Wildlife managers seek to diversify amid hunting decline

FARMINGTON, N.M. (AP) — Crystal Egli grew up in rural Vermont, the daughter of a vegetarian, and, for most of her life, terrified of firearms. She didn’t grow up in a family that hunted and wouldn’t know how to become a hunter even if she had an interest in learning. But when she was hired by Colorado Parks and Wildlife as a videographer, she became intrigued by the hunting conversations and conservation work happening around her.

This year, Egli became the face of Colorado’s “My First Big Game Hunt” video series, taking viewers on her journey as a hunter and covering topics such as firearms safety, how to find a mentor, learning where to hunt and navigating the sometimes overwhelming licensing requirements, the Durango Herald reported.

The 16-part video series is one of the department’s initiatives to recruit and maintain new and experienced hunters throughout the state, said Jason Deutsch, hunter outreach coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Deutsch said through his time as the state outreach coordinator and previously as a district wildlife coordinator, he realized the hunter outreach programs tended to be geared toward one group: kids. “My audience is anyone who is not currently a hunter,” Deutsch said. “Let’s find some different avenues to have those people get involved.”

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A declining demographic

The number of hunters and anglers has been declining nationally for the past decade, which in turn decreases the budget state fish and game departments have to do conservation work, said Marcia Brownlee, program manager of Artemis, a sportswomen’s conservation organization with the National Wildlife Federation. Because state conservation efforts largely depend on the sale of hunting licenses, a lack of hunters buying licenses can create shoe-string budgets for important conservation efforts, she said.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service records, hunting participation peaked in 1982, when about 17 million hunters purchased 28.3 million licenses. Since then, the numbers have declined. About 2.2 million hunters stopped participating in the sport from 2011 to 2016, according to the National Survey of Hunting, Fishing and Wildlife Associated Recreation report.

Despite the shrinking number, there’s hope. “Even within a shrinking demographic, women hunters and anglers are growing,” Brownlee said. She added it’s important to continue tailoring programs to them, but groups should also “incorporate women leaders and experts.”

While it is great that organizations are partnering to recruit more women as hunters and anglers, Brownlee said it doesn’t necessarily show the whole picture.

“It’s important to recognize that women have been hunting for centuries,” she said. “They’ve been a really important part of (hunting and conservation) but haven’t been talked about or their stories held up.”

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Growing initiatives

Artemis, the organization Brownlee represents, is located throughout the West and has hosted events in Montana, Colorado, New Mexico and Idaho. Last year, the organization hosted a fly-fishing event in New Mexico, with many participants traveling from Durango.

In New Mexico, initiatives similar to Artemis are underway to increase hunting and conservation participation for people who may not have grown up in a hunting family or felt excluded from the sport, said Colleen Payne, New Mexico regional director for the Mule Deer Foundation, a nonprofit wildlife conservation organization.

Payne has previously worked as the only female in the hunting department of a sporting goods store. “I started seeing that my clientele were changing. Women were starting to come to me, men would bring their female relatives to me,” she said. “But there is that gender gap in this industry.”

To help women who are interested in hunting overcome that gender gap, Payne partnered with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to create the women-focused Discover the Outdoors and Encourage Sportsmanship (DOES) program. In its second year, the program focuses on introducing women to the basics of hunting and fly-fishing while creating a supportive community of sportswomen that can evolve outside of the program, Payne said.

Payne said while she hates making it a “gender thing,” the foundation found “women were very hesitate to get involved because it was so male-dominated that it was intimidating.” She said the women are often more comfortable participating, opening up and asking questions in the female-instructor led events DOES has been hosting. She added a lot of the women have even gotten together to fish or hunt after the foundation-hosted events, attesting to the importance of creating a community for the women to draw on.

Payne, who grew up in a hunting family and started hunting herself when she was 12 years old, said regardless of gender, “We’ve started to see people who want to get into it later in life.”

Christian Hodges, a Durango-based hunter, said although he grew up around hunting in Texas, he’s become the most active hunter of his family in the past few years. He said this past year, he noticed a lot more people in the woods hunting than previous years. Hodges added that his mom, who lives in Texas, has recently gotten into conservation and hunting later in her life, too, and it has become “a passion of hers.”

Back in Colorado, Egli said while she continues to grow her own hunting expertise, she’s recently taken on the role of a mentor to a new hunter.

“Hunting is really for everyone,” Egli said. “I think people assume these divides and divisions and are maybe afraid to talk with someone they think is a hunter because they think they don’t have any shared values. But there are so many shared values.”