By Jason Abraham
The sun was barely up, but Travis Madden was wide awake inside his turkey blind overlooking the Minnesota River valley outside Morton. Adrenaline screamed through the 13-year-old's veins as he watched a pair of tom turkeys in full strut about 75 yards away.
Tension built over the next 20 minutes as the birds tussled and strutted, all the while zig-zagging closer. For an excruciating moment, the birds slipped from the view of the blind's window but then returned, about 35 yards out, within shooting range. With shaking hands, the novice turkey hunter clicked off the safety on his 20-gauge shotgun -- and missed wide right.
The miss couldn't have mattered less. "He was smiling ear to ear after that," Jim Madden Jr., Travis' father, said. "He had the thrill of the hunt, everything except the kill, and that's hunting. You're never going to be successful every time, and he knew that. He's completely hooked now."
Tom Kalahar, the Maddens' volunteer guide, had prepared the father-son team well. "The guides spent a lot of time explaining that hunting isn't about successfully getting game," Madden Jr. said. "They really emphasized the entire hunting experience: the camaraderie, responsibility, and experiencing nature."
The hunt, one of 15 youth turkey hunting opportunities coordinated through the National Wild Turkey Federation this spring, is just one part of a concerted Department of Natural Resources effort to bolster the ranks of young hunters in Minnesota. There are signs that hunting, once a rite of passage for Minnesota youth, is waning. And the DNR fears a falloff in hunters means fewer advocates for wildlife habitat and a smaller source of funding for wildlife management.
While the total number of Minnesota licensed hunters has remained stable at about 570,000 annually since 2000, a closer look at the demographics reveals the beginning of a downward trend in the number of hunters.
"License sales are stable now because baby boom-age hunters, who outnumber younger hunters, are still participating. But these older hunters will inevitably leave the sport. To maintain the state's hunting population, we'll need more younger hunters to replace baby boomers," said Ryan Bronson, former DNR hunter recruitment and retention supervisor. Bronson, who left the DNR in July to work for Federal Cartridge, was hired in 2003 as the first DNR employee dedicated to increasing the number of hunters and boosting the positive image of hunting in Minnesota. The hunter recruitment and retention program will continue with a new supervisor to be hired soon.
"If we're going to recruit new hunters to the sport, we need to do it now, when we still have enough experienced hunters to act as mentors and pass along the traditions," Bronson said.
The trend toward less outdoor activity for young people isn't limited to hunting. A national survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also shows declining youth participation in fishing, wildlife watching, camping, and hiking. Part of the reason for this, according to Brad Nylin, executive director of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, is competition for kids' time.
"Kids have so many options for their free time that most adults today never had," he said. "There are video games, organized sports leagues, and after-school activities. If they don't want to hunt, there are plenty of other things for them to do."
Still, youngsters ought to be involved in hunting, fishing, and other activities that get them outdoors, said Dave Schad, director of the DNR Division of Fish and Wildlife. "It's an important tradition, not just for the fun, but because it creates a strong connection to the environment. Hunters and anglers are personally affected by what happens on the land and in the water. They are our most important advocates with conservation organizations, at the state legislature, and at the federal level."
Another vital aspect of maintaining the state's hunting tradition is funding for natural resources conservation, Schad said. Through license fees and excise taxes on firearms, fishing rods, and other equipment, hunters and anglers provide critical dollars for natural resources management, such as habitat improvement projects and lake management. In Minnesota these funds account for about 90 percent of DNR Fisheries budget and 80 percent of DNR Wildlife. Conserving fish and wildlife habitat benefits all Minnesotans by improving water quality, controlling erosion, and providing public access for hiking and wildlife observation in wildlife management areas.
"Hunters and anglers have been paying for conservation programs that benefit all Minnesotans," Bronson said. "The base of people paying for those programs is declining, and the effects could be felt across the state."
The DNR hunter recruitment and retention program launched in 2003 with the development of a shooting sports course through the nonprofit National Archery in the Schools Program. Since then, the DNR has added youth turkey hunts and 10 special deer hunts led by mentors in locations with high populations of deer and without other hunting seasons. The DNR also added a special youth deer hunting season in five northwestern counties.
In 2006 more than 60,000 students participated in the archery course taught in physical education classes at more than 150 schools statewide. The DNR, with funding from the National Wild Turkey Federation, provides teachers and helps schools purchase state-of-the-art archery equipment.
Mountain Iron-Buhl High School uses the equipment to field an archery team that competes in an annual state tournament. This year three Minnesota teams advanced to the national tournament in Kentucky. DNR promotes the competition because it demonstrates competency with equipment -- a key part of hunting and range shooting. Archery coach Dan Violette said students who don't participate in traditional sports have a chance to excel in the program's competition.
Violette became involved in youth archery to help his son Michael, now 15, rehabilitate from a brain aneurism. "He was paralyzed on his right side; and his tutor, Roger Koski, was an archery hunter," Violette said. "He thought shooting a bow might be a good way to help him build hand-eye coordination and strengthen his arm."
As Michael entered junior high school, Violette and Koski heard about Archery in the Schools and convinced district officials to participate. This past March Michael's individual score at the state tournament was second highest among his team of 24 students.
Even though Archery in the Schools focuses on target skills, it apparently has increased interest in archery hunting. DNR license sales to youth bowhunters have increased by 25 percent since the program began. Violette said parents often ask about purchasing a hunting bow for their student. Even students who choose not to hunt but continue to shoot contribute to conservation by paying excise taxes on equipment such as bows and targets.
In the future, the hunter recruitment and retention program will focus on creating mentorship programs that help novice hunters build long-term relationships with veteran hunters. The program is working with Big Brothers Big Sisters to match adults with youngsters who share outdoor interests.
"Research shows it takes more than a single exposure to hunting and fishing to become hooked on these activities," said C.B. Bylander, DNR Fish and Wildlife outreach section chief. "Instead, follow-up is required. We need to provide ongoing support that overcomes the known barriers to participation, which include a lack of skills, lack of knowledge, a supportive network of peers, and simply finding the time to get outdoors."
Chris Schad, brother of the DNR Fish and Wildlife director, helped his 13-year-old son, Lucas, harvest a turkey at a youth hunt near Rochester this past spring. He said his son built new skills, improved his self-esteem, learned patience, gained a better understanding of the natural world, and cemented a stronger relationship with him.
"There's a lot of stuff you can talk about in a turkey blind that you just can't talk about around the house," Schad said. "We spent a lot of hours in that blind, and the hunting was great. But just being with Lucas and having those 13-year-old conversations was probably the best part for me."
More information about hunter recruitment and retention, including tips on getting young people started, is available online at online.