to observe and enjoy some hot chocolate and donuts. 

The gap between new and seasoned hunters these days is becoming increasingly noticeable. One of the reasons for this is the lack of places to go, regardless of how long one has been hunting. Hunting doesn’t just provide funding for conservation; it also provides unique outdoor experiences and carries with it traditions that can create lasting memories. Luckily in Illinois, programs like Illinois Learn to Hunt and IRAP exist so that both parents and children can try hunting and continue to have places to go develop these skills.  Without these programs and the landowners who enroll in them, it would be much more difficult for people like me and my family to hunt. I am so grateful to be able to create these memories with my children and help them gain an appreciation for the outdoors that they can pass down to their children. 

Editor’s Note: The critical source of funding for state walk-in access programs like IRAP does not currently meet demand from wildlife agencies or hunters. Help the TRCP address this vital need and call for a stronger Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program in the next Farm Bill.

Alex Davis is the IRAP marketing and outreach specialist at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Click here to learn more about this successful recreational access program and watch a video about the Juarez family’s journey into hunting.

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October 13, 2022

In the Arena: Matthew Monjaras

TRCP’s “In the Arena” series highlights the individual voices of hunters and anglers who, as Theodore Roosevelt so famously said, strive valiantly in the worthy cause of conservation. 

Matthew Monjaras 
Hometown: Albuquerque, New Mexico  
Occupation: Founder and CEO of Impact Outdoors  
Conservation credentials: Fundraising for local conservation projects, revamping wetlands and streambanks, creating opportunities for returning veterans to heal in the outdoors, and hosting outdoor education events for local families 

Matt Monjaras is like many lifelong outdoorsmen—he found his passion for hunting and fishing at a young age, felt shaped by his experiences on public lands, and developed an appreciation for the solace he found while tuned into the pursuit of fish or game. But what makes Matt unlike many of us is his effort to give this gift to others in his community by spearheading volunteer conservation efforts, fundraising, and mentorship. 

Here is his story. 

I was born in Colorado but raised in New Mexico along the banks of the Rio Grande. From Las Cruces to Southern Colorado, I spent many lifechanging hours pursuing bullfrogs and catfish along the river. I was also lucky enough to spend summers with my uncle, where I’d be waist-deep in the San Juan River stocking trout and learning about aquatic habitats with the aid of a dry fly.  

These days, I live in a small mountain home in the East Mountains of Albuquerque with my wife, Phoebe, and our two-year-old son, Carter. We are expecting our second child in November of this year. 

I’ve visited countless public lands across the West, and these places carved their way into my dreams and life goals. Meanwhile, my father’s reminder that we only get one life to live has truly stuck to my soul. My connection to Mother Earth has not only shaped my direction—it continues to give my life more purpose with each passing day.  

After high school graduation, I had about ten friends join the military and rush off to fight for the freedoms we continue to have because of their sacrifices for this great country. That year, I fell in love with waterfowl hunting along the banks of the Animas River in Northern New Mexico, just shy of the Colorado-New Mexico border. This developing passion demanded my presence and forced me to reflect on personal decisions like never before. Inside and outside of my duck blind, I thirsted for more information on all the species I encountered, and I began to recognize co-relationships that existed—right under my nose and since long before my time.  

Then my friends began to return home from places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of them were struggling to find purpose in their direction and had a longing for true community.  

One morning, I found myself sitting by the Rio Grande River consoling a friend about many of the haunting decisions he had to make while engaged in battle. I watched a man who I’d considered larger than life seek shelter in the experience of the outdoors. The shadows of ducks, our intended quarry, cut across both of our faces and time slowed as they dropped from the cottonwood canopy into the early morning fog on the river.  

We were both locked into that moment, one that demanded all our senses, and I realized that the outdoors can and will save lives. At that moment, nature gave me something to share with my struggling friend, and we transformed a negative hurdle into hope.  

It was the day that Impact Outdoors was born. Our mission, since then, has been to impact communities through education, conservation, and meaningful outdoor opportunities. Impact Outdoors achieves these goals through strong relationships, community involvement, dedicated volunteers, and a true passion for the outdoors.  

Our organization not only provides opportunities for veterans to hunt, but we also build a community of veterans serving veterans through volunteer work help to enhance habitat and access at the locations where we hold our workshops. We want veterans and families to come through Impact Outdoors and leave with a conservation-minded approach to being sportsmen and sportswomen.   

This engagement with the outdoors and each other is healing, but we also benefit from the skills and leadership our ex-military volunteers have to share with the broader Impact Outdoors community. From welding to maneuvering a tractor expertly around wetlands, our veterans bring so much to the table. Their efforts have helped us improve the function of wetlands and provide disability access that enhances others’ hunting opportunities. These projects are a true win for conservation and community leadership while building strong relationships with landowners who provide us access.   

We also get kids involved in projects from erosion control to wetland development. The habitat improvements benefit all who enjoy the outdoors, but these activities also help youth become stewards of the land with an awareness of habitat management, data collection, agriculture, and biodiversity. We want our youth to think like biologists in the field, even if they don’t consider themselves to be interested in science.  

The private lands that the youth participants interact with serve as an outdoor classroom and a venue for hunter education. We want to help our youth recognize the resources in their own backyards, gain a sense of pride in the outdoors, and understand that conservation requires involvement.  

I hope we’re empowering the next generation of conservation-minded leaders who will benefit this community. 

The outdoors has always been my safe harbor to deal with life’s challenges, and now I am able to share that gift with others. Helping people and improving the habitats that I have long enjoyed is molding me into the father, husband, and friend I was always meant to be. I am not content to watch my son’s wild places, fisheries, marshlands, or the overall health of the environment diminish—at least, not without a fight. 

 

Do you know someone “In the Arena” who should be featured here? Email info@trcp.org for a questionnaire.

Kristyn Brady

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March 28, 2022

In the Arena: Wade Truong and Rachel Owen

TRCP’s “In the Arena” series highlights the individual voices of hunters and anglers who, as Theodore Roosevelt so famously said, strive valiantly in the worthy cause of conservation. 

Wade Truong and Rachel Owen  
Hometown: Fredericksburg, Virginia
Occupation: Wade is a former executive chef currently doing recipe development, culinary classes, and work on a family farm. Rachel works in financial services.
Conservation credentials: Educating and mentoring beginning hunters

Venturing into hunting as a young adult can be intimidating at best—and frustrating at worst. If you were lucky enough to have a hunting mentor, picture being on your own to figure out where to go, what gear is worth the investment, how to follow all the local rules and regulations, and what to do once you successfully connect on a shot. Still, the hunting community is fortunate to have a fresh wave of interest from young people who want to hunt to eat.

These beginners are fortunate to have role models in Wade Truong and Rachel Owen. Together, Wade and Rachel founded Elevated Wild, where they share original wild game recipes, stories, tips, and inspiration for hunters who are just starting out. In person and on social media, they take pride in being conservation-minded ambassadors for hunting and field-to-table cooking.

Here is their story.

WADE: I fished as a kid with my family but didn’t start hunting until I taught myself in my mid-twenties. Food was the driving force for me—working in a restaurant kitchen made me intensely curious about pursuing food that you can’t buy. Now, I never feel more connected and purposeful than I do when I’m outside, pursuing the animals that I love. It brings me a sense of rootedness and contentment that I’ve never felt elsewhere.

RACHEL: I didn’t form a real connection with the outdoors until I was an adult—although I did a lot of camping and some fishing growing up, the rest of it was foreign to me. Wade had started hunting just a few years before we met, and it was talking about hunting and fishing that drew me to him. The rest is history: We started dating, I shot my first buck that fall, and we bought a boat together before we’d ever shared an apartment.

That boat has played a role in all our most outrageous outdoor adventures. Her comically small size makes everything we do a little more reckless and a lot more fun. It’s hard to narrow it down, but the most memorable might be one time we took her out almost two miles into the bay on a flat calm day to chase bluefish. We couldn’t keep up—we had fish flying over the gunwales almost faster than we could count them. Then the wind turned, and we had to hightail it back, our tiny outboard not quite pushing us quickly enough through the whitecaps. I remember briefly being relieved at seeing a dolphin, a good omen, until I realized it was longer than our boat.

WADE: My most memorable adventure was probably watching from 60 yards away as Rachel had a sika stag creep along the marsh edge minutes before end of light. The stag never left the thick cover until it was directly under Rachel’s treestand. She arrowed it at less than seven yards. It was the culmination of several unsuccessful trips out there and weeks of hard hunting over the years. Watching it all come together was something I’ll never forget.

RACHEL: What made that moment even more special was that it took place in our favorite part of the world—the Chesapeake Bay. I’d love to be able to go back in time to see this region right before European contact. To be able to see the Bay and coastlines teeming with the abundance of fish and game they once held, I’d almost be okay with leaving my rod or gun behind.

There’s no doubt that the Bay presents the biggest conservation challenge where we live. It’s one of the world’s largest, most productive estuarine systems. But we’re balancing the needs of one of the greatest treasures on earth with the demands and water quality issues of a rapidly growing population and an increasingly extractive commercial fishing fleet.

WADE: And the health of the Bay is a direct reflection of everything that happens upstream of it. Being so close to so many major metropolitan areas in several states, and having so many natural resources, it is uniquely vulnerable to pollution, overfishing, and development issues. The Bay is critical habitat for thousands of species of fish, birds, and other animals that rely on it for survival. Preserving wetlands, restoring water quality, and protecting forage fish from overfishing are incredibly important.

RACHEL: Conservation is important to me because every opportunity I have had to pursue wild game and fish, to actually participate in the natural world, only came around because someone had the forethought to make sure it was there for future generations to experience.

WADE: Everything I care about most has been shaped by conservation. The natural resources I pursue are all there because of conservation efforts. The places I find most special are all, in some form or another, there because of public and private conservation.

As an example, the idea of elk hunting seemed unattainable for me up until a few years ago. The travel, logistics, and expense just didn’t seem like something I would be able to pull off. Then I learned there was an effort to reintroduce elk into Virginia. I’d be thrilled with any elk, but now a dream elk hunt right at home is an achievable reality.

RACHEL: Conservation is about protecting one of our most precious national birthrights, the things that make us unique in all the world: the land, water, and wildlife that belong to all of us as Americans. These gifts, once taken from us, can never be returned whole. I believe it would dim the national consciousness to lose this wildness, because it is intrinsic to the American dream.

Kristyn Brady

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February 16, 2022

In the Arena: John Annoni

TRCP’s “In the Arena” series highlights the individual voices of hunters and anglers who, as Theodore Roosevelt so famously said, strive valiantly in the worthy cause of conservation.

John Annoni

Hometown: Allentown, Pennsylvania
Occupation: Public school teacher, author, and principal investigator – Cornell University
Conservation credentials: Founder of Camp Compass Academy, where he introduces urban students in grades five through twelve to conservation, hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities

In 1994, John Annoni started out as a schoolteacher with a simple goal: To introduce a new generation of youth to America’s outdoor heritage through after-school activities. That effort has now turned into a life-changing year-round experience known as Camp Compass, where volunteer mentors make a difference in the inner city by sharing their knowledge of hunting, fishing, archery, and other outdoor activities, while providing tutoring assistance and much-needed social guidance for students aged 10 to 18. This award-winning non-profit program gives young people the exposure to outdoor activities that Annoni discovered as a child only with the help of books, relatives, neighbors, and his limited resources. We are inspired by his commitment to empowering others through these experiences, and we’re proud to share his words with you.

Here is his story.

They say if you don’t get love in one place, you’ll find it in another. I’m grateful that Mother Nature embraced me.

I was introduced to the outdoors while I was trying to avoid abuse in my home in the housing projects of Allentown, Pa. I have a chapter in one of my books about seeing a pheasant in the local junkyard, while I was hunting starlings and rats. It was quite a time in my life for joy and pain.

My grandmother got me scholarships to summer camp—big shout out to Camp Horseshoe!—where I fished and learned about firearms. I also had a few uncles who showed their love by spending time with me in the outdoors, and that helped me grow in my teen years.

These days, my dream hunt would be west of the Mississippi River, because in 33 years of teaching I have never had a week off during the fall mule deer, antelope, elk, or duck seasons to head out West. I’m not allowed by contract to have more than two days off back-to-back, so by the time I could get there, I’d have to turn around and come back. I just hope that one day I can make the trip, be around good people, and chase critters with time on my side.

I’m what could be considered a non-traditional hunter and fisherman, because I wasn’t brought in by my immediate family, so I guess my viewpoint on conservation is a bit non-traditional as well. To me, the most important “critters” we can help are America’s youth, because they will affect wildlife with their future decisions and actions. There is an opportunity to use conservation activities to empower youth, and even adults, and give them the tools needed to navigate life’s challenges. For me, conservation is a battery; it powers the outdoor experiences that help to grow others.

In some circles, the biggest conservation challenge is about animals and flora. In my case, and in a lot of places across America, the human is the one trying and needing to be saved. If you are getting shot at, or getting things taken, or you don’t have the chance for experiential learning, your chances for a decent quality of life are diminished. Conservation is so separate from the daily grind of the concrete world, until it is introduced and used as a support mechanism or an escape.

There are all kinds of people who hunt and fish. We are selling ourselves short if we don’t recognize that. The opportunities available in the outdoors, in fact, are just as diverse, but the space is not very inclusive. And that’s what I’m trying to change seven days a week. Using a bunch of equity, diversity and inclusion words or workshops to make us think we should care, or that we are making progress, pales in comparison to real proof that we all want to be together in a common space for a common reason.

It’s important for me to be involved in conservation because I believe in what conservation has to offer those who participate in it, what it does for wildlife, and how it molds us as humans.

 

Learn more about John’s work and Camp Compass Academy at campcompass.org. Do you know someone “In the Arena” who should be featured here? Email info@trcp.org for a questionnaire.

Kristyn Brady

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posted in: In the Arena

January 31, 2022

In the Arena: Jared Ungar

TRCP’s “In the Arena” series highlights the individual voices of hunters and anglers who, as Theodore Roosevelt so famously said, strive valiantly in the worthy cause of conservation.

Jared Ungar

Hometown: Canton, Georgia
Occupation: Low voltage technician
Conservation credentials: Recently awarded the first-ever Corey Rockwell Bird Dog, Literary, & Conservation Development Award

Jared Ungar represents the bright future of grouse hunting and conservation awareness in America. As the Minority Outdoor Alliance’s first-ever scholarship honoree, Ungar will get the support he needs to train his first Brittany spaniel puppy, while developing an outdoor writing portfolio with the help of an industry mentor. We’re honored to give him a platform to share his experience along the way.

Here is his story.

My cousin John was the first person to take me out hunting when I was 13, but it wasn’t until almost 10 years later that I figured out bird hunting over a dog is what lights my fire. I realized it when I was sitting in a treestand waiting for a whitetail to cross my path—I couldn’t help but think, “I could be hunting birds with my dog Colt right now.”

For better or worse, that was the last time I went deer hunting.

The first bird I harvested with Colt gave me one of my most memorable outdoor adventures. I had just driven from Georgia to Pennsylvania to pick up Colt after he’d been away training for a few months. On my way back, I decided to visit a good friend, Tom, in New Jersey and we ended up spending the day at his hunting club with our Brittanys. It did not disappoint, and I can’t think of a better person to have shared that moment with.

If I could hunt or fish anywhere, I’d chase sharpies in Montana. In every video I’ve watched of sharptail hunters, it’s just clear that they’re having the most fun. And Montana has been a place I’ve wanted to experience for a long time. There is a feeling I get in the mountains—the landscape consumes me and my body feels just a little bit lighter. I’ve only experienced this when trying to comprehend the sheer size of the snowy caps that seem to be a world away and right on top of you at the same time.

The reason I try to be involved in conservation is not complicated: I get to enjoy the outdoor resources that so many people have worked hard to make sure that I have. And I have an obligation to pay that forward.

I think the biggest conservation challenge we’re facing is finding people who are interested enough to learn about hunting, fishing, and conservation. There needs to be enough of us to push policies that will benefit everyone who enjoys the outdoors.

As I grow in my writing, I hope that its reach will grow as well. And I hope that anyone reading will keep in mind that I’m just a bird hunter putting my thoughts on paper. Y’all are just as capable of making memories and sharing your adventures in the outdoors with dogs and friends.

 

Follow Jared @BrittanyBentBirdBound on Instagram. All photos by @androstheo. Do you know someone “In the Arena” who should be featured here? Email info@trcp.org for a questionnaire.

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