We need younger hunters

Hunters are aging, and without new hunters to carry on conservation traditions, wild game and habitat will suffer.


Sometimes the National Rifle Association makes me laugh. The organization seems overly concerned with Americans’ 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 a lot 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 usually limited to four shells — one in the barrel and three in the magazine.

Hunting is about much more than 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 cornstalks 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 jackrabbits with on Colorado’s High Plains.

I grew up with the smell of Hoppes and nitro solvent, the stuff we used to clean rifles and shotguns, swabbing out the barrels after a day in the field. But that was decades ago.

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. There are over 300 million Americans, but only 12.5 million are hunters –– a mere 5 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 over 150 million acres of American public lands. The two causes go together: Because he hunted, he embraced the goals of conservation.

We need younger hunters. It’s ironic that even with the recent craze for organic food, free-range chickens and a “paleo diet,” there are fewer folks willing to get up before dawn to get out in the woods and stalk game. Anyone who eats meat should learn to shoot, hunt and field dress their game, whether it’s blue grouse found in high-altitude pines or mule deer bedded down in oak brush. As humans, we’ve hunted for millennia; anthropologists even 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 who seem obsessed with the size of their gun magazines, hunters know it’s rooted in humility. Native Americans have long believed that game only comes to hunters who are mentally and spiritually prepared.

Practicing marksmanship beforehand, moving quietly through the woods, looking for animal spoor and sign -- these are skills that hunters learn and refine. Young hunters learn that hunting is about being outdoors, moving through the landscape and learning about camouflage and ecosystems, learning to see and smell in the wild. Listening.

In some seasons past, the largest thing I’ve cut up with my hunting knife is an orange. But killing game is not the sole reason to hunt. For true hunters, firearms are only a means to an end, not an end to themselves. I may walk for days on a hunt and never fire a shot.

Aldo Leopold, one of our greatest conservationists and early ecologists, learned about the 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.”

This year, I’ll be hunting for cow elk during the third rifle season. I hunt for meat, not for antlers to hang on the wall, though I have those, too. And if I see younger hunters in the forest, I’ll give them all the encouragement that I can. We need younger hunters and a little sanity in this gun-crazed nation.

Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Nov 19, 2013 03:38 PM
I hunt with falcons, perhaps a way of providing food , that is four thousand years old. The invention of the gun made hunting with hawks, kinda Obsolete, far easier. But not better, sometimes harder is more rewarding. For instance hunting with a bow instead of in my opinion a gun which is just to easy, and a animal will never be able to evolve to avoid a bullet that comes from hundreds of yards away. But one thing I believe true dedicated hunters have in common is actually caring about the animals they Pursue and learn about . Often then becoming concerned Environmentalists because they do care, and have a vested interest in natures well being, for without habitat , there passion, hunting is gone. Where as the Anti-hunter is removed from nature , and had no vested interest in caring about or doing anything to save Diminishing species or habitat ,they mean nothing to the Joe sixpack or housewife.Who knows nothing of the natural world . How do we get people to care about something they do not care about or know about?
Charles Fox
Charles Fox Subscriber
Nov 19, 2013 04:17 PM
Conservation to me means conserving habitats, populations and individual organisms. Given our mass-produced, commodified and frequently wasted lives, I have to think that the life histories of many wild animals are more compelling than our own.

Putting a bullet into the heart of an animal that has never done you any harm is a terribly deliberate and violent act. Hunters claim a lot of conservation cred, but they do it in an awful strange way: down the barrel of a gun.

There are many millions of US citizens, who are not hunters, who take conservation seriously and campaign for it every day of their lives. I hike extensively and value any wildlife sightings without the need to take home antlers, or meat or pictures of myself bear-hugging a dead wolf.
Geraldine Ahrens
Geraldine Ahrens
Nov 19, 2013 04:50 PM
While I can agree that some people who hunt respect the game they kill, I do not believe it is so much that way any longer, nor is it taught that way.
For too many 'hunters' who kill an animal from several hundred yards away, using a high powered rifle, it is about the kill, not the hunt. It is about the antlers, or the size of the paw from the bear or lion.
The camaraderie Mr. Gulliford speaks of after a long day of hiking, can be obtained simply by hiking and seeing how many and what type of animals are out there.
Perhaps it is best there are fewer hunters, for if the kill is all that matters, the hunters are no longer hunters, just killers of animals.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Nov 19, 2013 05:06 PM
I agree there are many ways to appreciate nature and care about and work to preserve it.But hunting in this age, in America , has been studied, and determined to not have a negative effect on wildlife populations. But is often cited,hunting and predators, as to why species are declining, which is not true, and a Scapegoat, to the real problem. Many species are declining that are not hunted, many species continue to decline after hunting is stopped . The problem is loss of habitat, which is Conversion of prairies to mono - culture farming, overgrazing, and other human caused impacts, not hunting. Is not killing cattle in slaughter houses, confining animals in cages worse. Are not Vegetarians also Culpable in loss of habitats, as say the Incredible loss of ecosystems and habitats converted to massive monocultures of lettuce and broccoli fields that do not house any wildlife which were previously gardens of wildlife Edens?
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Nov 19, 2013 05:18 PM
We have to understand this incredible planet, revolves around and is based on animals eating and killing other animals. Birds killing insects, fish eating smaller fish, and on and on. It seems to me they only way it can work, the so called balance if nature, and natural selection. It is why we have such a amazing Diversity of life and species . Man is part of that, although I agree his Technology had thrown a wrench in that balance . And we are Struggling with that. I agree , hunting with guns is to easy, cheating in a way, and to one sided, without laws and regulations, the Un-balanced superiority of guns, can Exterminate species like we almost did to the Buffalo. I do not believe , say a predator like a lion , could ever be responsible for causing its prey to go Extinct.
anthony smith
anthony smith Subscriber
Nov 19, 2013 07:34 PM
Excellent article. It is hard to capture the respect and love that hunters (some anyway) have for these animals. Humans are part of this complex world of life and hunting is one way that some people find to relate to and care about the natural world. While I agree we do need to recruit a next generation of hunters the mentality of "only for the kill" is very concerning. Respect for the taking of a living being to provide sustenance has taken a back seat to antler size and killing. There is a quote out there somewhere about not needing more hunters but better hunters and that might be somewhat true.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Nov 19, 2013 07:37 PM
Hunter Ed in CO used to run around 16K or 17k annually now it seems up above 20,000. Lotta girls as well as boys in the class my kid went to. I'm optomistic.

Kirk predators can cause prey to go extinct, it's happened many times. Balance of Nature does not exist.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Nov 19, 2013 07:51 PM
How can a predator cause a species to go extinct, as they Eliminate their prey , there is less food for themselves , and thus their numbers decline , except for humans.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Nov 19, 2013 07:55 PM
Please Enlighten me as to one case of one predator other then man that was responsible for causing another species extinction by their predation.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Nov 20, 2013 06:25 AM
The single species that first springs to mind is the feral cat. Scientists in controlled study as well as observation have more examples. I'd suggest googling around.
A study in the midwest showed the discredited idea still pervasive amongst the educated public.
It's impossible for the public to understand the role of active wildlife management when they believe predators plus magic will cure any problem. I too used to "believe" in the balance, it is a reassuring idea.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Nov 20, 2013 07:43 AM
What species did the feral cat cause to go Extinct , by its predation? That's my question , yes predators prey on populations, and the numbers go up and down, both the prey and predators numbers, nature works out that balance, with natural selection over centuries of time, if your feral cat kills to much of its prey or birds whatever, there is not enough food and its numbers decline.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Nov 20, 2013 08:09 AM
Robb, I do not know what your point is about. The article talks about hunters , and hunting. How young people are not becoming hunters. My concern is people's Detachment and removal from nature in there every day lives. Thus not part of or caring about the natural world. The world revolves around predation . I do not think all animals could be Vegetarians ,I do not think that would work. Man is Al's a predator , with his unfair Technology, guns, he needs to be managed, with laws, and Regulations and hunting seasons, or species can be hunted to extinction, the buffalo . In the natural world that is a intact Eco-system , not fragmented by man, predators do not cause prey to go extinct by hunting them. This so called balance does not mean numbers do not Fluctuate, they do, that is the "balance " as natural selection happens.Man has Interfered with all that, with massive impacts and changes to the Entire planet, now we have to Micro manage almost every species.It seems all bets are off now. Look at North America two hundred years ago, how well nature worked , sixty million buffalo , yet healthy numbers of large predators on the plains even, Grizzlies and wolves, yet millions if dear and elk also. To me that was a pretty good balance nature came up with without mans Technology.
Geraldine Ahrens
Geraldine Ahrens
Dec 01, 2013 04:32 PM
Robb, Kirk…interesting exchange.
For a species to go extinct there are several factors that need to be interrupted. Habitat, environment, predator/prey populations. Most of the species now going extinct are doing so because of various types of pollution, habitat loss and a rapidly changing climate. Poaching is causing huge losses in the large cats and elephants. Poaching may very well cause the extinction or total loss of a number of species in the wild.
As for a predator to cause a prey to go extinct, there are factors that need to be in place for that to happen. That comes down to habitat loss due to fires or floods, or several bad years of climatic conditions. Also, if a species has narrow and specific needs, it could easily become extinct if the numbers fall beyond a certain point, due to any factor mentioned above.
The regulation of hunting will keep species intact, whether predator or prey. There are plenty of good people out there working for the FWS, Parks and Forest Services, helping to ensure this 'balance' remains.
However, let the hunter use his/her wits without the use of a rifle or bow that has all the equipment a man could put on it.
Learn the 'art' of hunting. Have the hunter go back to the spear and longbow, or even running the prey to the ground (man can outrun an antelope). That will teach respect for the prey and that, in my humble opinion, is a hunt, not a kill.