This past Saturday, at noon in the Minneapolis Convention Center, a room overflowed with approximately 160 women, some clad in camouflage, others in the blaze orange long familiar to upland bird hunters.
The vibe was upbeat, even excited, as the women gathered to celebrate their common passion for dogs, birds and wild places.
Among those in attendance was Aurelia Skipwith, the recently appointed U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director. Also present was Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Sarah Strommen and Assistant DNR Commissioner Shannon Lotthammer.
The women had gathered to share stories of transformation. Where once they had been onlookers to the predominantly male-oriented pastime of upland bird hunting, they now are full-fledged participants.
As such, they often hunt with husbands, fathers, boyfriends and brothers. But just as likely, they go afield alone or with other women, celebrating in the latter instance the rich camaraderie known to those who share common experiences beneath autumn skies amid open spaces.
“Hunting is great,” said Tina Dokken, 54, of Northfield, one of the women who addressed the group. “Because every time I go out, it’s a new situation. For that reason and many others, more women are hunting. Women see other women hunting, and they say, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’ ”
The women’s luncheon that unfolded as part of Pheasants Forever’s (PF) National Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic would have been unlikely even a few years ago. Barriers to hunting — ranging from tradition to a lack of role models to misfitting clothing — seemed insurmountable to all but a relative handful of women.
But changes have come.
Some have been organic, as more women seek physically invigorating outdoor-recreation opportunities that traditionally have been off-limits to them. Also, state and national programs such as Becoming an Outdoors Woman have helped spread the word by graduating evangelists of the outdoors lifestyle, who in turn have recruited other women.
Businesses ranging from shotshell manufacturers to retailers such as Cabela’s have also awakened to the reality that women represent an ever-larger share of their customers.
Cultivating women is also critical, conservationists say, because of the vast amounts of farmland they own. About 46 percent of the nation’s total rented farm acres are owned by women, according to a recent survey.
PF and other conservation groups are gaining woman converts, though not as quickly as they might like.
From 2015 to 2019, PF’s female membership under age 45 rose from 5 % to 11 % — an encouraging benchmark. But the same survey of the group’s social media channels showed that among its approximately 600,000 followers, 12% are women who have never joined the organization.
“That shows us that a growing number of women are interested in our organization and its habitat mission,” said PF vice president of marketing and communications Bob St. Pierre. “We just need to do a better job of convincing them they are welcomed and needed members of our conservation community, not just as social media followers.”
Marissa Jensen, 34, of Omaha, was a veterinary technician who returned to college at age 26 and graduated in 2016 with a degree in biology. Now she is Pheasants Forever’s national education and outreach program manager.
“I had always wanted to be involved in conservation,” she said. “I wasn’t sure how that was going to happen when I went back to school. But I was passionate about conservation and wanted to see where it would lead.”
Jensen worked for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission for a couple of years after graduation. At the time, she was aware of hunting, she said, but had never hunted herself.
Then, at age 30, at the invitation of her cousin, she went turkey hunting. She had an aha moment and decided she could enjoy everything she loved about the outdoors, including being with her two German shorthaired pointers and her friends and family, by hunting.
“I also liked the idea of eating meat I had shot myself,” she said.
In addition to spearheading PF’s National Youth Leadership Council, made up of high school students, Jensen leads the group’s Women on the Wing initiative, which includes Women, Wine and Wild Game socials and other hunting recognition and recruitment events.
“The future of hunting is dependent on a diverse audience, and we need women to be part of that audience,” she said.
The DNR’s Lotthammer, 50, agreed. After she and her husband married, they bought a dog. “I didn’t grow up hunting, but my husband did,” Lotthammer said. “On the other hand, I had grown up with dogs and my husband hadn’t. We settled on a German shorthaired pointer.”
They trained the dog together, and when hunting season rolled around, Shannon wanted to see the dog work in the field. Intrigued by the experience, she asked for and received a shotgun for her birthday the following summer, and a hunter was born.
“I also attended a couple of Becoming an Outdoors Woman events, which were really fun,” she said.
Now, some 25 years later, she and her husband regularly travel each fall to camp and hunt birds in Nebraska, North Dakota and Montana, in addition to Minnesota. Tagging along and finding the winged quarry are their two German shorthairs, Annie and Gus.
“As an adult, you can come to hunting from multiple directions,” Lotthammer said. “For me it was the dog. For others it’s the natural food movement.
“It was just so great last weekend to see so many women hunters being celebrated. We needed a bigger room. I hope it’s a harbinger of things to come.”