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Shooters from Mandan High School take to the traphouses at Capital City Gun Club in Bismarck on Sep. 15, 2019, as part of the North Dakota State High School Clay Target League’s fall season.

Unless you’re hunting solo, rare is the pheasant hunt where it isn’t a rush to mount the gun, size up the shot and send some lead after a fleeing rooster. For even experienced hunters and especially those in the midst of competitive and fast-shooting friends, it can be a race to see who is the quickest on the draw when a surprising flush occurs.

Intimidating to even veterans, these situations can overwhelm young hunters, particularly first timers; but with the continuation of North Dakota’s youth pheasant hunting weekend this Saturday and Sunday, the state is providing young people with moments in the field that are all their own. These two days come without the worry and pressure to shoot, which aims to provide a more enjoyable hunt, recruit new sportsmen into the fold, and ultimately secure the future of hunting.

Youth Focused

Implemented in the mid-2000s, the state’s youth pheasant weekend was designed to help curb the nationwide trend of declining hunters. Though the impact has not been felt as strongly in North Dakota, as it is one of only four states that has added to its hunting population as a function of license holders per capita according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

As an aging generation of hunters hangs up their boots, the state’s Game and Fish Department has taken measured strides to preemptively turn the tide and continue the unique trend in the Peace Garden state. As part of its R3 program — which stands for Recruit, Retain and Reactivation of hunters and anglers — the youth pheasant weekend, along with the youth waterfowl weekend and a youth-only deer season in September, serves as a major pathway into the outdoors for new hunters and as a method for older hunters to help them navigate the learning curve, in light of a changing rural-to-urban demographic shift in the state.

“It’s just a great opportunity, we saw it here when we introduced this youth season for not only pheasants but for waterfowl, it was an opportunity to get some of our kids out there and young hunters, where the focus is primarily on them,” said Brian Schaffer, NDGF Outdoor Education Project Administrator, “with less and less kids growing up in rural areas in North Dakota, it’s important to get kids out shooting and doing more of those things in a controlled environment,” he continued, adding that mentors help keep that focus on the young hunters, their safety and enjoyment of the experience.

Matters of Money and Memories

The national shift away from hunting poses a concern for many state management agencies, which makes the NDGF’s focus on these likely populations of new hunters all the more important, while it looks to sustain its ability to buck the national trend. As wildlife management programs are funded by moneys raised through Pittman-Robertson taxes on hunting-related items such as guns and ammunition, loss of that revenue through declines in hunter participation and their spending could have a devastating impact on state agencies throughout the country — many of which rely on those funds as a major income source for their budgets each year from law enforcement to fisheries management to wildlife management, according to Schaffer.

“We’re not nearly as concerned as some of the states, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying to be proactive about this situation, because it is coming, and a large portion of our user base here in North Dakota are of that Baby Boomer generation, so it’s definitely on our radar and we’re looking at trying to get ahead of this,” Schaffer explained, stressing there are a number of states struggling to make ends meet on the fisheries and wildlife management fronts as a result of their declining hunting populations.

For now, the combination of the NDGF ‘s youth outdoors programs and the efforts by non-government organizations such as Pheasants Forever, Delta Waterfowl and local wildlife clubs are helping to keep North Dakota on top of the issue and leading the nation the category of added hunters and anglers each year. More important though is the world of possibilities and enjoyment opened through the efforts of these groups and individuals.

“They’re all additive to the bucket of trying to recruit, retain and reactivate new users, but the most powerful one out there is that relationship you have with someone else and sharing your knowledge as a hunter,” Schaffer stressed, “whether that’s a co-worker, cousin, a neighbor kid, or whomever it may be, passing that knowledge on and having that social support is critical when trying to create a new hunter, and if you look back…there were several significant people in your lifetime that helped you along the way, so as an agency, we’re really trying to rally our constituents to introduce someone new to the outdoors,” he concluded.

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