Mentored hunts work to increase hunters, solve Fish and Wildlife funding problems
For more than an hour, Keely Hopkins barely moved an inch. Clad in camouflage from head to toe, a small oval cutout for her eyes showed the only bit of skin.
She scanned the horizon of rolling hills, searching for a wild turkey to come home to roost for the evening.
Before this hunt, Hopkins confessed her nerves. Would she remember what to do? Would her aim be true?
“I have never been around turkey hunting before,” Hopkins said. “I came in not knowing a whole lot about what to expect from the hunt: the different ways to call them in, how you go about hunting and staying hidden.”
However, Hopkins wasn’t on her own as she sat in the field near the unincorporated community of Rice in northeastern Washington.
In this Mentored Spring Turkey Camp, experienced hunters mentor newbies who want to safely learn how to take home meat for their families. It’s a boon for hunters, and, the state hopes, an investment for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said David Whipple, hunter education manager for the department.
“We are losing hunters,” Whipple said. “Right now, the department is developing a hunter and angler recruitment, retention and reactivation plan to address this decline in participation.”
To help with recruitment, Whipple said turkey hunting is a good first-step into the sport of hunting. For one, it’s not a huge investment, he said.
In the field near Rice, Washington, mentor Aaron Garcia, a hunter education and volunteer coordinator for the department, led Hopkins through a private property, where they’d obtained written permission to hunt from the landowners, who said their family has allowed hunters on their land for more than 100 years.
As he quietly picked his way through the field, careful not to snap a twig, Garcia spotted large amounts of turkey scat and feathers.
That, he thought, could be a fairly good sign a rafter of turkeys might roost above this field for the night.
“This is your roost tree right here,” Garcia whispered, after he noticed turkey scat on the ground and feathers in the branches. “They’ll sit up in those high, open branches.”
Garcia said he hoped Hopkins’ first turkey hunt would be markedly different from his own – he would guide her the entire time, unlike his first turkey hunts around 12 years ago, where he got no help from hunters he came upon.
Once Garcia and Hopkins settled in near a clump of trees, Garcia pulled out a turkey caller. He ran a wooden peg across the top of the call, imitating a soft turkey call, which he dubbed the “here I am” call.
However, as the sun began to set, no turkeys returned to the roost. Garcia and Hopkins decided to return the next morning. They would have to be in place by 4 a.m.
“There’s birds moving through here every day. There’s too much sign here,” Garcia said of the turkey scat and feathers they’d spotted. “With the rain we’ve had, that would all be gone. It’s way too fresh.”
These mentored hunts were the cap of a workshop that taught 34 people from all over the state about conservation and hunting. Mentors hoped to initiate people who’ve had less access to hunting into the sport that’s rapidly losing hunters, especially young ones. Another four-day workshop last August focused solely on peaking teenagers’ interest in deer hunting.
At that workshop, 68-year-old Rick Brazell, president of First Hunt Foundation, said he’s working to recruit and retrain young hunters, before his generation ages out.
Last August, young hunter Julianne Hinkle patiently waited to shoot a deer on a patch of private property, roughly 10 miles outside Kettle Falls, Washington.
Her mentor, Ryan Janke, crouched right next to her, guiding her every move.
Too many deer on the landscape caused damage to this agricultural field. The hunters received damage tags to help reduce the population. As they sat patiently, the group guessed the deer likely had bedded down for the afternoon.
“That’s why we call it hunting not killing,” said Julianne’s grandfather, Bill Hinkle.
They quietly discussed plans to come back in the evening when a flash of movement caught the experienced hunters’ eyes. Two deer, a doe and a fawn.
“See that deer out there? I want you to put the crosshairs on her, like you’re going to shoot her,” Bill Hinkle instructed his granddaughter.
The mentors silently set up a tripod for Julianne to slot her rifle into.
“Get your gun, right up here in the saddle,” Bill Hinkle whispered.
“Where’d she go?” Julianne asked.
Bill Hinkle pointed to a small pine tree, maybe 100 yards away. He instructed his granddaughter to set up the rifle, as if she was going to shoot the deer.
“Do you feel comfortable with this setup?” he said.
“Yeah,” she said.
“You can’t shoot it now. That fawn is suckling. I just want you to be comfortable,” Bill Hinkle said. “If you’re not comfortable, you shouldn’t be taking the shot.”
The hunters weren’t allowed to shoot mothers with fawn so young.
“If you’re not going to be ethical, you shouldn’t be hunting,” Bill Hinkle said. “Everything I do is about ethics. Like, fair chase. If you shoot at an animal, whether you think you hit it or not, you’re going to spend some time in the woods looking.”
That way, he said, hunters don’t leave a wounded animal behind.
Mentors also imparted lessons in patience and discipline to the young would-be hunters.
Ethan Duong, 16 of Airway Heights, Washington, said those lessons would stay with him long after he headed home to Airway Heights. He said the deer hunting workshop gave him the opportunity to spend more time outdoors. In the future, Duong said he hoped to continue hunting for food.
“Knowing that I can catch my own food and I can cook it by myself is something that I enjoy,” Duong said.
However, fewer young people like Ethan are spending time outdoors hunting. The drop in the number of hunters also is taking its toll on state agencies nationwide that depend on funds from hunting licenses and tags.
“There’s a concern, nationwide, within ten years in some states there won’t be enough license sales because the average age of the hunter is – such as myself – in their 60s. In ten years, they’ll be in their 70s or some in their 80s, and they won’t be buying licenses any more,” Brazell said.
Morgan Stinson, the chief financial officer for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said hunting and fishing license sales and a smaller portion from the Discover Pass recreational access fee make up about one-quarter of the department’s budget.
“Hunting licenses and angler licenses are a huge piece of our funding,” Stinson said. “We'd be a shell of an organization without that funding.”
In regards to hunting fees, Stinson said, the department also receives federal funding from the Pittman-Robertson Act. The federal act, which dates to 1937, divvies up taxes from ammunition and sporting arms sales to states, based on the state’s size and the number of hunting licenses sold in that particular state.
In effect, Stinson said, a drop in license sales hits doubly hard. When license sales fall short, so do those attached federal funds, which help support habitat improvement programs, wildlife research and surveys, and monitor hunting opportunities.
Moreover, Stinson said, Washington’s hunting license fees haven’t increased since 2011, although the department has requested fee increases. However, hunting groups pushed back against any increases, Stinson said.
Instead, the Washington Legislature filled in the department’s funding gap from the state’s general sales tax fund.
While those funds helped for the moment, Stinson said, the funding model is not sustainable.
“It just wasn't that much money in the grand scheme of things,” he said.
According to a long term funding plan, an independent assessment didn’t find any major cost-saving strategies in operations or management practices.
In addition, a 25-year strategic plan aims for a 25% increase in participation of diverse hunters, anglers, and what the plan calls nature appreciators.
In 2015, the Oregon Legislature approved its most recent license fee increase, which was implemented incrementally in 2016, 2018 and 2020. The department also faces a funding gap as license sales have declined, said Antonio Salgado, hunting recruitment, retention and reactivation coordinator with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Of hunting recruitment and retention, Salgado said, time is always the limiting factor. “Organized sports are a lot closer to home. It's a lot easier. Parents can drop off the kids and go off to do something else,” he said.
During the pandemic, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife surveyed hunters and found that many began hunting in childhood but didn’t have time to hunt until the pandemic shutdown many other activities.
“Early on, they're hunting with the family, but then they get busy with other priorities, and hunting sort of slumps through high school,” Salgado said.
Now, the Oregon department is trying to recruit more college-age hunters through hunting workshops. Those new hunters could help alleviate slumps in license sales, Salgado said.
However, advocacy groups such as Washington Wildlife First are pushing for fish and wildlife departments to restructure and reform funding plans, said Claire Loebs Davis, board president of Washington Wildlife First.
“The department is focused on how you kill animals, when you can kill animals, and how many you can kill using what means, far more than it’s focused on preserving animals for people who enjoy watching animals rather than killing them,” Loebs Davis said.
While Loebs Davis said Washington Wildlife First is not against hunting, it does want the department to consider that most people in the state use public lands in ways other than hunting.
However, she said, much of the department’s spending goes toward hunting and fishing opportunities.
“Dollars that they say are conservation dollars often end up being conservation for the purposes of hunting and fishing,” Loebs Davis said.
For the department’s part, Stinson said, nearly 80% of the department’s spending goes toward employee salaries.
Fish and wildlife officials said the departments are working on long-term funding plans that include other revenue sources.
For example in Oregon, the Legislature created in 2019 the Oregon Conservation and Recreation Fund, which allows residents to donate to programs, including wildlife watching, urban conservation, and other recreation involving wildlife. The state matches donations with public funds, which have not yet met the most recent $1 million goal.
In regard to wildlife conservation, hunters said they are a part of conservation strategies.
For example, hunters help control population numbers, such as with turkey in Northeastern Washington, where some private fields can see up to 300 turkeys in the winter, said Grant Samsill, a conflict specialist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Too many turkeys can damage crops, haystacks and gardens, especially in northeastern Washington, Samsill said. Along with other non-lethal management, Samsill said hunting helps reduce wildlife conflicts.
“The act of hunting is a deterrent, whether or not someone is successful,” Samsill said. “Moving the birds around and pursuing them tends to disperse the birds and get them off land where there’s damage.”
For Hopkins, that conservation role is one of the reasons she decided to learn to hunt in the first place.
“We’re outdoors and we're getting to be a part of conservation,” she said. “By purchasing hunting licenses and tags, we're playing an important role in caring for wildlife, which is very important to me.”
The weekend of the turkey hunt was a little less successful than organizers hoped with nine people out of 34 successfully killing turkeys.
However, Garcia said, it’s not all about killing a turkey.
“If turkeys were super predictable, it wouldn’t be as fun to hunt them,” Garcia said.
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