Hunting groups work to keep youth involved

Posted: Friday, March 04, 2005

SMITHFIELD, Utah — It's hard to miss the romance in Bruce Schoniger's description of his first time in the wilderness — the warm crackle of the campfire, the smells of frying bacon and meat roasting, and of course, the excitement of the kill.

But a combination of urbanization and cultural change is conspiring against efforts by Schoniger and other longtime hunters to share that experience with a generation of youth, whose only exposure to hunting may be in video games.

''Today, hunting is in danger,'' said Schoniger, 44, a Smithfield deer enthusiast who helps run an informal hunting club in northern Utah.

The number of young hunters has dropped nationally. According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, youth participation declined by 26 percent between 1990 and 2000.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which compiles outdoor recreation statistics, says youth hunting participation has stabilized in recent years. But the National Wild Turkey Federation found only 25 percent of children from hunting households actively participate in hunting today.

''When I was young, we'd go out and there'd be 20 of us,'' said Dave Bunce, who co-founded the northern Utah hunting club with Schoniger. ''A lot of that tradition is disappearing.''

Some, like Bob St.Pierre of Pheasants Forever, a Minnesota-based conservation group, believe urbanization and modernization have drastically changed the way youth think about the environment and thus, hunting.

''Kids believe that food comes from the grocery store,'' St.Pierre said. ''They don't go to the store and connect the steak they see to a cow. There's a disconnect between the grocery store and the outdoors.''

His organization's Leopold Education Project — a partnership with other conservation groups named after famed conservationist Aldo Leopold — is trying to change that. The group teaches youth to think about the human impact on the natural world through a series of outdoor workshops that also serve to pass on the methods of wilderness survival.

''We teach kids how to use a compass, learn about conservation, and then through our Youth Mentor Hunt, they go out in the field with a mentor,'' St.Pierre said.

Other national hunting groups also are encouraging supervised or mentor hunting and are working hard to persuade states to foster youth-friendly hunting for preteens. That underscores a consensus among hunting advocates that the decline in young hunters can only be curbed if youth are attracted to the sport before they become teens.

''Times have changed,'' said Rob Sexton, spokesman for the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance. ''By the time a kid's 10 or 12, he's a disciple of soccer or some other activity.''

At least 23 states restrict the age for hunting big game. Most western states don't allow youth under 13 to hunt big game. Even at that age and older, teens must meet rigorous hunter education requirements.

While acknowledging the necessity of safe and educated hunting, the requirements are a problem, Sexton says, because they depress the number of young people who take up the sport.

The National Wild Turkey Federation, the Sportsmen's Alliance and the National Shooting Sports Foundation are lobbying restrictive states to lift limits on youth hunting opportunities. The efforts are showing results in a few Midwestern states.

For example, starting this spring, Nebraska youth between 12 and 15 will be allowed two statewide turkey permits during the state's archery and shotgun seasons. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission also sanctioned a one-week, youth-only turkey season in April.

The season will give young hunters the chance to hunt turkeys before regular shotgun season begins. Other previously restrictive states, such as Kansas, are following Nebraska's lead.

For Utah's Schoniger, such initiatives are vital to the future of a tradition he holds dear — a future he worries about.

''If we don't keep kids interested, hunting will disappear,'' he said.

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