Above: Students from the University of Montana learn how to process a whitetail doe at a BHA Hunting for Sustainability event.
My father introduced me to hunting at an early age. I knew how to gut a deer before I could write in cursive, and I called in my first bull elk before I was 10. I was taught to hunt before I could even line my pockets with my own tags. I’m not alone in how I was recruited into hunting. Recruitment efforts during contemporary times generally were centered around fathers teaching their sons how to hunt, complemented by a single hunter education course. There were exceptions to this, but if your family did not hunt, you were very unlikely to light the torch.
By now, the phrase R3 (recruitment, retention and reactivation) has started to carry momentum. In short, R3 efforts have arisen to increase participation in, and support of, hunting, angling and shooting sports. It’s important to note that “participation in” and “support of” are not competing ideals. They both hold merit at various times and in various places.
It’s evident that R3 is gaining traction. Most wildlife agencies and organizations now employ dedicated staff to work on R3. In late 2019, Congress also passed the Pittman-Robertson Modernization Act that, in part, added $5 million to fund dedicated R3 work through the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies Multi-State Conservation Grant Program. There’s more money and more resources available to complement and support a growing interest among folks who did not learn to hunt in the same traditional manner that I did. Some hunters have expressed some hesitations with R3, though.
Most hunters don’t want to get to a trailhead to find multiple other rigs ahead of them or to climb up in a treestand to look across the horizon and see another hunter as the sun rises. And as the number of new hunters recruited grows, we absolutely need to exercise prudence in in how that growth occurs. After all, sought after wildlife is a scarce resource, access to huntable land is getting harder to come by, and we’re generally not making more quality habitat.
If we want to have other people fight for the things that we care about and continue to see them safeguarded, we must encourage an active understanding of hunting. Access, habitat and R3 are not all mutually exclusive.
But the truth is, I would not be the advocate I am for wild places and wild things if I was not a hunter. I would not have the strong emotional connection to habitat and wildlife if I didn’t care so damn much about what I have the privilege of doing in my free time. If we want to have other people fight for the things that we care about and continue to see them safeguarded, we must encourage an active understanding of hunting. Access, habitat and R3 are not all mutually exclusive. And it’s not as simple as convincing other people to just care about these things as much as you do. You must show them why and, realistically, you must give them a reason to care.
We don’t have the option to close the door behind us. There’s a necessary growing demand to educate and create a stronger hunting community, not alienate the new folks. Beyond that, we need to showcase a broader diversity of individuals who hunt. New hunters, coming from a variety of backgrounds and beliefs, can and will develop into conservation advocates. Moreover, wildlife and natural resource managers are increasingly not coming from a hunting background. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s important that folks who are making decisions that impact habitat, access and hunters are apprised of why hunting fits into the conversation.
There is a litany of current R3 programs offered from wildlife agencies and hook and bullet organizations. Each of them takes on and promotes different values. There are also organizations, agencies and companies that produce an abundance of outdoor online and written content to help new hunters get started and help them and everyone else become more successful in the field. But those programs and resources don’t always emulate conservation values or steadily create new conservation allies to stand up for wild places and wild critters. The future of hunting depends on ensuring that equal effort focused on conservation advocacy gets delivered to seasoned, new and non-hunters alike.
The way I see it, R3 isn’t about creating more hunters to buy more licenses and to spend more money on equipment; it’s about making sure our elected officials are held accountable to see the best for hunting, angling and shooting sports and conservation, and that proposed policy that impacts us has more than adequate support. The efficacy of R3 programming shouldn’t necessarily be measured by a brand-new hunter but rather measured by the people who have a better understanding of how and why hunting plays an important role in wildlife conservation and habitat management and where it plays a role in society moving forward.
R3 takes many forms. As a part of BHA, we have the opportunity to guide what those forms are and ensure that the conservation ideals we value are carried on. Our chapters continue to be actively engaged in R3, and BHA is bolstering R3 efforts to incorporate more programs aimed at engaging more people from within our chapters, Armed Forces Initiative and college clubs. Now is your chance to get involved. Visit backcountryhunters.org/r3.
Trey Curtiss is BHA’s R3 coordinator and works to bolster the organization’s R3 and Hunting for Sustainability efforts as a way to promote the next generation of conservation-minded hunters and wild food advocates. The rest of the time, he’s likely scheming over ways to find next season’s elk.