"Make no mistake, you cannot do nothing. Hunting participation rates are falling, and hunters are a long way from representing the changing demographics of the U.S. population."
The southern Wisconsin air was bitter and cold. Turkey season began, but winter refused to end. As I sat perched on the ground, shotgun in one hand and hot black coffee in the other, my turkey hunting instructor and I could hear gobbles as the turkeys left their roost before sunrise. We set up in tall grass on the edge of a forest fragment and waited for the toms to respond to our call. Before I knew it, three long-bearded turkeys were barreling towards our decoys. My adrenaline spiked, and my breathing changed. How can I stop breathing so loudly? How do I get my hands to stop shaking? Deeply aware of how well birds can see, I moved as slowly as I could, unsteadily lining up the bead sight with one tom’s head and neck. Tucked away in the grass in my oversized, borrowed camouflage, I squeezed the trigger. I must have closed my eyes because the next thing I knew, the tom was motionless. Feelings of grief and pride overwhelmed me. My first weekend of hunting was over, and it was successful.
I wanted to share this feeling. I cooked several meals for my family, but they didn’t truly “get” it. Sharing food with them is something that I love to do, but I wanted to share my harvest with people that would appreciate the physicality of obtaining the meat, too. How could I become involved with the hunting community? Was there anyone other than an older white male who could teach me about hunting?
For the overwhelming majority of our existence, hunting has simply been part of the human experience. All humans have the capacity to hunt, but our values and motivations that align the activity of hunting with how we see ourselves has changed. Most of us in the United States are no longer required to obtain our own protein as our ancestors did, but we still have the choice to do so. However, like with many things in an evolving society, hunting has become subject to polarization both culturally, ethnically, and otherwise. The reasons why humans choose to hunt are now far more diverse than they used to be due to the advent of modern agricultural practices, grocery stores, and fast food.
The comparison between historical and modern human hunting is one of the things that spurred my interest in hunting recruitment, retention, and reactivation (popularly summarized with the term R3). Why do I feel as though hunting is in my DNA? How could I help others become hunters, and how could I reignite that spark in others that had hunted before? How could hunting become a part of my own lifestyle and identity? As I began trying to find answers to some of these, I came across research from Dr. Everett Rogers and F. Floyd Shoemaker (1971) that outlined the process by which individuals and cultures come to accept new ideas and behaviors like hunting. Their work showed that the process of learning something like hunting has, essentially, five stages: 1) Awareness, 2) Interest, 3) Evaluation, 4) Trial, and 5) Adoption. It made me wonder; How did I come into each stage? What stage did I start in, and what stage am I in now? Even more tantalizing was the question of whether the things that worked for me on my journey would work for someone else.
Through this exploration I realized that R3 does not simply stand for “recruitment, retention, and reactivation”, nor is it a systematic, plug-and-chug method for saving “Hunting: An American Pastime™”. You cannot simply design a one-size-fits-all program that leads everyone through the steps of adoption outlined by Rogers and Shoemaker. The process of becoming a hunter is usually a unique, though sometimes shared, pathway. Unfortunately, that understanding seems to have been lost during the past 30 years. Hunting has not been well shared across America’s changing culture. Rather, it became concentrated in rural, male, white America (current hunters are 90% male, and 97% Caucasian according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation). I do not believe that folks who currently hunt and come from families and communities that cultivated a sense of self-identity and social capital linked to hunting should be criticized for their lack of diversity. Rather, we should appreciate that this segment of America has kept the pursuit of one’s own food alive and vibrant. However, it is imperative that hunters remember that they, through their family and social group, were given a gift of mentorship. Implicit to accepting and using that gift is the charge to re-gift those skills to someone else in need or want of them. And not just to your own people, but to others who have the desire, but may lack guidance and support. While sharing something as dear as the memories and traditions that were passed along for generations may be difficult, if we want hunting to persist into the future, we must include everyone and work to replace ourselves with not only our own, but also with those who don’t look like us.
I am a minority adult-onset hunter. I’m half Latino, and I grew up indoors. My family didn’t camp, hike, hunt, fish; you name it, they didn’t do it. In fact, the only reason I discovered the existence of careers in natural resources was because I told my high school science teacher shortly before I graduated that I wanted to work with animals but didn’t want to be a veterinarian. Mr. Thompson said, “Have you ever thought about working for the DNR (Department of Natural Resources)?” No, I hadn’t.
I’ve been a hunter for a year now, and because of my own experiences have often felt compelled to assist others who aspire to be hunters. Getting into hunting is surprisingly difficult when you don’t have a lifetime-hunter father or grandfather in your family that wants to teach you how to shoot, what fresh animal sign looks like, and how to purchase hunting tags. It’s also scary to reach out to strangers and ask them to teach you skills that they may not want to share with you. This is the reason I developed an interest in R3. I realized that many folks are significantly interested in learning about hunting or how to become a hunter but are held back by fears and unfamiliarity. I want to be a bridge connecting people like me to our roots of obtaining sustenance.
Current R3 efforts often strive to effectively engage new audiences to allow people of all backgrounds to experience the hunt. Those at the cutting edge of today’s R3 initiatives have recognized that the efforts of the last 30 years have missed the mark on engaging and serving broader groups of Americans who have interest in hunting but possess few resources, avenues, or support to learn how. Fortunately, people and organizations are hearing the message. The National Shooting Sports Foundation hosts a website titled “Let’s Go Hunting,” a digital stockpile of information on how to hunt. Samantha Pedder of the Council to Advance the Hunting and Shooting Sports (CAHSS) manages a national R3 Community, a social networking platform of more than 2,000 R3 professional who update each other on projects, ideas, and events around the country. CAHSS also has information and instructional videos describing the stages of R3 plus many other resources on their website. The Quality Deer Management Association created Field to Fork, an R3 model based on taking new hunters into the field, harvesting an animal, and processing and cooking the animal as a group for a full hunting experience. Field to Fork has been a widely successful recruiter of millennials, locavores, college students, and other traditionally non-hunting groups. Adam and Ana Gall of Timber-to-Table created an entire guiding service framed by ethical hunting, putting the highest-quality food on the table, and training women to be successful hunters. Learn to Hunt-type events take place all over the country; they can be species-specific, or focused solely on small game, big game, and anything in between. I hosted a Learn to Hunt Turkeys seminar in my town to celebrate my one-year hunting anniversary and to give back to the community I love so much.
Fortunately, R3 initiatives like these have been on the rise in recent years and now occur in many forms all over the country. Thanks to groups like CAHSS, the Wildlife Management Institute, and groups like BHA (Backcountry Hunters & Anglers), a new wave of innovative and inclusive R3 thinking is changing the way pro-hunting organizations and agencies are recruiting new and diverse hunters. There are more resources out there than ever before for someone who wants to take step toward learning how to hunt. Backcountry Hunters & Anglers now has their own R3 initiative: Hunting for Sustainability. BHA’s R3 coordinator Trey Curtiss is shaping the program to include all R3 initiatives under the Hunting for Sustainability umbrella. This includes Learn to Hunt or Fish events, Women in the Woods events, butchering clinics, and other workshops and seminars geared towards R3. All BHA R3 leaders are working together to truly formalize the Hunting for Sustainability program by creating best management practices, event planning timelines, and outlined agendas. BHA members will get to witness the evolution of their national R3 program as time goes on thanks to Trey’s hard work and dedication.
This trend of new and progressive R3 strategies is a good change and one I hope to help continue, but we mustn’t rely on organizations to do what we hunters should be doing as a matter of course; implementing the “organic” model of R3 by giving our gift of skills and knowledge to someone else. I’ve personally had positive experiences mentoring others and have definitely enjoyed the benefits of being mentored myself, but I’d be lying to you if said mentoring was easy. A strong mentor-mentee relationship is a time investment and needs a lot of follow-up. These relationships are not defined by the success or failures of the hunt, but instead by the quality of the human relationship formed between them and the social interactions shared because of it. Therein lies the beauty and effectiveness of mentoring. When two people can set aside their differences and find commonality in their desire to fully express their role in nature as hunters, R3 is at its most powerful.
If mentoring isn’t for you, the rise of social media and other resources means that you don’t even have to leave your couch to support R3 initiatives. You can post and share countless articles (including this one) to educate others about what R3 is and why it matters. Many companies, take the Northwoods Collective for example, have changed their marketing and “lifestyle branding” strategies to include minorities, all genders, novices, experts, and so on. By truly and honestly focusing on being inclusive in their content, they removed the need to explain their inclusivity. It simply “is.” Their emotionally-inspiring model of marketing to their audience has proved successful with their platform Project Upland. Their films obtained more than 1.5 million views in two years and the platform has a 21 percent female following. They made their content relatable and non-confrontational; for example, they advertised a close-to-home grouse hunt instead of a dream hunt one would aspire to do but realistically never will. It works.
Make no mistake, you cannot do nothing. Hunting participation rates are falling, and hunters are a long way from representing the changing demographics of the U.S. population. In 2014, the National Wild Turkey Federation commissioned a Responsive Management survey to examine hunting trends. The survey found that 71 percent of R3 participation in hunting takes place in rural areas, farms, or small towns. 81 percent of those R3 hunters were white. Minority groups are not significantly participating in R3 initiatives focused on hunting; in fact, only 11 percent of all women and 1 percent of female minorities hunt. This is where the hunting community is limiting itself; by failing to include large portions of minority communities, especially those in cities, hunters are not considering the long-term sustainability of hunting. For hunting to continue on for future generations to enjoy, no segment of the U.S. population should be neglected. Practicing genuine inclusivity towards women, people of color, city kids, and all those who identify as a minority is critical to the continuation of hunting. All public land owners deserve to feel comfortable outdoors; modern hunters have the ability to spearhead this movement.
The public engagement opportunities surrounding R3 are endless. If you have questions regarding R3, talk to your state R3 coordinator. Many state agencies are hiring them (the CAHSS website has the full list of state R3 coordinators), and many non-governmental organizations have them, too. They will have the best ideas about which initiatives work well in your area, what projects already exist, best management practices, and how you can be more involved as an instructor, mentor, or advocate. It’s not just about purchasing more licenses; R3 is an opportunity to join or give back to this hardworking community that holds wildlife, land, water, and conservation close to its heart. This is a chance to grow and love on the greater hunting community. If you recruit a new person, get someone back into it, or help someone continue to be a hunter, you are participating in R3. And to quote Hank Forester of the Quality Deer Management Association, “Hopefully it’s somebody outside of your family, and maybe it’s someone who’s a little different than you.” Given the cultural, demographic, and ethnic diversity of America, doing such would do hunters well.
As I plucked my turkey on that brisk April morning, many thoughts flitted around in my head. That big tom had been hormoned-up and running around just a few hours before being hung up in a garage. He likely had a solid two years of turkey life before he ran towards me that fateful morning. Did he have lots of young? How much corn did he eat? Had that winter been hard on him? But none of those thoughts really mattered now, did they? That tom fed my family several times in the days after I took his life. However, as I look back, that turkey meant so much more to me than the meals he provided. His death declared my full dedication to wildlife, which in turn means my full dedication to R3. Now that I’ve given you my story and my perspective, I will leave you with some advice: replace yourself with someone who is different than you, and let their unique values and skills perpetuate into the world to find others unlike them.