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February 16, 2010

The Hunter’s Apprentice


We've heard a lot of good news lately about hunting and hunters–like the 3.5 percent increase in the National Shooting Sports Foundation Hunting License Sales Index and that most hunters went afield as much or more than they expected in 2009. Not to be overlooked, though, are the more than 300,000 apprentice hunting licenses that have been sold over the last three years thanks to Families Afield®.

This program, a joint effort of NSSF, the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance and National Wild Turkey Federation, works to lower regulatory barriers that stand in the way of introducing a newcomer to hunting. The "apprentice," usually a young person, can then hunt deer and other big game under the supervision of a licensed adult mentor before committing to taking a lengthy hunter education course. Think about it. What youngsters do you know who will sit through approximately 16 hours of coursework in order to do something they have never even tried? Not many, we'd wager.

Research showed that too many states were imposing barriers to newcomers. Some states restricted youth from participating until age 10 or 12 or even later and required extensive coursework. Given these hurdles, it's no wonder that kids passed up hunting and instead turned to video games or organized sports.

Over the last five years, however, Families Afield has made considerable progress. In 2009 Nevada and Wisconsin became the 28th and 29th states to make their hunting regulations more friendly to newcomers. 

Why is it important to change these regulations? Research shows that the "hunter replacement ratio" is below 1.0 for the majority of states, meaning that hunters who drop out are not being replaced. Without an influx of new, young hunters to maintain the ranks, hunting, which is so important to wildlife conservation funding and America's economy, could be compromised. Not to mention that youth would miss out on what has been a rite of passage for generations.

A story called "Outfitters Lament: Too Few Kids With Guns" in The Wall Street Journal touched on some of the challenges that hunting faces, although we think the future is brighter than that article makes it out. Remember, you don't need an outfitter to introduce a youngster to hunting. Also keep in mind that research shows that supervised youth hunters are especially safe.

When newcomers go afield at an early age, memories are created of the sights, sounds, and excitement of the hunt. It's those memories that cause young people to insist in the future that their dads and moms take them hunting, and it's probably the reason the Ohio Division of Wildlife is retaining 47 to 53 percent of apprentice hunters. "This is the best retention rate of any program we currently operate," said an agency spokesperson. 

For hunters, mentoring appears to be natural instinct. A recent HuntersSurvey.com poll showed more than 77 percent of active hunters and target shooters had taken their sons and daughters hunting. Even adults without a child or stepchild heard the calling, with 56 percent of them reporting they also took a young person afield.

The work of Families Afield is helping to make it easier for hunters to act on this innate drive to teach youngsters about this ages-old, normal human activity. It doesn't take a "sorcerer's apprentice" to know that the future of hunting will have a bright spot as the figure of 300,000 apprentice hunters continues to grow.