By Joe Albert
Several years back, Scott Wanetka’s son, Ben, participated in a mentored pheasant hunt in Nebraska. It was “an awesome experience” for the boy, yet the father couldn’t help feeling a little guilty, too, because he’d already introduced his son to hunting. The mentored hunt was simply another good opportunity for Ben to spend some time afield.
“I kept thinking we should have had kids out there who had never done this before,” said Wanetka, vice president of the Cabela’s Outdoor Fund (COF), which is a nonprofit organization Cabela’s created in 2011. “How can we get more kids out there who don’t have access to that kind of experience?”
Answers to that question could be forthcoming thanks to a grant Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever received from the COF, which takes in the money generated when people round up their purchases at Cabela’s stores. A board of directors on a quarterly basis allocates grants from the fund. The grant will kick start PF/QF’s effort to recruit, retain and reactivate (R3) hunters and shooters. The initiative is aligned with the National Hunting and Shooting Sports Action Plan and seeks to provide hunting, shooting and conservation pathways throughout the year, rather than one-time events.
Retaining hunters and bringing new folks into this great American tradition are critical parts not only of maintaining the hunting heritage in America, but also ensuring there’s funding in the future for conservation. Though hunters make up less than 10 percent of the United States population, revenues from the equipment and licenses they buy provide as much as 80 percent of the funding for wildlife conservation. As a result, when there are fewer hunters, there are fewer dollars for conservation.
“We have this stopgap of funding, but it’s being threatened constantly by higher populations and declining hunter numbers,” said Matt Dunfee, project manager for the Wildlife Management Institute who’s been working for more than a decade on R3 initiatives. “Our levels are small enough that even a 1 percent loss of hunters is devastating.”
At the same time, Dunfee argues that R3 programs to date largely have focused on people who come from hunting families. And they haven’t necessarily addressed some of the barriers to getting involved in hunting, including many people who aren’t male or Caucasian. The hunting ranks don’t reflect their communities. “Since we have been largely catering to just our own base, it hasn’t required that we staff up and use new technological advances to do target marketing,” Dunfee said.
Pheasants Forever's Role
He believes PF/QF is uniquely positioned to use the grant to run a successful R3 program because the organization’s track record in creating wildlife habitat resonates not just with hunters, but also with conservation-minded folks who may not be hunters, but could become hunters.
Dunfee points to “massive opportunities” to engage with younger people — those from the Millennial and Generation Z — who don’t have a problem eating meat, and are especially interested in where it comes from. Among them and others, he said, there’s a desire to get outdoors and, likely, openness to giving hunting a shot.
Organizations and individual hunters have a key role to play because they can recruit folks “who don’t look like themselves,” Dunfee said. “We need them to go to college campuses, farmer’s markets, whole foods markets. Find someone who doesn’t look like you, but is very interested in finding ways to feed their families and get outdoors in a healthy way.”
Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever’s R3 initiative includes a variety of methods for bringing into the mix new hunters from a variety of backgrounds. As a result of the grant, the organization plans to work toward a number of goals, including hosting 250 learn-to-hunt and 100 learn-to-shoot events each year; launching, with partners, R3 pilot programs that target underserved audiences; maintaining a National Youth Leadership Council of 25 young conservation leaders; and each year hosting 100 community-based pollinator habitat projects.
One of the first action items is for the organization to hire its first Hunting Heritage Program manager who will have primary responsibility for driving the initiative.
“The Pheasants Forever grant request fits the criteria for solid R3 principles such as multiple contacts and touch points, and measureable outcomes — it’s not a flash in the pan,” Wanetka said. “We see how PF is changing its organization, its structure, and how it operates. It’s taking a good, hard look in the mirror in terms of how it operates to recruit new hunters. I hope that together we can break some new ground around focused and measurable recruitment efforts. The ultimate outcome, I hope, is we can legitimately prove we are recruiting new hunters. At the end of the day, this isn’t just about Pheasants Forever and Cabela’s. Hopefully we can blaze some trails for the industry.”
In recent years, Cabela’s has been active in trying to ensure the nation’s hunting heritage lives on, Wanetka said. While other organizations also have programs aimed at recruiting and retaining hunters, there aren’t many that are making the type of “sustainable run” at it that Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever is, he said. Pheasants Forever officials say the grant is crucial to their efforts.
“It will elevate our R3 game to absolutely new heights — mission critical, in other words,” said Chad Bloom, youth fundraising manager for PF/QF. “If we believe in our outdoor heritage, if we believe in public lands, and if we believe in conservation as a way to preserve wildlife on the landscape, we’re in deep trouble if we don’t bolster hunter numbers and if we don’t recruit new people.”
Pheasants Forever members, if you’re reading this article then chances are you share a passion for our hunting heritage. We need your help making sure this valuable way of life continues for future generations. Please consider doing three things. One, take a person new to these great experiences out hunting this season. Two, send us stories and photos of your mentoring experiences. Lastly, please consider Cabela’s for future outdoor and gift purchases. They are investing in our future.