| Share or Bookmark:
The future of wildlife conservation
Focus must be on reversing the decline in hunting and fishing participation
By Rory Aikens, public information officer, Arizona Game and Fish Department
|The future of not just hunting and fishing but also wildlife conservation may depend on successfully addressing the continuing declines in hunter and angler participation.
That was a common message from a panel of experts discussing hunter and angler recruitment and retention during the annual conference for the Western
|Association of Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) in Flagstaff on July 7-12.|
“This year’s WAFWA conference theme, hunter and angler recruitment and retention, comes at a crucial time in our history,” said Arizona Game and Fish Director Duane Shroufe, current president of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
As the Western states urbanize, Shroufe said, participation in outdoor recreation in general, and hunting and angling in particular, is falling. “Whether we call it a crisis or an opportunity, what wildlife managers do in response will shape the future of conservation in North America.”
The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, which represents 23 states and Canadian provinces, also discussed a wide range of other issues and topics during its annual conference. WAFWA members represent an area covering nearly 3.7 million square miles of some of North America’s most wild and scenic country that is inhabited by over 1,500 premier wildlife species.
The panelists for the plenary session included:
- Shane Mahoney, an internationally acclaimed biologist and writer who is renowned for chronicling the history of North American conservation.
- Rob Keck, the chief executive officer for the National Wild Turkey Federation.
- Rob Sexton, the legislative liaison for the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance.
- Steve Williams, the president of the Wildlife Management Institute, a non-profit conservation organization headquartered in Wash., D. C.
- Dr. Delwin E. Benson, a professor of wildlife biology at Colorado State University.
- Gordon Batcheller, a wildlife biologist for the New York State Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources.
The panel of experts shared a common thread in their talks — hunters and anglers are the core of wildlife conservation, but society as a whole is mostly unaware of the role that hunters and anglers play.
“Hunters are really the unsung heroes of conservation,” Rob Keck said. “At best, the contributions we as hunters have made to conservation are ignored.”
Keck said hunters and state agencies “need to sell the sizzle” of conservation. “We need to put a light on hunters and what they do. It’s time to raise the posture of you the hunter in local communities.”
Shane Mahoney said that most people are unaware of the fact that the United Nations and the World Wildlife Fund have identified hunting as one of the great conservation tools open to mankind.
“Hunting is finally being recognized as not just one, but the only conservation tool that is working,” Mahoney said, adding that there is a need to establish a context in society where hunting is viewed positively.
“It’s all about relevance. It’s not whether hunting is right, it is whether it is politically and socially relevant,” Mahoney said.
Steve Williams, the former director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, also warned that after a 40-year decline in participation, hunters and anglers are on the verge of becoming politically irrelevant.
Rob Sexton provided a sobering observation. “Hunting won’t die because there aren’t any of us, it will die because we don’t matter any more,” he said. “Politics is a game of numbers, and we are recruiting hunters at the lowest rate in 30 years. We are at the edge of a demographic cliff.”
Sexton said that agencies need to resist the urge to over-regulate and create barriers to participation, such as having age limits on hunting big game. Sexton said it’s not enough to allow youth to hunt small game, because 86 percent of all hunters are big game hunters. “If you are going to empower folks to hunt, why just empower rabbit hunters?”
Sexton said some states are looking at creating an apprentice hunting license where a young hunter may hunt big game such as deer under the supervision of an adult prior to taking a hunter education course.
“Most minimum age laws came about 30 years ago. We wanted to assure America our sport is safe. Those laws are no longer relevant,” Sexton said.
Rob Keck said too many states are letting age restrictions create barriers to participation. “Now we are looking at trying to tear those walls down,” he said. “Who knows better when a child is ready to hunt, the government or the parent? It’s time we wake up and let the kids smell the gunpowder.”
Statistics show that age is not the factor in hunting accidents. “The swimming pool next door is more of a safety issue. Supervised young hunters have a tremendous safety record,” Sexton said.
The panelists stressed that so many interests compete for the time and attention of today’s youth that waiting until they are older to recruit them means they might not get recruited at all.
Gordon Batcheller, a wildlife biologist in New York, said his state has a minimum age of 16 to hunt big game, which means a parent might get to hunt deer with a son or a daughter for just a couple of years before they leave home.
Batcheller said the opposition to changing the laws in his state didn’t come from the media or from anti-hunters, it came from hunters themselves, and the bottom line was that the adult hunters didn’t want to lose their hunting opportunity to the younger hunters. Batcheller said adult hunters need to ask themselves what they are willing to sacrifice to secure the future of hunting for their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and beyond.
Dr. Delwin Benson said it is necessary to recruit youth into hunting at a young age, but there are a lot of activities competing for their time, and the time of the parent. “What happens when a kid’s time gets taken up? What affects our children affects us too.”