Last weekend marked the first of several Minnesota hunting events targeting the state’s youth, a major element of a long-term effort to stem the receding tide of state hunters. Hunting license revenues fund habitat management programs that not only benefit hunters and the game they seek, but benefit non-game wildlife in those habitats, promote water quality, flood control and provide other benefits. But with declining hunter numbers comes declining license sales, and less funding available for these conservation activities.

Coordinating these special youth hunts is the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the state agency that oversees the management and hunting of game birds and animals in our state. The first of this year’s three youth-targeted events, held last Saturday and Sunday, was Youth Waterfowl Weekend, during which young people up to age 17 could hunt ducks and geese with a non-hunting adult mentor.

The idea behind this is to give young and inexperienced hunters an opportunity to hunt in a much less crowded and competitive environment than traditionally accompanies the start of the regular duck season. It’s DNR’s hope that by making it a memorable experience, a seed will be planted that may mature into a participating adult hunter.

The next two youth events are Take-a-Kid-Hunting weekend Sept. 26-27, and the Youth Deer Hunt, October 15-18. The Take-a-Kid-Hunting program allows an adult accompanied by a youth under the age of 16 to hunt small game without a license. The three-day Youth Deer Hunt gives youngsters an opportunity well before the rest of the state’s deer hunters can hunt with firearms. Youths age 10-17 can participate, but those age 10-13 must be accompanied by an adult parent, guardian or a mentor age 18 or older. Like Youth Waterfowl Weekend, the rationale behind these two later events is to create—or reinforce—youth hunting interest.

Participation in hunting is on a long decline nationally, and—while less dramatic in Minnesota—it is significant here, too. State duck hunter numbers, for example, have declined from about 140,000 in the 1970’s to just under 80,000 in 2019. Part of the explanation is declining hunter success, the cause being an imprecise combination of poorer duck numbers, shifting migration patterns that don’t favor Minnesota hunters, fewer places to hunt and perhaps other variables unknown.

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The world our young people live in is also much different than 50 years ago, their lives more activity-rich, more scheduled and full, not to mention their absorption with social media and online experiences. The DNR is hoping its special hunts for youth will reach at least some of them at an important formative time in their lives.

This has not been without controversy. That was the case at the inception of Youth Waterfowl Day, which began roughly two decades ago as a one-day event, and was not expanded to a weekend until 2019. The most frequently heard objection to this special hunt was that the shooting and disturbance could have the effect of pushing local ducks into their migration prematurely, or in some way, shape or form reduce success on the general opening day.

Such a “spoiler” effect is hard to prove, one way or the other. But, with DNR data showing that only about 5,000 youth waterfowl hunters participate in any given year—compared to the annual total of 75,000 to 80,000 Minnesota duck hunters—it’s hard to imagine much more than very localized effects. Of course, if it happened to be your favorite duck slough that received this hunting pressure shortly before the normal opening day, you might be unsympathetic.

Besides the change from a one-day to a two-day event, the youth waterfowl hunt is now two weeks ahead of the general opener, rather than one, as it began. The DNR has expressed the belief that this timing meets with greater approval from the broader duck hunter community. It’s not clear why that would make a measurable difference. Perhaps those 5,000 or so youthful hunters banging away didn’t start migrations prematurely, after all. Perhaps, too, with a two-week lull now before the official opener, local ducks will have settled back into their normal routines in time for the big day.

The DNR even loosened some rules this year to give youth hunters an even greater chance for success on their two-day hunt. Shooting hours on Youth Waterfowl Weekend were one-half hour before sunrise until sunset. When the general duck season opens Sept. 26, shooting hours will begin one-half hours before sunrise, but will end at 4 p.m., through Oct. 9, with shooting until sunset for the remainder of the season. One of the objectives of the early season 4:00 p.m. closure is to ease hunting pressure on locally raised ducks by giving them some respite from shooting during that period. Participating youth were permitted to hunting them this year until sunset.

The Minnesota DNR’s hunter recruitment focus is not limited to youth, however. The agency has a Hunter Recruitment, Retention and Reactivation (“R3”) program aimed also at adults, and a Learn to Hunt Deer program, which includes skills training and pairing a new or novice hunter with a mentor who can “show them the ropes” of deer hunting.

In a very real way, the future of effective wildlife and habitat management in Minnesota depends on strong hunter numbers, whose license dollars foot the bill under the current state funding system. That makes the DNR’s mission of attracting youth to hunting all the more important.