Last fall I spent an afternoon near Baraboo sitting in a tree stand across from a woman with a rifle. Perched in another crook was our hunting mentor, Karl Malcolm MS’08 PHD’11, then a CALS doctoral student in forest and wildlife ecology. Malcolm was the organizer of that weekend’s Learn to Hunt program, which was the reason I ignored my fear of heights and climbed 15 feet in the air. The woman with the rifle was Kristen Cyffka, a UW–Madison grad student in statistics with an interest in sustainable food. That day would be our chance to shoot a deer—if we saw one. The temperature was unseasonably hot, the deer scarce.
As the sun began to set, the air cooled and the golden light dimmed over the thickets and fields. In the silence, the occasional rustle took on thrilling clarity. This, whispered Malcolm, is the magic hour.
But Cyffka had woken up before 3 a.m. for an earlier hunt, and as the woods grew tranquil, the breeze gentle, I saw her head begin to droop. The rifle remained propped on the armrest of her tree stand. My first instinct was to nudge her with my foot, but then I decided to rouse her in the least startling way I could and instead whispered her name in a soothing murmur. I was learning that you rethink a lot of things when you’re out in the woods in the presence of a loaded gun.
Karl Malcolm has been an avid hunter and angler since his teens, and when he enrolled in the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, he assumed he’d be among fellow hunters.
“I thought I’d meet lots of people with the same feeling I had,” says Malcolm, who is now based in New Mexico as a Presidential Management Fellow with the USDA Forest Service. But when he started talking about his love of hunting and fishing, the other students thought hunting was “barbaric and disrespectful to animals, and that it was all about bloodlust,” he says. “It didn’t at all jibe with my personal experience.” As he began to evaluate and articulate his hunting experiences for others, Malcolm found the initial seed for his interest in teaching others to hunt.
Wisconsin’s Learn to Hunt (LTH) programs have been around since 1997, inspired by the Wisconsin Student Hunter Program, which CALS forest and wildlife ecology professors Don Rusch and Scott Craven had launched in 1993 to ensure that the department’s students gained hands-on experience in hunting and understood its history and role in conservation. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) adapted that into LTH programs designed to recruit new hunters, initially focusing on turkey and pheasant before expanding into deer. The LTH program introduces novices to hunting in a controlled manner by pairing them with mentors on a one-to-one basis. After at least four hours of classroom and field instruction in topics like gun safety, ethical shooting and finding and setting up a hunting site, participants and mentors go out into the fields to experience the hunt firsthand.
Most organizers charge nothing for the course. Mentors must have at least five years’ experience hunting the chosen animal; they also may apply to serve as organizers of an LTH program. Learners must be at least 10 years old and never have received a hunting license for the species being hunted. On paper, Malcolm has organized his programs as an individual, but in practice help comes not only from the DNR but also from the CALS Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, thanks to such hunting mentors as professors Mike Samuel and Tim Van Deelen and engaged students and alumni like Steve Grodsky MS’10, Dan Storm PhD’11 and Mike Watt BS’07 MS’12.
“Other folks who are interested in putting together similar programs should know they can do it and the DNR will be there to back them up,” explains Malcolm.
Now prospective hunters have additional and quite significant support thanks to the Hunters Network of Wisconsin, a joint project between CALS, the DNR and UW–Extension that is dedicated to recruiting more hunters. The effort began with a survey of hunting and conservation organizations conducted by CALS/UW Extension life sciences communication professor Bret Shaw and research associate Beth Ryan, funded with a DNR grant. The survey, which would then inform strategic outreach to mentors and interested non-hunters, identified resources the organizations already used or would like to use more, from assistance in finding interested participants to funds to sponsor LTH events and volunteer education and training.
But perhaps even more significant was the survey’s focus on hunters’ motivations for taking part in the sport. The top reasons people named for hunting were spending time outdoors, being close to nature, using and sharing skills and knowledge, and camaraderie with friends and family. The Hunters Network hopes to use this insight to make mentoring new hunters more appealing.
There’s a compelling reason for all of this outreach. Hunting is an important part of Wisconsin’s history and culture. It also has a $1.4 billion impact on the state’s economy and supports some 26,000 jobs, according to the DNR.
Yet Wisconsin has experienced an ongoing decline in hunting in recent years. A study from February 2011 by the DNR and the UW-based Applied Population Laboratory found that the number of gun deer hunting licenses sold to the state’s residents dropped 6.5 percent, from 644,991 in 2000 to 602,791 in 2010. The report predicts that by 2030, the number of male gun deer hunters (who make up the bulk of hunters, though the number of female hunters is expected to rise) could drop to 400,000.
Keith Warnke BS’90, the DNR’s hunting and shooting sports coordinator, says that could mean a drop of more than 10 percent in license fees, from about $10.9 million dollars in 2000 (at $20 per license for 549,505 resident male deer hunters) to $9.6 million in 2030 (at $24 per license).
Fewer hunters means less tourism money for rural areas that depend on it. It also means less revenue from excise taxes, explains Van Deelen. The money from federal excise taxes on hunting equipment and ammunition (such as the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration law, also known as the Pittman-Robertson Act) returns to states, earmarked for conservation. Van Deelen says most of his research is funded this way.
If license fees and excise tax revenue continue to drop, conservation budgets will decline as well, Warnke says. That means less emphasis on conservation, habitat management and sustainable forest management practices, and less wetland and prairie restoration.
“Hunters have a direct and participatory connection to their food source, which results in a strong conservation ethic and a high profile for sound natural resources management,” says Warnke. “The further our society becomes disconnected from the natural world, the less natural resources conservation will matter.”
Warnke lists a number of reasons for the decline. Smaller generations succeed the baby boomers, who tend to stop hunting as they age, and fewer youths take up the sport in an increasingly urban society focused on structured indoor activities. Efforts to expand within the hunting community, such as LTH programs for the children of hunters or opening up hunting licenses to 10- and 11-year-olds, didn’t halt the drop.
But a new approach has helped spur a steady rise in LTH participation, from 1,000 LTH participants in 2008 to almost double that—1,940—in 2011. The Hunters Network and DNR have specifically sought to broaden the net to college students, people of color and city dwellers who have grown up with no hunting experience.
One way to interest these groups is through the burgeoning interest in local, ethical food. Malcolm’s LTH program, for example, emphasized hunting as a source of sustainable meat, and the majority of participants cited that interest as their reason for being there. Warnke says that while many states are seeking new hunters, he doesn’t know of any others that are actively encouraging LTH programs for young adults on college campuses. (To name another example, Madison Area Technical College plans to offer a four-week adult education course called “Hunting for Sustainability” this fall.) He believes the young adult population with an interest in eating locally is a very fertile source of future hunters. “These folks missed the natural path into hunting through parents, but they certainly have a strong conservation ethic, a strong environmental orientation, and a realization that hunting is a really sustainable way to obtain your protein,” Warnke says.
CALS’ Bret Shaw agrees. “The kind of people they’ve been targeting at college events also tend to be interested in local foods and how hunting can be part of the local food movement. An animal that is a wild creature eating natural things—I think that’s an appealing part to a lot of folks, at least in terms of how they initially get involved,” he says.
This certainly was the case for UW student Kristen Cyffka. When she spoke to a friend who eats only meat that he himself has killed, she “was struck by how reasonable that was, and so I jumped at the opportunity to learn how to gather my own meat.”
Malcolm says his students, prior to participating in LTH programs, perceived a number of barriers to the sport, even though they tended to be adults with the wherewithal to pursue hunting if they chose. Perceived barriers included expense, finding a spot, obtaining and using a gun or just what to do with an animal should they shoot one. “In a couple of short sessions, you tear down a lot of barriers in people’s minds and show them it’s not that mysterious,” Malcolm explains.
The process may not be mysterious, but the experience of leaving behind the trappings of daily life in order to sit in the woods silently, and alertly, turns out to be profound. Says Shaw, himself a newcomer to hunting, “It makes you notice the rhythm of nature in a way that’s different from walking or hiking through it. There are very few times when you’re required to sit still and be present in nature.”
The Hunters Network and the DNR are hoping that realizations like this will inspire a love of hunting. Otherwise, Warnke believes we risk a weakened connection to the land and to our food sources, a loss of “an in-depth, almost spiritual connection with nature,” he says.
Many consider hunting integral to wildlife management, a concept articulated most notably by Aldo Leopold, who founded the world’s first department of wildlife management at CALS. While conservation managers aim for only a harvestable surplus of other species, the state tries to use longer seasons and antlerless harvests to reduce its over-abundant deer population. Van Deelen cautions that “populations have more internal controls than people think,” but that those internal controls can range from unpleasant to disruptive (think crop and forest damage or deer-car crashes).
Nevertheless, Van Deelen says, hunters are not a dial that the wildlife manager can easily turn up or down. Other possibilities for reducing deer numbers might include more liberal hunting seasons and allowing more old growth instead of scattered clear-cuts to make land less habitable for deer, but such potential remedies have only been “kicked around in academic circles.” For now, hunters remain the primary source of population control and much-needed revenue—both goals the LTH programs may help to meet, hunter by hunter.
The night before the hunt, our class met in a clearing in a farmer’s cornfield for a primer in gun usage and safety as well as a little target practice.
Two tables were set up beside a pond, with targets across the water. The students were mostly women ranging from 18 to mid-30s, a mix of undergrad and grad students, professionals and UW faculty, and mostly from non-hunting backgrounds. In other words, we represented a perfect target audience for LTH programs. The mentors were all male. Many said they’d been hunting since childhood.
James Neitzel BS’12, then a UW senior and member of the Badger Hunting Club, walked me through the mechanics of my borrowed rifle. I had never handled a gun, and for this occasion I’d borrowed a Winchester 30.30, older and different from what most others were using. It lacked a scope, for one thing, and the process of putting on its safety was a terrifying system that involved slowly pulling the trigger on a loaded gun while holding the firing pin down with my thumb. Several times, as I practiced with the unloaded weapon, Neitzel said calmly, “You just shot the gun.”
The class zipped along at a surprising clip, considering the gravity of what we were learning to do. Despite the emphasis on gun safety, I was nervous at being surrounded by rifles. The margin for error seemed perilously slim, for I am clumsy enough to require a fairly generous margin of error just to avoid significant injury in my daily, gun-free life. Still, when it was my turn I practiced my slow and steady trigger squeeze, though I couldn’t tell if I hit a thing.
After a couple of hours we departed the cornfield for dinner and a discussion about hunting, contrasting the bloody, macho stereotypes with the mentors’ explanations of their own experiences, which could be summed up as a passionate commitment to the land, a near-holy experience of being in the quiet of the woods, and gratitude, mixed with sadness and pride, for the successful hunt.
Overviews of ethical shots and scouting practices reminded me of just how much there is to learn, but one doesn’t need to be a nature lover of long standing to get started. As people spoke it became clear that the motivation for many novices was not their extensive outdoors experience but about following the trail of a meal back to its source.
Certainly this was where my interest lay, and so when discussion and the pop quiz on gun safety concluded, I loaded up a plate of lean venison backstrap (much like tenderloin), nuggets of duck, and fat, chili-flecked elk sausages. The meats all carried the faint flavor of liver, a rich meatiness with a hint of iron and blood, in the best possible way. We chewed gently on our duck breast, careful of shot. Then we made plans with our mentors, to scatter the next morning into the woods of Wisconsin.
The closest my group came to seeing a deer was after dark, when a buck appeared at the edge of a cornfield as we drove away from the site. That sudden appearance after a long absence, Malcolm told us, is the source of those crazed grins in hunting photos that people often interpret as bloodlust—most hunters go out and see no deer at all for 10 sits. When one finally appears, it feels as if some kind of sorcery has finally worked.
Maybe, for another novice, it did work. A buck approached a blind in which sat Kate Julian, a student visiting from Michigan, and her mentor, Mike Watt. The buck stood still, presenting her with a perfect shot.
A smaller group met the next day at the DNR Service Center to help with the butchering of the 150-pound buck, which arrived, field-dressed (its highly perishable organs removed) and packed with ice, to be hoisted from a tree by its hind legs. I had never met my meat when it was so unprocessed. When I grasped the hide with both hands to pull away the skin, it was not thin and leathery as I’d expected, but thick and furry, like a handful of the fur of a pet. The buck’s antlers were roughly textured; its hooves smooth and black. Skinned, its tail was segmented like a rat’s. As I worked with knife and hands to help skin the deer, sometimes the loose end of the rope suspending the carcass brushed against my arm, startling me so much that I realized how nervous I really was.
We worked for several hours, transporting large segments of muscle and bone to two tables where other volunteers were cutting them into manageable pieces or grinding them up, sealing meat into plastic bags. As the deer went from whole animal to a leg, hindquarter and backstrap, the process came to feel less outdoorsy and more culinary.
Bret Shaw was there on butchering day, too, and later he described how breaking down a whole animal has enhanced his understanding of meat and which cuts come from where. “It makes it more visceral and intuitive to see it being butchered,” he says, and he is right. As I lifted a large, ovoid portion of the deer’s haunch, I knew I’d remember that its heavy use and leanness demanded moisture and slow cooking, but if I were handed an already-cubed package of stew meat it wouldn’t seem so clear.
My reward for staying for much of the afternoon was a generous helping of venison: a large piece from the haunch, some backstrap, and a few packages of ground venison. The meat was firm and cool, a clear, uniform garnet almost totally free of fat. My haul seemed both extraordinary—all that meat, and just for helping!—and yet so finite. Without a plan in place to hunt again, this was all I’d get.
Maybe Cyffka felt that same mix of gratitude and appetite for more. A month or so after our LTH program, she hunted during the November deer season and participated in an LTH pheasant program in Horicon Marsh in the spring (which led to some delicious pheasant fajitas). She hopes to hunt the turkey and deer seasons this fall.
“Overall it was a great experience,” she says, regarding her participation in LTH. “I especially liked learning about that entirely different way of looking at food—as something that you can gather with your hands as opposed to pay for in a grocery store. It also changed the way I look at firearms. A whole group of people actually uses these things to provide for their families!”
That October night I sliced the backstrap into medallions, seasoned it with salt and pepper, and seared it quickly in butter. Served with pasta and shiitake mushrooms, flecked with scallion and parsley, the venison tasted a little ferrous and slightly of game, but not of fat, a faint muskiness echoing the mushrooms. The meat was autumnal and a little wild, and if I want to taste it again, which I very much do, I’ll have to go out and hunt.
This story was originally published in the fall 2012 issue of Grow magazine.