Matt Dunfee recognized that the young woman he was mentoring in a learn-to-hunt program wasn’t a typical recruit.
She didn’t believe in posing for pictures with slain animals. Pink camouflage clothing was sexist to her. She didn’t care if she shot a buck, and she deplored trophy hunting. But she shared the desire to harvest a wild deer for the wholesome goodness of its hide and lean, high-protein venison.
“At one point I said to her, ‘It’s kind of a bummer you don’t have a mentor who is not a middle-aged white guy,’ ” Dunfee recalled saying to his student.
Her reply? “That’s OK. Just don’t act like one!’ ”
It was an experience Dunfee has shared over and over as he preaches the importance of recruiting hunters and anglers from diverse, nontraditional groups. He was a featured speaker Saturday in Minneapolis at a statewide summit on the three “Rs,” recruitment, retention and reactivation of outdoors men and women.
“There’s a bunch of different groups that don’t look like you, but they’d love to stand shoulder to shoulder with you to learn to hunt,” Dunfee said in an interview before his address. “But they just want to hunt with you, they don’t want to be you.”
With so much at stake for natural conservation reasons, Dunfee said, wildlife agencies, nongovernment groups, the outdoors industry and hunters themselves must change the heavily white/male dominance of hunting and fishing. That’s the only way to come back from a relentless decline in outdoor activities that fund protection of habitat and wildlife conservation.
For starters, Dunfee said, 30 years of declining participation in hunting and fishing on a per-capita basis has left the country with about 13.7 million people who hunt. That’s less than 6 percent of all people over age 15. And for hunting, 89 percent of participants are male and 94 percent are white, Dunfee said.
“That’s a heck of a minority,’’ he said.
What’s worse, Minnesota and other states are watching the biggest cohort of hunters in their 50s and 60s drift off into the sunset for health and mobility reasons with starkly fewer young people in the pipeline to replace them.
Dunfee works for Wildlife Management Institute, a century-old nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. He has studied the so-called “R3” movement — which includes numerous recruitment projects by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources — for nearly a decade, initially with an emphasis on hunting.
Hunters and shooting sports enthusiasts provide 70 to 80 percent of funding for all wildlife species, not just big game, according to the institute. Hunters and target shooters have been a primary source of government funding for wildlife conservation through license fees and an excise tax on arms and related sporting goods. Even small declines in participation can drain hundreds of thousands of dollars from the budgets of some state agencies, Dunfee said.
Based on trends, it’s not enough anymore to simply recruit the sons and daughters of current hunters and anglers, he said. And one of the biggest hurdles to reaching new audiences is overcoming the cultural discord that exists between traditional hunters and potential newcomers.
“People sense that the hunting population doesn’t represent their values,” Dunfee said.
The trick is to get new audiences to stand in the same box as existing hunters without trying to meld politics, religion and societal mores.
“Hunting is a poor ground for personal evangelism,” Dunfee said.
Not ‘one and done’
His other central message to groups battling to rebuild hunting and fishing ranks is to treat each individual recruitment effort as a process.
“It’s not easy and can’t be done without partners and long-term dedication,’’ he said. “It’s not a one and done.”
Dunfee said the shortage of new recruits in hunting and fishing is not for lack of trying by wildlife agencies, conservation groups and industry. He’s observed no fewer than 500 recruiting, retention and reactivation programs with tens of millions of dollars at work per year. But a lot of them have missed the mark in terms of results.
Too many programs are subscribed by young people who already are on track to become active in the outdoors via tutelage from family members, Dunfee said. Another fault is that too few program leaders follow through to measure their effectiveness. How many potential hunters who participated in a mentored field day actually go on to purchase a license?
“I could find almost no program that tracked success,” he said. “What programs are working?”
Minnesota and other states that have committed themselves to R3 success should know that they need to stretch out interactions with recruits with an eye toward fitting them into a social group that reinforces what they are doing.
Women, for example, make up the fastest-growing hunting subgroup. But data shows they are the least avid about hunting because they start and stop. Minnesota’s “Becoming an Outdoors Woman” program is one that recognizes the importance in building in social support for women to keep them interested. Women who try the Minnesota program “turn that group into their social family,” Dunfee said.
“We all need a place to go tell our story,” he said.
Dunfee said there’s data that says other groups also want to get into hunting and fishing, including members of certain ethnic groups, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community and locavores who value natural and local foods.
“It’s not about passing it on to your kids anymore,” Dunfee said.