We hear a lot these days about the dramatic downturn in the number of Minnesota residents who hunt. This is especially true of duck hunters, whose numbers have declined from about 140,000 in the 1970’s, to just over 80,000 today. The fall-off may not be as dramatic among deer and upland bird hunters, but in the big picture, hunter representation in the Minnesota population is trending downward.

Why is that important? Its significance is greatest to those who hunt, for the simple reason that there are other forces—economic, social, political, for example—whose interests are often at odds with the interests of hunters. Minnesotans by and large are not anti-hunting. But the viability of hunting as a recreation depends on habitat, access to these lands and waters, and game to be found there. When it comes to protecting and managing the natural resources vital to hunting—our forests, wetlands, lakes, rivers and grasslands—priorities may clash.

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.
Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Often it takes political muscle to have our priorities given the consideration we think we deserve; muscle to influence politicians and policy makers to legislate and regulate in a manner that favors protecting and enhancing wildlife habitat, water quality, public access and pursuing goals that are compatible with maintaining our hunting traditions.

Think back to the Clean Water, Land and Legacy amendment to the Minnesota state constitution. It was passed by voters in 2008 and dedicates 3/8ths of 1 percent of state sales tax revenues to conservation and arts purposes. It took years, and a herculean effort in the form of rallies, petitions, testimony and pressure applied by state conservation forces—primarily hunter, angler and general conservation groups, as well as many dedicated individuals—to get the amendment on the general election ballot and approved. Without a doubt, it took muscle.

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Unfortunately, political muscle is a numbers game. Without constituent numbers, political muscle atrophies, as our own muscles atrophy with lack of exercise. That’s why hunter numbers matter. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has been attempting to address the decline in hunter numbers—and to boost angler numbers, too—through its Recruit, Retain, Reactivate program—called R3 for short.

One of its components is mentor coordination, which in this case means pairing volunteer hunters and anglers—the mentors—with adults or families that want to experience the rewards of hunting or fishing, and need guidance. R3 also provides grant funding through a subprogram called No Child Left Inside, funds that are awarded to groups that develop and offer natural resource-based education and outdoor recreation programs. One element of this initiative is specifically targeted to retaining our existing hunters and anglers, and recruiting new ones.

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.
Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Hunting regulations have also been used to encourage greater participation. Specific to waterfowl hunting, the Minnesota DNR has in several stages over recent years loosened up the harvest rules, hoping to stanch the hemorrhaging of duck hunter numbers. Things like the special Youth Waterfowl Hunt before the start of the general waterfowl season, first held in 1996 and expanded from one day to a full weekend. Also bag limit changes that allow hunters to harvest more wood ducks and hen mallards, eliminating the mid-day start on opening day, eliminating the 4 p.m. early season closing hour, eliminating restrictions on motorized decoys, and this year adding a special early teal-only season at the beginning of September.

So far there are few signs that these changes have had great effect. On the other hand, a positive thinker might suggest that—if not for some of these changes—the number of waterfowl hunters could have dropped even more. At the end of the day, there is only so much the DNR can do to encourage today’s hunters and anglers to continue their involvement, and to entice those on the sidelines to join the party.

A recent column by Minneapolis Star-Tribune outdoors columnist Dennis Anderson celebrated four decades worth of dedication by one Southern Minnesota sportsman who has been a mentor to youth hunters. This individual took young hunters under his wing, “showed them the ropes” of the hunt, how to be safe in an activity that is not without some risk, and in the process hopefully instilled in them a conservation ethic and a sense of responsibility to be good stewards of our natural resources.

That this is so noteworthy as to merit celebration is a statement about how self-oriented most of us are. Most of us are absorbed with our own participation in hunting passions. When it comes to mentorship, maybe we have introduced our own children, or the child of a hunting partner, to the sport we love. But at best, most of us have instructed and guided a replacement for ourselves when we eventually stow our decoys and oil our shotguns for the last time. Quite a few avid hunters do not have offspring that will carry on their parent’s tradition of hunting and participation in the shooting sports, and for them the tradition could dead-end.

A positive development is the recent explosion of youth interest in school-sponsored clay target shooting leagues. It’s become the fastest growing youth sport in Minnesota, and has grown beyond our state’s boundaries to include well over 30,000 participants on more than 1000 teams nationwide. Only a minority of these athletes are likely to become avid hunters, but they do represent fertile ground for recruitment to the ranks of hunters.

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.
Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Many of us support Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, the Ruffed Grouse Society, and similar organizations. But odds are that our support is limited to membership, to attending a fundraising banquet, or perhaps buying raffle tickets to help fund the missions of these worthy conservation organizations. This is important, but it can lead to a sense that “I’ve done my part.” But could we do more?

The 2000 film Pay it Forward portrays a junior high school English teacher’s challenge to his students to imagine an idea that could change the world for the better. One student proposed the idea of responding to a favor or a kindness not only with gratitude, but to also “pay it forward” with a good deed done for someone else.

Could this be where we come in? Could we look for an opportunity to mentor someone, either through our local sportsman’s club, a mentoring opportunity with our local chapter of a major conservation organization, or by making ourselves available to participate in the DNR’s Certified Volunteer Mentor Network?

Most of us are busy with events in our own lives. Most everyone—including the youth or adults we might mentor—will likely have many things competing for limited recreational time. But nothing is accomplished if we assume that the effort won’t be successful. A quote from a first century religious scholar seems to fit here: “If not you, then who? If not now, when?”

(More information on the DNR’s Certified Volunteer Mentor Network is available from coordinator Ben Kohn, at benjamin.kohn@state.mn.us, or at 651-259-5178.)