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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.
With Washington, D.C., being the temporary, yet multi-year home for sitting presidents, it is no wonder that the city would be host to a number of “presidential churches.” During his time serving as vice president and president, Theodore Roosevelt was a regular visitor to one such institution, Grace Reformed Church, and walked the six blocks from the White House to worship there every Sunday he was in town. He sat in the same pew, now commemorated in his name, and was an active participant in the growth and fellowship of the church.
Today, the 119-year-old building is showing its age and needs considerable renovations. It’s also up for sale. And despite having earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, a private owner would have leverage on what they can do with the corner-lot property, including gutting the church to build condos or apartments.
A local congregation, Grace Capital City, is hoping to not only purchase the church and rehab the building, making it their permanent home, but also use it as a gathering place for the conservation community at large. I sat down with Jessica Moerman, vice president of science and policy for the Evangelical Environmental Network, Co-Founding Pastor of Grace Capital City, and wife to the church’s lead pastor, about why this church is of particular importance to this congregation and how they intend to keep the former president’s legacy of conservation alive and thriving within its walls.
How did you decide that the Grace Reformed Church building should be the permanent home for your congregation?
I am an earth and environmental scientist. My husband, Chris, is the lead pastor of our congregation. So, it was the coming together of both of our vocations, plus the integration of faith and conservation, and realizing that Theodore Roosevelt did the same thing. He called conservation the great moral issue. The Grace Reformed Church is a building he helped construct—he laid the cornerstone in 1902—and it was his spiritual home while living in Washington, D.C.
Why does Grace Capital City include the environment and conservation as part of its mission?
We practice a stewardship doctrine, which is found throughout scripture, where we’re called to be good stewards of everything that God has made. To us, that includes conservation, acting on climate, and protecting habitat and wildlife. When we make the connection between our ministry and our Christian mission, and if we’re taking the Bible seriously, that means we need to take good care of the great outdoors.
For me personally, I grew up in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. My dad is a hunter. He would take my sisters and me out hunting with him. He always said that hunters and anglers are the greatest conservationists and have a deep connection and respect for the land and wildlife.
In our modern-day world, and especially in an urban environment, it’s easy to be divorced from the land, which makes it so important to ensure there is access for people to get out into nature and experience creation.
What types of conservation activities does your church take on?
Just recently, we did a trash cleanup along the Potomac River. We are launching a tree planting campaign next year. And we also simply make time to gather outdoors as a group to go on hikes in our local parks and connect with God in his creation.
Why do you think your congregation is so engaged in conservation and the outdoors?
Our current congregation is full of young professionals and college students who want to change the world and are motivated by their faith to take action. They see the former president as a crusader for righteousness, which simply means that when you see things are wrong you act boldly to fix them. That’s what this generation wants to do. They want to engage in addressing the big problems of the world, such as biodiversity loss, climate change, and our natural places being degraded.
Young people of faith want to see their church engage in this, too. They look to the scriptures and see the call to be good stewards, but they don’t see it being acted out in the church. That’s something our congregation wants to normalize. And doing it in Theodore Roosevelt’s spiritual home as president is the true embodiment of living history.
If you succeed in purchasing the building, how will you honor Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy within the church?
We envision the church as being a convening space, not just for our congregation to worship, but also for conservation organizations to meet in and utilize. There is the Roosevelt Memorial Room, which is essentially a function hall, that we would love to make available to the community.
Roosevelt had a long-term vision for everything he did. He wasn’t questioning if things would have an impact through the next news cycle or even the next election cycle. He wanted to make generational-level change. It’s been over 100 years since he laid the cornerstone of this building. Grace Capital City wants this church to be an active worshipping home and a place of faith in action for another 100 years.
A family deer hunt reinforces the importance of forward-looking conservation solutions in Nevada
Over the years, acquiring a big game tag in Nevada has become highly competitive simply because there are far more hunters in our state than we have surplus animals available to harvest. All big game tags in Nevada are awarded through a lottery process and each year many sportsmen and sportswomen are disappointed because they do not draw.
Hunting is deeply engrained in my family. From very young ages, my children were engaged in my favorite pastime which later became theirs. All three have continued to hunt big game when given the opportunity. They love the meat as well as just being outdoors in the fall. When I was blessed with two granddaughters, I hoped they would also be interested in hunting on some level. The thought of sharing hunting knowledge, traditions, and experiences with them was a dream of mine.
This year, my 12-year-old granddaughter, Hayden, was eligible to apply for tags and fortunate enough to draw a youth mule deer tag. We made preparation and planning for the hunt a big part of our summer activities. When the season finally arrived, her dad and I took her across the state for the opening of her hunt. On the morning of the fourth day of hunting, Hayden spotted three bucks and we were able to get in range. With a well-placed shot, she put one of them down. To say we were excited would be an understatement! Amid a healthy amount of back-slapping, hugging, and even a few tears, the time-honored tradition of hunting in my family passed to the next generation. We made so many memories this fall that will last for the rest of our lives.
The point of this story is two-fold. One is to show how important our sport is to families like mine and how rewarding it is to recruit young hunters and make those memories in the field. The second point is that these traditions and opportunities depend on healthy herds and intact habitats in our state. For that reason, I’m particularly encouraged by two important steps taken by wildlife and land management agencies in Nevada that promise a brighter future for our big game populations.
Under an executive order issued by Governor Sisolak in 2021, the Nevada Department of Wildlife is developing a Sagebrush Habitat Plan with the goal of recovering our sagebrush habitats that so many species depend on. The sagebrush ecosystem is one of the most imperiled in the United States today. More than 50 percent of all historic sagebrush habitats range-wide have been lost to threats such as wildfire, invasive species, pinyon-juniper encroachment, climate change, and fragmentation caused by human development. The Sagebrush Habitat Plan will set priorities, establish focus areas, and identify funding for recovery efforts, ensuring that we take a forward-looking approach to this conservation challenge.
As part of the same executive order, NDOW will also be creating a Wildlife Connectivity Plan in the next year. By GPS tracking collars to study species like mule deer and pronghorn, wildlife researchers are able to produce detailed maps that illustrate and inform our understanding of how big game animals use migration corridors to travel from summer to winter habitat and return. This data can identify chokepoints or obstacles that our herds encounter on the landscape, as well as important areas called stopovers where animals spend time resting and recovering along their journeys, finding vital nutrition to make it through the winter.
NDOW has already completed extensive mapping of three of our largest deer populations in the northeast corner of Nevada. Once they determine the specific habitats that deer prefer to use, agencies can direct funding and projects to those areas that may need restoration. These maps are also used to pinpoint where wildlife highway crossings are needed to provide safe passage for deer when their migration paths intersect with major roadways. NDOW and Nevada Department of Transportation have constructed several important crossings you may have seen on Interstate 80 and Highway 93, east and north of Wells, Nevada. When released, the finished Connectivity Plan will likely identify other areas where wildlife-friendly infrastructure should be built.
It’s no secret that mule deer populations throughout Nevada are declining. No doubt there are many reasons for this, some of which have not yet been identified. The development of these plans is just a piece of the work needed to recover our deer herds, but together they are a very encouraging step in the right direction. This important work will take time and there is no one single solution to the many challenges facing our big game herds.
In the meantime, sportsmen and sportswomen should be speaking up when given the chance and asking agencies to place our big game populations high on their priority list. We owe it to the next generation so they, and future generations, can enjoy and carry on the pastime of hunting as we know it.
Meredith Ellis is a second-generation rancher in Rosston, Texas, a small agricultural community in the northeast part of the state. Working ranches are an incredibly important part of the fabric of wildlife habitat connectivity woven between public and private lands in America, and responsible grazing practices benefit huntable species in many ways. Ellis is part of a new generation of ranchers who are also thinking about their contributions to climate resilience and how certain agricultural practices can boost carbon storage and soil quality while benefiting their businesses. This is powerful motivation, because—like hunters and anglers—ranchers are out on the land every day, on the front lines of climate change, seeing how it is already impacting our natural world.
Here is Meredith’s story of witnessing those effects and taking action.
As a rancher, my job requires that I am outdoors every day, and one of the most satisfying aspects of this is seeing how animals use and provide a benefit to our grazing lands. I have documented over 500 species, including 91 different species of birds. Bald eagles roost in one of our pastures in the fall and winter. We also have an elusive river otter family that refuses to be photographed.
I have documented nine different types of milkweed, alone. Milkweed is toxic to cattle, so they do not consume it, but it’s a great example of what native species are giving back to our land. Monarch butterflies rely on milkweed, as most people know. It also contains a deep fibrous taproot that enhances water infiltration and holding capacity in the soil, so that when it rains, milkweed helps to prevent erosion and allows for every drop of water to percolate deep into the ground, making it available during long periods of drought.
Society has historically undervalued grazing lands, despite the important role they play in species conservation, the hydrological cycle, water quality downstream, and carbon sequestration and storage.
The loss of our native grasslands to development reflects this misunderstanding.
Across the U.S. and Canada, around 80 percent of our grasslands have been converted to other uses and about 97 percent of tallgrass prairie, in particular, has been converted. Texas is separated into ecoregions, including the blackland prairie—what was once 12 million acres of pristine grazing land that has now dwindled into just 5,000 acres. A few miles down the road from my ranch, there is a 300-home subdivision going in. What was once a pasture for grazing cattle is now completely paved over.
Then there’s climate change. I grew up on this ranch and was part of growing it from 450 acres to 3,000 acres over the last 40 years, and I’ve noticed a great deal of ephemeral changes occurring over time. I’ve seen very early or very late blooming periods, more severe weather, and heavier sporadic rainfall followed by extensive dry spells.
I’ve seen a monarch butterfly that had clearly begun its migration way too early in the season—it was jumping from spot to spot in search of milkweed that would not grow for another month. I’ve also experienced the terror and heartbreak of the freeze of February 2021, when the temperature in Texas was colder than the north pole. One morning at first light, it was -6 degrees. I bundled up, headed to the barn, and noticed a mockingbird perched on a limb, frozen solid.
Perhaps this is why I feel that it is becoming increasingly necessary to build in climate resilience through land stewardship principles in the face of increasingly devastating weather events. Ranches must be both drought and flood resilient. It is a matter of our national food security.
Growing up on this ranch, I was a tomboy and was rarely indoors. You could usually find me somewhere on the ranch riding my horse and building forts. I attended our small local school and upon graduation, with the know-it-all attitude of an 18-year-old, I was so very ready to get out of here. I wanted to see the world, and I did. I have been to Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and beyond.
I eventually found myself at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where I received my bachelor’s in business and a master’s degree in landscape architecture with a focus on sustainability. As far away from ranching as that sounds, it was there that I realized the importance of what my dad was doing back home on our ranch. Through my studies, I learned about urban sprawl, the truncation of migratory patterns and pathways, and became keenly aware of most Americans’ disconnection with where their food comes from—and with nature as a whole.
I headed home with the conviction I needed to learn the skills necessary and continue our ranching operation as the second generation.
Around this time, I also became a mom. As all new moms realize upon holding their newborn, suddenly my life wasn’t just about me anymore—it was about my child and his future. What would this world be like when he was my age? There had been more and more studies about how detrimental the beef industry was for the environment in terms of its carbon footprint. I wouldn’t be able to say I did the best I could for my son’s future knowing I was a contributor to climate change.
So, I jumped at the chance to participate in a new effort to quantify carbon sequestration through land stewardship in agriculture—a part of the Noble Research Institute’s Land Stewardship Program which was a pilot for what is now known as the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium. I shared enormous amounts of data with the ESMC, including our fuel usage, fertilizer usage, rainfall amounts, forested land, grass type, pasture boundaries, and where and when each cow was grazing on our ranch 365 days out of the year etc.
It was an enormous amount of work, but as a result of that process, I received reassuring news: After accounting for the methane our cattle burp, our fuel usage, their grazing impact on the land, and any other element considered a carbon source, and then weighing that against the carbon being sequestered on our operation, initial data modeling indicates that every year on average, we are sequestering a net 2500 tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere. That is the equivalent of taking 551 cars off the road.
This valuable knowledge indicated to me that ranching can either be a cause for good and a climate solution or a detriment to the environment, depending on the day-to-day decisions of the rancher.
The key to our success is how we allow cattle to exist on our land. If you go back hundreds of years and think of how bison migrated across our national grazing lands, you discover a symbiosis between ruminant herds of animals and the grasslands. Grasslands thrive on appropriate disturbance of the landscape, such as trampling dead leaf matter, allowing it to make contact with the ground, turning it to compost and eventually to soil. As ruminant animals move through the landscape, they knock seeds onto the ground, push them into the soil with their hooves, and then fertilize them with their manure.
Through multiyear biodiversity studies comparing grazed versus under-grazed areas of our ranch, the grazed areas are much healthier and vibrant. There is greater biodiversity in these areas, as well.
All of this led me to the conclusion that removing cattle from the landscape was not the answer but allowing cattle to mimic their natural instinctual migratory patterns, just as the bison did hundreds of years ago, was essential. Ultimately, my job as a rancher is to allow my cattle to exist appropriately within the landscape that they co-evolved, acting as a catalyst for land health. To achieve this, I am the ultimate observer, watching my cattle’s interaction with the landscape and knowing when to “migrate” them to the next pasture. It is a knowledge that is science-based but also comes from years of living outside within this landscape with my beloved cows.
I believe the ranching community is embracing these kinds of changes. I am a board member of the Integrity Beef Alliance, which, along with partners, has been awarded $30 million through the U.S. Department of Agriculture climate-smart commodities grant. Funding goes toward not only education and outreach about land stewardship practices but also boosting transparency in the beef industry. We want to set apart climate-smart and conservation-oriented ranchers, like me, from ranchers who aren’t doing right by the environment, and give customers a choice at the supermarket. The program, called Integrity Beef Legacy, is 100-percent producer-led and -developed, and I really think it is going to revolutionize the industry, putting the power back in the hands of the land stewards.
Photos courtesy of Meredith Ellis.
Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.Learn More