ESCANABA - How many of you have heard stories of hunters who shared their time in the woods with a young child and gave them the opportunity to experience the taking of game?
Perhaps it was a grandpa or grandma who made that special moment happen. Maybe it was mom or dad. Regardless of who it is, they always beam with details on how they had the little one with them, protected from the elements yet able to participate when the decision was made to lower the cross hairs on a buck or doe, and take it for table fare.
In some cases, they called the shot but it was the youngster who pulled the trigger. That split second made for a life time of memories but up until recently, it was illegal.
Eight years ago I joined a lot of other outdoors enthusiast in Michigan, working on hunter recruitment and retention. Our state ranked second to last of all 50 states in this category, which meant we were losing up to one percent of our hunters per year for over a decade.
Information we had back then indicated the ages set for youth to start hunting in Michigan were too high, missing the optimum period to gain the interest of the children over another activity. It took three years, but we were able to amend the law to change the starting age for kids to hunt from 12 for small game and 14 for big game, to 10 and 12 years old respectively.
In seeking to further resolve the issue, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources enrolled the services of Mark Damian Duda - Executive Director of a fact finding organization named Responsive Management.
Responsive Management and the National Shooting Sports Foundation had compiled a report, "The Future of Hunting and the Shooting Sports", that was funded by the Multi-State Conservation Program, a program supported with funds from the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program and jointly managed by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and the US Fish & Wildlife Service.
Responsive Management and the NSSF contacted thousands of active and inactive hunters, active and inactive shooters, to find out what got them into hunting and/or shooting, what caused them to leave and what it would take to get them back into participating.
The final product, a 260 page book, has every possible angle and detail from the perspective of the participants, and clearly illustrates problematic scenarios that not only make it clear where primary focus in restoration should occur, the information also helps prioritize how to do it.
Time and time again the report indicates the majority of those who quit hunting and shooting did so mostly because they no longer had other hunters or shooters to do it with, and/or they lost access to places to hunt and shoot. Following in line for reasons were situations such as work and family obligations.
Hunters still participating in the sport clearly indicated they were highly satisfied with the hunting experience as their focus of participation. One of the least mentioned priorities was hunting for the meat.
Had this information been available eight years ago, it most likely wouldn't have taken three years to change the age for hunters to start and in fact we could have moved beyond the simple fix.
A greater portion of the broader fix was recently accomplished, mostly through the efforts of the Michigan United Conservation Club through legislation sponsored by State Representative Peter Pettalia (R-Presque Isle) under enrolled House Bill 4371 for 2011.
Named as the "Hunter Heritage" package, HB4371 directs the MDNR Commission to create and implement a Mentored Youth Hunt Program that allows aspiring youth hunters to join their parents and relatives outdoors to take part in the heritage, safety and traditions that have been part of Michigan's history for centuries.
In a report issued by MUCC on July 27, 2011, "The bill will also allow Michigan families to recruit young hunters by placing their safety and proper hunting techniques at the forefront. House Bill 4371 was modeled after a similar Pennsylvania law that has increased hunter recruitment in that state while also promoting safety at a young age.
The Hunter Heritage legislation was sparked by Rob Miller of Byron Center, MUCC member and chair of its Wildlife Committee, who passed a resolution requesting legislation to create a youth hunt program at MUCC's annual convention in 2010.
According to Miller, "This is a really positive solution for our state as a whole. Not only can this program help us recruit and retain more hunters, but it is another avenue for children to get active outdoors while learning about safety, conservation principles, and respect for our natural resources."
Details of the law still have to be finalized and will not take effect until 2012, but it will happen as HB4371 also recently obtained the signature of Governor Rick Snyder.
The law will also create a discounted multi-use license for youth who participate.
This is perhaps the largest step forward Michigan has taken since starting efforts in hunter recruitment and retention. The only comparable changes were the initial age changes and the Hunter Apprentice Program, also initiated about five years ago and supported by MUCC.
Working as more of a pilot program for the Hunter Heritage Package, they proved a positive return on this direction, especially with regards to safety.
The tradition of sharing the hunting experience with a child, at an age determined appropriate by the parents, will now continue except from here on it will be legal and hopefully expanded.
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Tim Kobasic is outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Tails & Trails Outdoor Radio aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet Saturday mornings.