Collegiate chapters create bridges and connections, incubating the next generation of conservation leaders
By Andrew McKean
As a youngster, Michaela Flora was busy enough on her family’s eastern South Dakota farm that hunting wasn’t a priority. But a chance invitation to shoot clay targets when she was in high school introduced Flora to guns.
The experience impacted her to the degree that it later informed her choice of colleges.
“I decided I wanted to pursue a wildlife major,” says Flora. “I knew the Pheasants Forever regional director, Erica Hill, and she said there was a PF chapter on campus at South Dakota State in Brookings. I was leaning that direction anyway, since it’s close enough to home that I could come back to help on the farm, but PF’s commitment to college kids really made up my mind.”
Flora is now a senior at South Dakota State and the outgoing president of the Jackrabbits’ collegiate chapter of Pheasants Forever. A summer-break internship with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provided an onramp for her first post-college job. After she graduates this spring, Flora will start work as a full-time soil conservationist for the NRCS, and maintains that without PF, her recent past and future might have a different trajectory.
“Pheasants Forever definitely started me down the conservation and habitat path,” she says. “I had no idea of any of this before college and my internship. PF led me to college, college led me to my internship, and as a result I picked up a range-management minor. The chapter sparked my whole future, in a sense, and I feel lucky that it was something that carried me through college.”
Colleges are islands of learning, and not just the academic variety. They create opportunities for students to immerse themselves in new experiences, meet new friends, and try out different versions of the future.
But they’re also islands in the sense that colleges are frequently distant and isolated —physically and psychically — from family, hometowns and cherished traditions.
For young adults who grew up hunting and fishing, college years often break established patterns … because of academic coursework and scholastic schedules, but also because many colleges don’t allow guns and other field gear on campus. Finding places to hunt or fish near campus can be tough, too, especially for students without transportation. Plus, connecting with a community of friends with shared hunting and fishing interests and backgrounds can be hard to find at colleges and universities.
“Studies that look at impediments to hunting and the outdoors often cite college years as an obstacle,” says Colby Kerber, PF’s education and outreach coordinator: No outdoor experience, no place to go, nobody to go with. “Hunting and conservation experiences are often transformative for students, resulting in a deeper connection to wildlife and a wealthier understanding of hunting and outdoor culture,” adds Kerber. “College is naturally a time when individuals explore new activities and ultimately adopt new interests that greatly contribute to their future way of life.”
Pheasants Forever’s commitment to promoting hunting, conservation and fellowship extends to college campuses. Here are three collegiate chapters that are helping bridge the gap between the classroom and the field, and working to ensure that hunting-based conservation remains a core value, even on America’s college campuses.
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA – LINCOLN, NEBRASKA
The president of Big Red Chapter 913, Chad Guthrie knows that the 4 years that most undergraduates spend in college can speed by quickly, and he’s been determined to make the most of it, not only for himself but for his fellow Cornhuskers.
That’s why the chapter doesn’t work on many habitat projects, which can take years to bear fruit, but rather pursues another key PF mission: hunter recruitment.
“I grew up in Holdrege, Neb., about 2-1/2 hours west of Lincoln, and everybody I knew hunted and fished,” says Guthrie, who will graduate from the University of Nebraska this spring with an agronomy degree. “But when I got here, I met people from all over the country, and most of them didn’t know anything about hunting, or guns or conservation. So we made it our mission to introduce them.”
The chapter created an annual outing called Clays for Conservation, in which first-time shooters are introduced to shotguns, safe gun handling, and the fun and fellowship generated by wholesome off-campus activities. They use that event to then find out which of their fellow students are interested in becoming hunters, and spend the next months working toward a pheasant hunt on an upland preserve.
“Here’s the remarkable thing about this chapter and its leadership,” says Jerry McDonald, PF’s eastern Nebraska regional director. “They not only recruit their fellow students to become familiar with guns, but they help them through hunter education and then with getting their hunter certification. Then they take them hunting!”
The hunt itself is managed as a curated experience through Nebraska Game and Parks’ mentored hunt program. But Guthrie says that many apprentices have such a good time that they return as club leaders and as mentors for the next year’s apprentice hunters.
“These are kids who didn’t get exposed to shooting or hunting as 12- to 14-year-olds,” says Guthrie. “In fact, without the experience that we’re able to provide, most of them would probably miss out on becoming hunters. But it’s so cool to see people who have never handled guns or hunted want to become chapter leaders and to teach other people about hunting. We’ve even taken many of these kids back to my hometown of Holdrege for pheasant or snow goose hunting.”
The chapter has arranged with the Lincoln and campus police that students’ guns can be kept in lockers at the police station, and are available to be checked out, even in the pre-dawn hours prior to duck hunts. Bulkier gear, like waterfowl decoys, are kept in members’ off-campus houses, where members frequently gather for wild-game banquets.
“A lot of students have never eaten wild game, and they might be a little leery, but we have some amazing cooks,” says Guthrie of his chapter. “If you know anything about college students, then you know we can eat, There are rarely leftovers after our dinners!”
For his part, McDonald says managing the Big Red Chapter is often easier than managing non-collegiate chapters.
“These young adults have created a wonderful community, and they have such a good time together that it’s magnetic,” says McDonald. “They see Chad and the other leaders forging such good friendships and doing such remarkable things that they want to be part of it.”
“We’re training leaders, maybe to become PF chapter leaders down the road, but also community leaders in general. To me, that’s what this is all about.”
IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY – AMES, IOWA
For some collegians, continuing education is also a continuation of core values.
Take Alison Fenske. The South Dakota native says she “pretty much started with Pheasants Forever at birth” because her father was a chapter founder and core volunteer in Huron, South Dakota. For 4 years in high school, Fenske served on PF’s National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC), her last year as president.
She decided on Iowa State University (ISU) for her undergraduate education partly because of the PF chapter on campus and partly because the chapter chair had served with Fenske on the NYLC.
Given that immersion in conservation organizing, it’s not surprising that Fenske served as president of the ISU chapter for three of her four years in Ames. Fenske graduated last year and is now working toward a graduate degree in clinical nutrition at the University of Kansa. She says the work of the Iowa State chapter ranged from key habitat projects to hunter recruitment.
“It’s tricky, promoting guns and hunting in the campus environment. But we wanted to provide opportunities to get out in the field for students who might not have had them,” says Fenske. “We did a college-student-only hunting trip, with half of us serving as mentors and the other half brand-new hunters. I brought my two roommates, and one actually went through Hunter Education and now goes hunting with her family, which she didn’t before.”
One of Fenske’s biggest takeaways from her time as an undergraduate is the degree of difficulty in fundraising and in finding places for a collegian to hunt. In both regards, the Cyclones chapter relied on the civilian chapters around Ames.
“We committed to holding a banquet and raising funds. But college kids don’t have much money, so we learned fast not to rely on our classmates to buy raffle tickets or bid on auction items,” says Fenske. “Attendance at our banquets was mostly family members and community members, but we were able to raise enough money to fund our mentored hunts and to help the local chapter with habitat work.”
Fenske says the non-college members helped in other ways, from donating banquet items to getting the collegians out in the field.
“It’s tough to come to a place where you don’t know anyone,” she says. “When it comes to hunting, you’re limited to public land, because you don’t know any landowners. But the Ames PF Chapter was such a great help because they have so many connections with landowners across Iowa, and were also able to connect us with habitat work they were doing. So they took us hunting, and we returned the favor by helping with projects, including some land-acquisition projects that will help the college chapter in the years to come. It’s a good partnership.”
Now that she’s moved on to graduate school, Fenske says she misses the camaraderie and sense of shared purpose that fueled her undergraduate experience.
“It’s strange, with COVID-19 keeping us all apart and really frustrating our ability to gather socially,” she says of her new digs in Kansas. “But I keep my eyes open for Pheasants Forever caps or stickers in pickup windows. I’ve always been a PF person, but who knows. Maybe I’ll start the first Quail Forever chapter here.”
SOUTH DAKOTA STATE UNIVERSITY – BROOKINGS, SOUTH DAKOTA
Erica Hill has a unique problem.
As Pheasants Forever’s regional field representative for South Dakota, she’s accustomed to recruiting chapter leaders, and she knows when she gets a good one, that they’re eager to do years, even decades, of work on behalf of the organization.
“College is a different animal,” she says. “You get a great leader in a college chapter, and they’re gone in a year or two, so you have to find another, then another.”
Luckily for Hill, she’s had a great run of student volunteers at South Dakota State University (SDSU), but she’s always on the lookout for the next leader who can take the collegiate chapter to a higher level.
“When you think about a normal chapter, we might have a 40-year volunteer,” says Hill. “They have this time that they generously and willingly give us. But at college, a student is there for 4 years. That’s a short time frame to learn about PF, plan events and then get meaningful work done, so those students who can accomplish that are real superstars. Plus, they’re recruiting the next year-class of students to take their place after they graduate.”
Hill points to Michaela Flora and her collegiate-club schoolmates as essential recruitment bridges.
“We talk in R3 about where people tend to fall out of hunting,” says Hill. “It’s when they don’t have continual support. They might go to an event, but if they don’t have access to resources afterward, they might not continue their involvement. That’s especially true in college. So we encourage events to be fun and relatable, but not necessarily comprehensive. We do a lot of on-campus socials, and if someone wants to take the next step, we’re ready to take them hunting or to have a deeper talk about conservation.”
Flora says that social networking is even more important than field outings.
“When the chapter gets together, we have a heck of a time,” she says of the SDSU chapter. “We’re all laughing and coming up with super ideas. I think that’s the value of these college chapters. They’re places to just have fun with people who like similar things but who aren’t the same.”
On SDSU’s campus, the Jackrabbits’ chapter has had social mixers hosted by PF Farm Bill biologists, who talked about their jobs and the importance of habitat work. The club has discussed the idea of sponsoring a pollinator plot along a trail in a campus nature park. And they’ve hosted sporting clays shoots with help from the Brookings PF chapter.
“It’s hard with COVID, but we’ve learned that we always need to have a fun project on campus in order to attract new people and to keep existing members involved,” says Flora. “That’s hard to do, but it really helps with visibility. This year, we’re planning events to raise enough money to send student leaders to Pheasant Fest. We want to be involved, even if it’s at a level that’s sometimes hard to see.”
As for Hill, she’s already recruiting the next generation of leaders to take over once Flora and her classmates graduate and begin careers in conservation in the wider world.
In college, people begin becoming what they are going to be. Outstanding young adults like Guthrie, Fenske and Flora are making sure that upland conservation, hunting heritage and PF values become part of future lives beyond their own.
Andrew McKean has a couple college kids of his own, with one fast approaching … outdoor lovers all.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021 Issue of
Pheasants Forever Journal.