Aging hunters need to recruit and encourage younger ones

I have to laugh at the National Rifle Association. The organization seems overly concerned with American rights to have 10, 15, or even 30 shot magazines on pistols and rifles. Yet those of us who hunt know that if you can’t kill a deer or an elk in three shots you’d either better get closer or spend more time on the rifle range.

The sad fact is that probably at no time in American history have there been more guns and fewer hunters.

The sportsmanlike pursuit of wild game has been one of the great American traditions on public land. Hunting rifles are limited to five shells — one in the barrel and four in the magazine.

Hunting isn’t about killing. It’s about being outdoors with friends and family and the camaraderie around a campfire after a solid day of hiking with mud on your boots and twigs in your coat.

As a boy with a Daisy air rifle filled with pebbles, I’d follow my father down the long rows of corn stalks, waiting for pheasants to fly. I have fond memories of those fall afternoons in South Dakota with pheasants lined out on the station wagon tailgate and the smell of coffee laced with brandy being poured from a thermos. I still have the .22 Winchester single shot rifle I learned to hunt jack rabbits with on Colorado’s high plains. I grew up hunting. I grew up with the smell of Hoppes and nitro solvent used to clean rifles and shotguns as we swabbed out the barrels after a day in the field.

One of my adult sons has his hunter’s safety card and the other one likes to target shoot, but neither one is interested in hunting. Across America hunters are aging, and without younger hunters to carry on conservation traditions, wild game and habitat will suffer. We have more than 300 million Americans but only 12.5 million hunters or a mere five percent of the adult population. Just as my hero Theodore Roosevelt was a bird and big game hunter and an expert on North American large mammals, he was also a “wilderness warrior” who protected more than 150 million acres of American public lands. Because he hunted, he embraced the goals of conservation.

National Geographic notes, “The great irony is that many species might not survive at all were it not for hunters trying to kill them.” Since 1934, for the right to shoot ducks, hunters have paid out $700 million, some of which purchased 5.2 million acres for the National Wildlife Refuge System.

We need younger hunters. It’s ironic that with the recent craze for organic food, free-range chickens and adherents to a “paleo diet,” there are fewer folks willing to get up before dawn to study habitat and hunting. Anyone who eats meat should learn to shoot, hunt and field dress his or her game, whether it’s blue grouse found in high altitude pines or mule deer bedded down in oakbrush. As humans, we’ve hunted for millennia, and anthropologists posit that coordinated hunts spurred language development, culture and art.

There has always been a spiritual bond between hunter and prey, and unlike the zany pistol-owning NRA members obsessed with the size of their gun magazines, hunters know it’s about humility.

Native Americans have long believed that game only comes to hunters who are mentally and spiritually prepared.

It’s not about how many bullets you have in your rifle; it’s about your patience and persistence as the weather changes. It’s about your preparedness as snowflakes drift down across the game trail and having all your senses fully alert as animals begin to move.

So, I’m saddened to read that the Colorado Parks and Wildlife division must cut $10 million from its budget next year.

A main source of revenue, elk hunting license fees from out-of-state residents is on the decline. Fewer fathers are hunting with their sons and daughters.

Practicing marksmanship, moving quietly through the woods, looking for animal spoor and sign — these are skills that need to be taught.  Young hunters need to be mentored.

The goal is to be outdoors, moving through the landscape and learning about camouflage and ecosystems, learning to see and smell in the wild. Listening. In some seasons the largest thing I’ve cut up with my hunting knife is an orange. Killing game is not the sole reason to hunt, and for true hunters, firearms are only a means to an end, not an end to themselves.

One of our greatest conservationists and early ecologists, Aldo Leopold learned about land through hunting. He also learned about himself. Leopold wrote, “At daybreak I am the sole owner of all the acres I can walk over. It is not only boundaries that disappear, but also the thought of being bounded.”

I’ll hunt for cow elk the third rifle season. I hunt for meat, not for antlers to hang on the wall, though I have those, too.

If I see younger hunters, I’ll give them all the encouragement I can, because we need younger hunters and a little sanity in this gun-crazed nation. I may walk for days and never fire a shot.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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