By Josh Honeycutt
It’s no secret, our hunting heritage is in trouble. According to the National Survey of Hunting, Fishing, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, for most of the past decade, hunter numbers have declined significantly. Fortunately, there are many organizations working to help reverse this detrimental trend—and who have taken the message of NSSF’s +ONESM Movement mentoring initiative to heart.
The NSSF®, the trade association for the firearm industry, launched the +ONE Movement in 2019. Designed to encourage seasoned, experienced target shooters and hunters to extend an invitation to someone new—especially those people who have never handled a firearm, gone hunting and, most importantly, don’t come from families or communities where these pastimes are handed down from one generation to another. NSSF research has shown that there are millions—really, millions—of people who want to learn about firearms, target shooting and hunting but don’t know where to turn to start that journey. The +ONE Movement works to make that connection.
The +ONE message resonated with those in conservation and anxious to invigorate their R3 (recruitment, retention and reactivation) efforts. Here are the stories of just a few of those organizations and how they’re finding new R3 success.
National Wild Turkey Federation
Located in Edgefield, South Carolina, the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) Hunting Heritage Center is over 700 acres of R3 activity, with its Outdoor Education Center’s premier forestry and wildlife habitat used for deer, turkey and small game mentored hunts, as well as learn-to-hunt programs. The Palmetto Shooting Complex is also used to help create hunters via its sporting clays, trap, skeet and 3D archery courses.
“The Palmetto Shooting Complex is an outlet to reach those who are shooting enthusiasts but who may not hunt,” said Travis Sumner, NWTF’s Hunting Heritage Center and habitat manager. “Our Winchester Museum is also used as an outlet. Through our tours there, we are able to reach those who are interested in hunting.”
NWTF also partners with the U.S. Forest Service, South Carolina Forestry Commission, American Forest Management and other groups to conduct hunts. Last year, NWTF helped conduct 17 hunts reaching hundreds of participants, while the Winchester museum hosted thousands of guests and the Palmetto Shooting Complex entertained tens of thousands of shooters. NWTF also touts an established landowner program with 18 private properties used to conduct R3 hunts and events.
“For those of us who are seasoned hunters, we need to be aware that what we have enjoyed for years is in danger,” said Sumner. “We all need to get involved, and we offer opportunities for hunters to become mentors, including a yearly mentor workshop for those individuals who would like to help with these hunt programs.”
Mule Deer Foundation
Like other non-profits, the Mule Deer Foundation (MDF) runs a series of R3 programs, but it really shines with the M.U.L.E.Y. (Mindful, Understanding, Legal, Ethical, Youth) Program.
“The program was created to help reverse declining hunter trends by actively engaging youth in a variety of hunting and shooting sports activities, while also teaching conservation principles, safety and ethics through mentored, hands-on experiences,” says Jared Hinton, MDF’s Outreach Coordinator and Conservation Partner Liaison.
According to Hinton, the M.U.L.E.Y. program trailers serve an average of 20,000 youth per year. With these, coordinators and volunteers emphasize safe handling of bows and guns. Youth received reinforced lessons by practicing on an actual range. They also learn the basics of ethical, responsible hunting, with a focus on conservation. MDF encourages potential mentors to work with local chapters.
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
Located in Missoula, Montana, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) uses its Visitor Center and museum next to the administrative office building as an opportunity to educate both existing and new hunters. “Our Elk Country Visitor Center receives over 44,000 visitors per year,” says RMEF Hunting Heritage Program Manager Bruce Rich. “Nearly 5,000 of those are in hosted monthly Hunting Heritage and Conservation Outreach programs or in formal tours for schools, daycares, summer camps and other groups.” These programs are focused on not only creating new hunters but also communities of hunters who can help serve one another once recruited.
RMEF also partners with other organizations and facilities and contributes about $1.3 million per year to promote the shooting sports, hunter education, hunter advocacy and outreach, mentored hunts, outdoor skills instruction and natural resource education in sponsoring approximately 400 Hunting Heritage and Conservation Outreach programs per year. This program reaches more than 220,000 people annually at facilities across the country.
“Connect with a local RMEF chapter to learn more about what they have going on and opportunities to help out with a volunteer project,” Rich says. “Ensuring the future of our hunting heritage is a crucial part of RMEF’s work.”
Ducks Unlimited (DU) is well-known for hosting youth hunts, Green Wing Days and other programs to introduce kids to the outdoors. Interestingly, it’s now focusing significant efforts at the high school and collegiate levels. It has 54 collegiate DU Varsity chapters across the country. Those members are helping to spread the hunting heritage message to their peers — all in the name of recruitment, retention and reactivation.
Part of this program includes Third Term, a college leadership summit that focuses on collegiate DU chapters. Gathering students from across the country, Third Term was started in 1984. “We use our headquarters to bring in hundreds of students from across the country,” says Mark Horobetz, DU Manager of Youth and Education Programs. “This symposium includes an R3 breakout. It’s a social event, but they bring in all walks of life — people who’ve hunted and people who haven’t.”
These breakouts share insight on ways attendees can reach potential hunters, how to approach them, and methods for retaining them one recruited.
“These students collaborate together to introduce new hunters to the outdoors,” Horobetz says. “ We have volunteers who come and help.” Once back at their respective colleges, these young adults work to share hunting with other students on campus.
While the above use their physical facilities to critical effect in their R3 efforts, Powderhook went online. Co-Founder and CEO Eric Dinger says it’s a purpose-built app that helps new hunters get started by making local experts available to answer their questions.
“Powderhook makes available thousands of local groups and events,” Dinger says. “Our local experts program capitalizes on local, current information only someone in an individual’s region might know. It’s easy to read about ‘where to place the shot’ on the internet, but much more difficult to figure out when to take that day off of work to time the rut or which person at the local [hunting store] knows their stuff.”
Thousands of people use the app to jumpstart their journey as hunters. It’s free, and there are experts in every state ready to help those in need. According to Dinger, it’s one of the only apps on the market that’s solely dedicated to helping create more outdoor participants.
“Existing hunters can become local experts on Powderhook and offer their wisdom and experience to the people seeking it in the app,” Dinger says.
For existing hunters, serving as mentors goes a long way towards reversing the decline in hunter numbers. Teach new hunters until they are ready to embark on this journey alone. Then, they’ll be prepared to serve as a mentor, too, and pass hunting on down the line.