After years of declines, the number of hunters in the United States is once again increasing.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, the number of hunters nationwide increased by 9 percent—from 12.5 million to 13.7 million—between 2006 and 2011. During that same time period, the number of youth hunters also increased from 1.6 million to 1.8 million participants—a 13 percent jump.
Similarly, between 2008 and 2009, the USFWS reported a 3.6 percent increase in hunting license sales nationally—the largest year-over-year increase since 1974.
Hunting participation is once again trending upward in large part due to programs aimed at introducing kids to hunting, shooting and the outdoors. The largest and most comprehensive of these programs is NRA’s Youth Hunter Education Challenge (YHEC), which is run by the NRA Hunter Services Department. Since its inception in 1985, more than a million youngsters have learned how to hunt safely, responsibly and ethically by participating in the YHEC program.
The success of the YHEC program and the role it has played in recruiting and retaining new hunters has not gone unnoticed. In 2010, Larry and Brenda Potterfield of MidwayUSA made a significant personal contribution to help the NRA expand YHEC in their home state of Missouri and the eight states that surround it: Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
“For years, Larry and Brenda Potterfield have provided visionary support for youth shooting programs through the Potterfield Family Foundation,” said Bill Poole, Director of NRA’s Education and Training Division. “The Potterfields’ personal donation to the Youth Hunter Education Challenge program represents a significant investment towards preserving the future of the shooting sports.”
That donation, the single largest in the history of the YHEC program, has led to the creation of the YHEC Mid-America Expansion Project.
“Our goal through this initiative is to bring new hunters and shooters into the outdoors,” said Susan Hill, field coordinator for the NRA YHEC Mid-America Expansion Project. “Thanks to the generosity of Larry and Brenda Potterfield, we are reaching kids who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to learn how to hunt and shoot.”
Over the past two years, Hill and the entire Hunter Services staff have logged countless hours on the phone and on the road reaching out to youth groups and helping them to run YHEC events of their own.
“We work with any youth group with kids age 18 and under—it might be a church group, a Boy Scout group, a 4-H group, or a home-school group,” Hill said.
“Most of the kids we’re reaching are new shooters.”
Home-school groups have been especially receptive to the YHEC program, Hill said.
“When I explain to them that they don’t have to approach it as a competition but as an educational experience, they are very interested and excited about the opportunity,” she said. “Most of the time they want to pass this part of their heritage on to their kids, but they don’t know how. So we come in and we provide this opportunity for them to come together as families and shoot, and to learn about wildlife and hunting.
“They are so excited about what the NRA is doing for them and how we are reaching out to them. It’s a perfect fit because their top priority is training their children.”
Through the YHEC program, kids are taught how to safely handle and shoot hunting-type rifles, shotguns and muzzleloaders, as well as archery equipment. They also learn about wildlife identification, map and compass reading, and principles of wildlife conservation and hunter safety and ethics.
When a new group holds an event they are guided step-by-step through the process of planning and executing a YHEC—everything from selecting a date and location for the event, to securing volunteers, to on-site set up. The NRA also provides basic supplies like ammunition, targets and archery equipment, and every participant receives a copy of NRA’s hunting reference text called The Hunters’ Guide, a T-shirt, and a certificate of participation.
Hill expects to complete upwards of 75 YHEC events—reaching more than 3,000 youngsters—in her target states by the end of the year. One event in St. Louis drew 83 kids and was supported by 45 adult volunteers, plus 15 staff members from the Missouri Department of Conservation. Another event in Richmond, Ill., drew 109 kids and 62 volunteers, and an event in Buckner, Mo., was attended by 84 kids and 67 volunteers.
“They are coming out,” she said. “I’ve seen time and time again the kids asking, ‘When do we get to do this again?’ They love it. A lot of times they’re talking about the next year’s program before the current one is even finished. Almost all of the groups I’ve worked with have said they want to do more YHEC events in the future, and several group leaders have already asked about scheduling spring events.”
Most importantly, the Mid-America Project is getting kids excited about hunting and shooting—and they’re continuing to hunt and shoot after the event is over.
“The NRA, through this project, is introducing the outdoors, hunting and shooting to these kids, and they are loving it,” Hill said. “I had a woman last year come up to me with tears in her eyes —her son has cerebral palsy—and she thanked me over and over for bringing this program to their area because it meant so much to her son to learn to shoot. It gave him so much confidence.
“I have lots of kids attending these events that want to hunt. Moms have told me, ‘I just don’t know how to start.’ Then they come and realize it’s something they can do. They can shoot. They can get a hunting license. They can provide for and protect their families. It’s such an awakening.
“In March I had an event in Junction City, Kan., and a few weeks afterward I received an e-mail from a woman whose 13-year-old son was given the opportunity to shoot there, and he and his family had never handled firearms before. They weren’t anti-gun, but they were fearful. Afterwards, they went to a family gathering for Easter, and he was out shooting with some experienced shooters, and they were surprised by how good he was and asked him where he learned to shoot. He told them he learned to shoot at the NRA Youth Hunter Education Challenge. His mom said they fully intend to purchase firearms and begin shooting as a family. They were so excited that they were given the opportunity to be introduced to firearms, hunting and shooting in such a non-threatening, non-intimidating environment.”
In mid-September, Hill and her daughter, Tabitha, held a first-of-its kind YHEC event for youth who are dealing with special needs or disabilities, a program she hopes to replicate in the future.
For the remainder of the fall, Hill will be on the road somewhere in the Midwest, helping a new group of youngsters learn the joys of hunting and shooting—a truly grassroots, on-the-ground effort to preserve our hunting heritage and pass it on to a new generation.
“It all comes back to the generosity of the Potterfield family and their commitment to the growth of the YHEC program,” Hill said. “If we did not have their support, we would not be able to reach out to all of these people.”
For more information about the YHEC program, please visit www.nrayhec.org or call the NRA Hunter Services Department at (703) 267-1524. To learn more about the Mid-America Project or to schedule an event, please contact Hill at (816) 604-0616 (cell) or (816) 597-3930 (office), or send an e-mail to email@example.com.