MITCHELL, S.D.-Standing at the front of a Sioux Falls hotel conference room at a nationwide gathering, Pheasants Forever's top official told a collection of hunters to look around the room.
"If those people look like you, you're not doing your job," said Howard Vincent, Pheasants Forever's president and CEO, during February's National Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic.
Vincent then passionately described the need and importance to diversify the collection of people who go hunting.
Women. A variety of ethnicities. Millennials, who haven't picked up hunting as much as past generations. Those are all examples of populations Vincent believes can help.
"The 60-year-old white males who were sitting in that room, 12 years from now are not going to be the people out pulling the trigger," Vincent said. "They're not the ones who will be funding conservation. That room will need to look different."
This year, South Dakota is celebrating its 100th pheasant hunting season, which opens statewide at noon Saturday, Oct. 20, and runs through Jan. 6. What has become tradition each fall, people from all over the nation will trek to our state to enjoy what Vincent calls "the pheasant capital of the universe."
And while wearing blaze orange while chasing pheasants has grown to become a part of the state's culture, there's a noticeable emphasis on recruiting a wider variety of people to hunting, now more than ever.
That's because data shows hunter numbers are declining both nationally and in South Dakota. As the baby boomers age, they're slowly leaving hunting behind, and younger generations are not joining in at the same rate. Knowing that, groups on the local, state and national level have made it their mission to get new people involved to save the hunting heritage as they know it.
"I'm very concerned," said John E. Frampton, president and CEO of the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports.
His organization, based in Washington, D.C., has a mission to promote the growth of hunting and shooting sports and to educate the public on the wildlife conservation contributions made by hunters and shooters.
"There is a lot of activity going on right now by state fish and wildlife agencies and non-governmental organizations like Pheasants Forever, and I think we have an opportunity to make a difference," he said. "But I don't think we have 10 or 15 years. I think we have to do it and do it pretty soon."
Youth hunters can't solve decline alone
Vincent laughed when asked his age.
"Sixty-one," he said. "So I'm one of those guys, too."
In Pheasants Forever's most recent magazine, Vincent outlines the issue in a column titled "Habitat Mission, Hunter Mission," in which he shows that U.S. hunter numbers peaked at 17 million in 1982. He shows the decline to 14.1 million in 1991 and 11.5 million in 2016.
Small-game licenses have also dropped, going from 7.6 million sold nationally in 1991 to 3.5 million in 2016. Those trends ring true in South Dakota, with resident pheasant hunters - who buy small-game licenses - peaking at about 135,000 annually in the early 1960s and decreasing to an average of approximately 60,000 annually each of the past five years.
The worry with fewer hunters is there will be less money to go toward conservation of wildlife. License fees and excise taxes on hunting goods are the main drivers to fund conservation and aid state agencies like South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks in creating outdoor recreation opportunities.
Vincent explained that many agencies such as GF&P and Pheasants Forever have, for a long time, focused their hunting recruitment on youth. But those efforts haven't solved the problem. Some state regulations have "put barriers up," Vincent said, by dictating that children cannot hunt until the age of 12 or older.
"We're in a society that we want our kids involved, but it's orchestrated control," Vincent said. "Whether that's football, baseball, dance, soccer, band, all those clubs you want your kids involved with, by the time they're 12, just shy of being a teenager, they kind of have their participation controlled and in place. Then, when it's time to go hunting with your family, they're busy."
In South Dakota, for instance, a child needs to be 12 years old by the end of the calendar year to enroll in the HuntSafe course, which allows them to purchase a hunting license. But earlier this year, the state updated laws to permit "mentored hunting."
That allows a mentor to oversee a child of any age during open hunting seasons. The key difference is the mentor cannot carry a gun until the child has obtained HuntSafe certification.
"It's human nature to say, 'Let's get more kids into the outdoors,' and that's all we've done for the past 30 years, and we've done it very well," Vincent said. " ... But there is an entire community out there that, if asked, if given the opportunity, would come, and you would have an opportunity to share your passion and your understandings of the benefits of being a part of the outdoors."
That's why Pheasants Forever, GF&P and several other agencies are dedicated to the "R3," a priority initiative of the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports.
R3 stands for "recruitment," "retention" and "reactivation" and is aimed at recruiting new participants or increasing participation rates of current or lapsed outdoor recreationists, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Building a bigger audience
South Dakota is fortunate to have a large population of pheasants, Frampton said Tuesday by telephone. He explained the bird is a great recruitment tool to get hunters in the field. And this year, a preseason report says there is a 47 percent increase in bird numbers compared to 2017.
"You've got a species out there that's actively hunted," Frampton said. "It's a lot easier to go pheasant hunting than white-tailed deer hunting or elk hunting or moose hunting. It still requires skill. But you have a very visible species there that engagement is quite high."
He also acknowledged the work of GF&P Secretary Kelly Hepler and the department's staff in staying committed to R3.
At least some of those compliments are due to a functionary change in how the state is working to introduce a wider variety of people to the outdoors. In the past year, GF&P conducted a self-evaluation in how it is educating the public in all aspects of outdoor recreation, according to Taniya Bethke, GF&P's division staff specialist of education.
What officials learned sounds familiar: There was a lot of emphasis on youth education and not enough work teaching everyone else. The question became, "How can we target populations who aren't involved in outdoor recreation?"
That's when GF&P started developing programs to reach out to those people while also meeting the needs of educating youth outdoor enthusiasts.
"We also started reaching out to whole families, having parents attend programming with their youth to make sure that the family is also engaging outdoor recreation as a whole unit," Bethke said.
Now, GF&P has an array of hands-on courses to recruit adults, including "Harvest SD," "Hunting 101" and "Hunting with Derek," a Sioux Falls-based course that teaches turkey and deer hunting from start to finish.
The first-year course introduces adults and youth to the outdoors with Derek Klawitter, group program coordinator with GF&P. Just last week, he brought three kids out, and all three harvested their first deer. They then went through the skinning, de-boning and packaging processes. He's mentored 8-year-old kids all the way up to a 53-year-old man.
"I would do it for nothing," he said, somewhat jokingly. "I love to see kids and adults get their first deer."
Other recruitment initiatives include "Becoming an Outdoor Woman," "Adult Date Night - Catch It, Clean It, Cook It," and an adult mentorship program that pairs adults in the community with other adults to go hunting or fishing. An unofficial count shows the wildlife education staff has reached more than 16,000 people (25 percent of whom are adults) on the topics of hunting- and fishing-related skills so far in 2018.
"Now, when you start looking, 'How can we make these programs bigger? How can we expand the impact that we're having?' That's the questions we're asking ourselves right now," Bethke said, "because you can teach the classes and have an impact on a small scale. But how do you change a statewide trend?"
Bethke said GF&P has not set a goal for its total reach, but said ultimately the department hopes to maintain a statewide figure that shows 20 percent of its eligible residents are involved in hunting through the crash of the baby boomer generation.