Hunting & Heritage  |  03/24/2021

Starting Them Out


Helping new hunters find their path

By Alex Baer, Director - International Hunter Education Association, USA

Hunting. Education. Conservation.

Every day I have the opportunity to use these words dozens of times in conversations either over the phone, in email, or through the increased frequency of video dialogue this last year. I’m a fortunate man. I am also the newest Executive Director of a 50-year old, non-profit organization called the International Hunter Education Association - USA (IHEA-USA). We are dedicated to the education of hunting and the shooting sports, and we get paid to help others find their way to safe hunting and shooting. Unreal...and amazing. Most people who know me in this role presume I picked up hunting in my youth as have many professionals in the hunting industry. The truth is far different, and the reality of my situation has suited me well to inspire others to appreciate and join the incredible world of hunting and gun ownership. Sometimes I think of how I got to this point, but most often I think of bringing others to a similar destination.

It took an advanced degree in archaeology, a move across the country, rugby, a pretty lady, and a lesson-filled, mostly self-developed business acumen for me to discover hunting. For many of my colleagues, hunting was a part of family life in their youth. For me...not so much. My mother was against the idea of gun ownership, and the closest I ever got to hunting was being jealous of my cousin for his school closure on the deer season opener in Jim Thorpe, PA.

Looking back I realize that even if I were interested in learning how to hunt, I wouldn’t have known where to begin. Without a mentor, without easily accessible digital tools, and with a youth spent in an area with more asphalt than grass, it seems unlikely that I would develop a passion and a deep appreciation for the world of hunting.  Many years later, hunting may as well be required as continued education for my profession and days in the field are expected. I couldn’t have scripted it, and I certainly don’t expect others to walk the winding road that led me to my current position, so now I spend much of my time helping others create a more direct route to the same conclusion. Many people think hunting begins with a hunter education course. That may be true for some, but for many, something happens before they register for that class to set them on that path. It could be a casual conversation, something seen in a movie, or simply an interest in learning more about conservation’s link to hunting and firearm ownership.

Finding Your Motivation

I love to eat good food. I love to be outside. I love a good business plan. I enjoy time with my family. Those are some of my reasons for being a hunter. When I learned how healthy and interesting the flavors are from wild game, I wanted more. It’s not easy to buy what I developed a taste for in the market, but my friends had harvested their own and were willing to share the stash from their freezers. It didn’t take long to realize I needed to repay some food-favors and the thought of having my own supply of healthy protein had me quickly accompanying the hunt - initially as a photographer and pack mule, but eventually as an eager participant.

While early days in scouting helped feed my passion for the outdoors, nothing compares to being on a hunt. It’s peacefully quiet and there is always the possibility of a hair-raising experience. Hunting also affords me the chance to witness things that I otherwise only get to see on wildlife calendars. I’ve seen animals and their behaviors alarmingly close while on a hunt that I would have been lucky to see from a distance while traveling in a troop of noisy scouts.

Perhaps you’re like me and can appreciate a great business plan. Have you ever heard of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation? Like many government programs, reading it isn’t going to energize you after a long day. But the outline itself deserves recognition. It links dollars spent on firearms, ammunition, bows, and arrows directly to funding wildlife conservation efforts focused on habitat and species survival. Those items are often purchased for hunting, but not always, and a mandatory tax on those items along with revenue from hunting licenses pays the biologists and researchers who help all wild animals in your state exist for everyone to enjoy - hunters and otherwise. This is a big deal, and it’s not widely appreciated since it’s usually explained with legal words and many pages. Instead, here are some examples to help bring it to focus. Imagine if taxes from all desk and book sales were set aside and only used to improve public schools and pay teachers. Or, imagine if taxes from gasoline sales were specifically used to create and maintain all the roads that cars used. Sadly, those are not real programs, but fortunately, wildlife conservation benefits from consumer purchases thanks to the very real North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

For me, nothing surpasses the chance to share something I enjoy with friends and family. Last year I had committed to joining my friend and his daughter on a hunt. The result provided the opportunity to witness my best friend’s 13-year old daughter harvest her first grouse. What made the moment even more special was that my oldest son of 8 was with us at the time. Their combined excitement was so infectious that even when the story was told days later, my younger son of only 4 vowed to come along the following year. And just like that, three new participants are put on the path. There is much more to this hunting story such as a wild snow storm, how we found ourselves stuck a total of three embarrassing times in banks of drifted powder higher than the hood of the truck, and the overwhelming generosity of a private landowner to share their Montana farm with us for an extended weekend. Those pieces will become fuzzy details for the adults while the young girl and boy will likely be driven by this memory for many years. This year, join me in taking the mentor pledge from Pheasants Forever and commit yourself this season to creating memories like these for others. In doing so, you can help someone find their passion and possibly usher in a lifetime of appreciation for conservation efforts. Bringing someone back to the hunt also counts toward honoring this R3 promise.

Discovering your own motivation to learn about hunting, support hunting, or maybe even join the global community of hunters is something to consider. Do you know someone who thinks about healthy eating, outdoor travel, or wildlife viewing? Have you ever talked to them about your own passion for hunting? There may be more of a conversation just waiting to happen than you originally thought.

Taking Steps

2020 was a year of “firsts” for many people. Over 8 million Americans purchased their first firearm, and hundreds of thousands of people either returned to hunting or found their way into the hunt for the first time. Perhaps you were one of these individuals or maybe you’re wondering if you should give it a try. At the IHEA-USA, we help link interest to passion through education. It doesn’t matter where you live or what your schedule looks like - you can take a hunter education course at your own pace at your home or at the public library online. More opportunities are continuing to open every day for in-person education as well if you have the time and ability to travel to an event hosted by your state’s wildlife agency or associated party. Check out this page to find an opportunity in your state.
If you aren’t ready to commit to a full blown education on hunting and firearm safety in the field, we have you covered there too. IHEA-USA has been creating a medley of instructional videos and interesting content about learning to hunt on our YouTube channel called Hunters Connect. With over 100 published videos, it’s easy to find something to peak your interest. This year I’ll be taking my oldest son turkey hunting for the first time, but I’m prescribing forty-five minutes of YouTube turkey hunting videos first. That is where his path to turkey hunting will begin since he isn’t old enough yet for hunters education certification.

For the previously initiated, maybe this is the year you take someone else into the hunt. Volunteer educators and mentors are always welcome. If you’re feeling especially motivated, join the educational elite and become a volunteer instructor in your area. This will open up many industry discounts on gear to you and training is available from your state’s agency educational team. For more information, click here and you can find the connection in your state to apply.

Alex Baer is Executive Director of the International Hunter Education Association - USA