Last week I smacked the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources around a good bit with my opinions regarding the new apprentice license which allows the purchase of a hunting license without a hunter education card in hand.
My mom always told me that if you complain about something you should be prepared to offer a solution as well, so here goes.
Natural resources agencies throughout the country are scrambling for ways to increase the number of new license buyers. This effort is called hunter recruitment and will help sustain the revenues through license sales. Fact of the matter is that private conservation groups are big on recruitment for the same reason.
So we have things like the apprentice license, youth day hunts, outdoor woman events sponsored by the states, and Jakes Day or Greenwing activities by private organizations like the National Wild Turkey Federation and Ducks Unlimited.
There are numerous theories that could explain why the number of hunters is declining. The simplest of these is that people need a place to hunt and without that place they simply cannot participate.
The answer to this dilemma, from a state agency point of view, is simple yet expensive. Provide more public hunting land.
WVDNR has been pretty decent about doing that. The Allegheny Public Hunting Area in Mineral County has received additional acreage in recent years and there is a brand new property, called Sideling Hill, in western Morgan County. Other new properties have been added around the state, good work that must continue.
In addition to acquiring properties the DNR should provide decent printed maps and descriptions of these areas, and make access to the ground reasonable to the average person.
I recently picked up a map of the new Sideling Hill property and found it to be top notch. Some of the maps for the older hunting areas are basically hand drawn caricatures of maps and give the hunter no accurate idea of the locations of boundary lines. Most guys want to be sure they are in the right place when they hunt, so a map is essential.
Access to these lands is another issue. While we don’t need hunting areas to have paved roads with guardrails it would be nice to get into the woods without tearing the muffler off the car.
Some of the roads on local public hunting areas are just fine for bear hunters in their little Toyota and Ford Ranger trucks, but a guy who needs to use his married-man van to take his son turkey hunting is at a definite disadvantage. We don’t need a highway, but functional access is expected.
I went in search of figures to support my theory and did not have far to look.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation conducts surveys about a variety of issues that affect sport hunting and shooting. One of those surveys asked active hunters to rate 25 different things as “dissatisfactions” that “took away their enjoyment of hunting/ influenced their decision to not go hunting/ influenced their decline in hunting.” These dissatisfactions ranged from not enough law enforcement to complicated regulations.
The two top categories rated “strongly agree” by active hunters as dissatisfactions to hunting were, not enough places to hunt (49 percent) and, not enough access (50 percent). By the way, mandatory hunter education class was at the very bottom of those 25 dissatisfactions, coming in at only 6 percent.( See these surveys at www.NSSF.org.)
Many other states have increased hunting opportunities with programs that make private land available for public access. While pheasant hunting in Kansas I hunted Walk In Hunting Areas, private land under contract with the state to allow public hunting. These areas were easy to find using the hunting atlas provided by the state and available for free at the license agents.
West Virginia should investigate this type of program. In fact there is a precedent for doing so. In the 1960s we had a program called Farmer Hosts where hunters could pay to stay with the landowner and hunt on his property. Kind of a bed and breakfast with bullets.
That might not totally fly today, but there needs to be some outreach from the DNR to provide incentive for landowners to allow public access to their land, to supplement the opportunities on state ground.
Something as simple as purchasing rights-of-way through private land to access some of our vast national forest holdings might be a good start.
These are expensive ideas, but it takes money to make money. If today’s sportsman cannot find a place to hunt, he won’t be going hunting, nor taking tomorrow’s hunter into the woods, or to the license agent.
Who knows though, it just might be too late. While hunting the spring gobbler opener this year I heard four shots the entire morning, just four. Do I hear Peter, Paul and Mary singing “Where have all the hunters gone????”
Dave Long is a retired West Virginia natural resources police officer and a frequent contributor to the Outdoors page.