BHA Hunting for Sustainability students discuss public and private land boundaries. Photo by Alex Kim
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Backcountry Journal.
By Gabby Zaldumbide
The Wisconsin air was bitter cold. Turkey season had unfolded, but winter refused to end. As I sat perched on the ground, shotgun in one hand and hot coffee in the other, my 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 a response to our calls. Before I knew it, three long-bearded toms 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 turkeys 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 both 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 who would appreciate the process of obtaining the meat, too. This is where my R3 interests began.
Upon further exploration, I found that R3 is not simply “recruitment, retention, and reactivation.” It is not a systematic, plug-and-chug method for saving hunting. It is part of the greater call for inclusivity in a historically white male dominated activity. R3 can be tricky; hunters are protective. I get it. Sharing something as dear to you as your own childhood is difficult. However, if Americans want hunting to persist for multiple generations, we must include everyone.
I am myself a minority, adult-onset hunter. I’m half Latino, and I grew up indoors. My family didn’t camp, hike, hunt or fish. The only reason I discovered careers in natural resources existed is because I told my high school science teacher shortly before graduation 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?” No, I hadn’t. I didn’t even know what the DNR was, until then: a revelation.
I’ve been a hunter for a year now and, due to my own learning 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 who wants to teach you how to shoot, what fresh animal sign looks like or how to purchase hunting tags. It’s scary to reach out to strangers and ask them to teach you skills, realizing that they may not want to share with you. I developed an interest in R3 when I realized that many folks are keenly interested in hunting but are held back by fears or unfamiliarity. I wanted to be a bridge connecting others like me to such an ancient human activity.
The reasons to care about R3 are many beyond just the good in your heart. The Pittman-Robertson Act collects excise taxes from firearms and ammunition purchases around the country and distributes that money back to the states to be put towards conservation. As I watch the number of hunters in the U.S. decline, I can’t help but worry about the decline in PRA funds. R3 not only gets new folks involved in hunting; it also facilitates the continuation of conservation funding through the PRA.
R3 initiatives occur in many forms, the go-to method being through mentoring initiatives. Hunting mentors and mentees have always existed; however, traditionally it has been in the form of a white male mentoring his son or grandson. Sometimes if there were no sons, that white male would mentor his daughter or granddaughter. These days, mentoring initiatives are strongly geared towards the “recruitment” piece of R3 and are focused on taking someone you don’t know out into the field. These efforts are great, and I’ve personally had positive experiences mentoring others, but mentoring is a lot of work. 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.
BHA has its own R3 initiative: Hunting for Sustainability; R3 Coordinator Trey Curtiss is shaping the program to include all of BHA’s 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 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 our R3 program as time goes on in large part to the hard work and dedication of Trey and others.
Other than mentorships and Hunting for Sustainability, many other organizations have their own unique R3 programs. The National Shooting Sports Foundation hosts a website titled “Let’s Go Hunting.” Samantha Pedder, of the Council to Advance the Hunting and Shooting Sports, manages R3 Community, a social networking platform for R3 coordinators to update each other on projects, ideas and events around the country. The Quality Deer Management Association created Field to Fork, an R3 model based on taking mentees into the field, harvesting an animal and then processing and cooking the animal for a full hunting experience. Adam and Ana Gall of Timber to Table Guide Service 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 or anything in-between. I hosted a Learn to Hunt Turkeys seminar to celebrate my one-year hunting anniversary and give back to the community I love so much. It was easy to plan, and it was a blast. However, boots-on-the-ground events are not the only way to contribute to R3.With
the rise of social media, you may not have to leave your couch to support R3 initiatives; you can post and share articles such as this one to educate others about R3. 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 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 proven to be 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. It works.Ther
e’s still plenty of work to be done. R3 participation rates are not reflective of the U.S. population. In 2014, the National Wild Turkey Federation commissioned a survey that found that 71 percent of R3 participation takes place in rural areas, farms or small towns. Eighty-one percent of the R3 participants were white. Minority groups are not significantly participating in R3 initiatives; in fact, still only 1 percent of women 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 impacts to hunting itself. 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. It’s not just about purchasing more licenses; R3 is an opportunity to join and give back to this hardworking community that holds wildlife, land, water and conservation close to its heart. If you recruit a new person, get someone back into it or help someone continue to be a hunter, you’re participating in R3. As Hank Forester, hunting heritage programs manager for QDMA, said, “Hopefully it’s somebody outside of your family, and maybe it’s someone who’s a little different than you.”
As I plucked my turkey on that brisk April morning, many thoughts flitted around in my head. That big tom had been running around like crazy 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? 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. With bright eyes, I look forward to giving back to the hunting community by sustaining it for generations to come.
Gabby Zaldumbide lives in Gunnison, Colorado, while she earns her master’s degree in environmental management at Western Colorado University. She is the Gunnison Valley regional director for BHA and works as the national coordinator of Trapping Matters Workshops for the Hunting, Trapping and Conservation Working Group of The Wildlife Society. She's looking forward to her first archery elk hunt this September.