MeatEater, deity of the outdoor world, published an article this week criticizing hunter recruitment efforts. 

Matt Rinella, brother of the company’s founder Steven, wrote the story. In his opinion, it’s a mistake for hunting and conservation organizations to focus so much time and effort on recruiting new hunters that will inevitably clog up public land and make it harder for the rest of us to enjoy our time in the field. Predictably, there was a bit of backlash from some in the outdoor community who said actively recruiting new hunters is the only thing that’ll keep the lifestyle afloat as interest declines nationwide. One bit of certainty within the issues is that no one really cares what my opinion is — but I’ll give it anyway. 

I’ll admit to having drank the MeatEater Kool-Aid a long time ago. The introspective nature of their content is sorely needed in the hunting community. It cuts through all of the macho BS that usually comes along with outdoor media and examines the reality of our pastime. There’s very little I disagree with them about, and the trend continues with this issue. When it comes to hunter recruitment, I’m inclined to agree with Rinella. 

Conservation organizations have been sounding alarms about the decline in hunter numbers for years. They do everything they can to promote what’s called R3 — Recruitment, retention and reactivation of hunters. All of this is driven by the fear that hunting will become so obscure that our voices will no longer matter in the conservation or political world, leading to reduced funding for habitat, lobbying power, access to public land, etc. etc. All of those things are incredibly important to me, but I see some serious merit in Rinella’s point of view.

As Rinella points out in his article, there’s been a negligible decline in hunting license holders in the United States since 1980, and the numbers have actually increased slightly in the last 20 years. In the year 2000 there was a total of 15,044,324 hunting license holders in the United States. During the 2020 season there were 15,158,433. 

Locally we have seen a decline in recent years. In the last five years, the number of license holders in Wisconsin has dropped from 716,000 to 689,000. In Minnesota those numbers are 572,000 to 550,000. I suppose eventually this could be a threat to hunting, although both states have experienced comparable declines in license holders in previous decades, only to see them recover in subsequent years. My question is, would flooding an additional 20,000 hunters back into Wisconsin really improve the quality of our collective experience or help prolong our influence with state and federal agencies? It would mean added conservation revenue of course, but at what cost. My major concern isn’t with the number of hunters we bring to the table, but the kind of hunters who’re already sitting at it. 

Hunting has always and will always have a PR problem with a major portion of the American public. There’s no way around it, and it’s the behavior of many existing hunters that gives that problem momentum, not a low turnout at your local youth pheasant hunt.

I was scouting turkeys on a piece of public ground in St. Croix County last week when a woman in a nice black sedan parked in the lot so she could go for a run down the adjacent county road. She had a tight ponytail, one of those arm holsters for her phone that makes you look very official and some pretty swanky black workout clothes. I’m jumping to conclusions here but odds are pretty good she’s not and has never been a hunter. I said hi as she walked by and received very little in return. 

After she jogged away I stood in the parking lot and looked around — it was trashed. Beer cans, broken glass, a smashed up bookcase, used condoms. Right beside her car was a coyote someone had shot and dumped in the brush, completely unused. 

I’d wager at least half of the junk was left there by non-hunters — But it doesn’t matter. Even if hunters didn’t trash that parking lot, aren’t we (myself included) just as guilty as those who did for walking by without picking it up? She sees a dude standing there in a camo jacket and instantly associates me with all that garbage. Just like that, in her mind, hunters are a bunch of white trash hillbillies who kill for fun and destroy the environment. And why shouldn’t she think that? I’d come to the same conclusion if I were her. 

Our image to the outside world is the biggest threat to hunting, and that sure as hell isn’t going to get better by inviting more people to use that piece of property. We should focus on training existing hunters how to take care of our resources, rather than packing our public lands full of anyone we can lure into our trucks on the way to the duck blind. The most important question of all is — if a large portion of our existing hunters don’t respect the land they use or the game they chase, and they’re the ones recruiting new people, what do we think they’re teaching them? Your house has to be in order before you expand it, and our house is not in order.

This is a bit of a departure from Rinella’s more analytical argument, but I think it holds water. I’m constantly disappointed by other hunters, to the point that I don’t want to see more of them introduced to our world. 

I suppose that’s a cynical outlook and might come across as a little arrogant and judgmental. But until you learn to do something the right way, you don’t deserve to teach someone else how to do it.

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