TTL;DR – Small game hunting is likely more effective at hunter recruitment.
Declines in hunting and the resultant waning of wildlife conservation revenues are concerning to state wildlife agencies. Agencies have attempted to bolster revenues through recruiting potential hunters; including hunting camps for youth designed to teach hunting techniques, ethics, and ingrain the heritage of hunting in new participants. Yet, hunt camps centered on big game may be problematic for biologic, economic, and sociological reasons. In spite of these reasons, big game camps might be more effective at recruiting hunters than small game camps, but nobody knows. To find out, we compared the change of interest in hunting (i.e. “recruited-ness”) in pre- and post-event surveys for both big game and small game camps. Our research suggests small game camps recruit just as effectively as big game camps. Therefore, given the similarities in the ability of small game and big game camps to increase likelihood of participation, we recommend wildlife conservation decision-makers consider focusing on small game recruitment camps for the reasons enumerated herein.
Here’s the Problem:
The funding for wildlife conservation and hunting and angling are inextricably intertwined. In a recent nationwide study, the average state wildlife agency gets nearly 60% of funding from hunters and anglers (Chase, 2016). Primarily this comes from the sale of hunting and fishing privileges. Secondarily, there is a federal excise tax on all hunting and fishing equipment that is allocated back to the states. If hunting and fishing declines, the conservation funding erodes for everyone. It is little wonder that state agencies are trying to increase interest in hunting and fishing through camps and other events. In fact, recently Responsive Management conducted an evaluation of over 400 programs designed to recruit or retain hunters or anglers (Duda, 2011). Do the math, that’s 8 programs per state, ALL designed to make more hunters and anglers.
Logic dictates that if people have a good experience, then they will be more likely to repeat the behavior, or recruited into the activity. Therefore, in their effort to provide the most satisfactory experience possible, some state wildlife agencies and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) set up experiences that are as appealing as possible… from their perspective. Through their eyes (and mine too, if I am honest) the best experience is hunting enormous bull elk in premiere hunting grounds. Yet newcomers may not hold this worldview, and may not need that level of experience to be satisfied.
Big Game Camps for Youth May not be a Requirement to Recruit
Biological- Many states, particularly in the West, are unable to produce enough big game species to match the current demand. In fact, where I am from, 4 out of every 9 hunters are disappointed because they were not successful in the annual Big Game Draw. In the West, there is simply not enough rain to create enough forage to generate biomass in the form a deer or elk, for everyone to go hunting. Some states have attempted to recruit youth by setting aside tags specifically for youth, but if preference is given to youth hunters, hunting opportunity for other hunters is diminished.
Economical- Big game hunting is generally more expensive to participate in and therefore the threshold for participants to conscript is higher. Further, big game hunting opportunities are commonly farther from urban centers than are small game opportunities, also representing a higher commitment of financial resources by the participant. Finally, participation in big game hunting often requires a time investment of several days, meaning people have to arrange their school and work schedules to accommodate this absence.
Social- Satisfaction (required for recruitment) is a ratio of the experience delivered to the experience expected. That’s why when you go into a fast food restaurant expecting a bad hamburger and you get something that looks like the plain burger (left), you are satisfied. Similarly, if you go to a spendy restaurant and order a high-end burger, and you get a great burger (middle), you are also satisfied. It is only until you have higher expectations (below, right), and you don’t get something matching those expectations (above, right) that you become dissatisfied. In my business this is expectation confirmation theory.
We intuitively have a sense for expectation confirmation theory, which is why state agencies offer special youth tags, often with higher draw rates, higher harvest success, or higher quality animals. It is also why sportsmen’s group support recruitment camps with mentors, guides, spotters, cooked meals, activities, campfires, archery practice, fishing, raffle prizes, and demonstrations. These types of camps may artificially inflate expectations of hunting experiences, leading to long-term dissatisfaction with hunting because the ‘standard’ hunting experiences later in life do not replicate those experienced in big game camps.
In spite of the concerns listed above, it could be that big game camps recruit better than small game camps. To find out, we measured “recruited-ness” before and immediately after the experience for youth participating in 2012 and 2013 hunting camps. Our research contained 835 camp attendees. We measured “recruited-ness” using 12 questions such as: “I intend to hunt in the future”, “I consider myself a hunter”, “I plan to hunt in the next 12 months”, “I am interested in hunting”, etc. These questions measured “moving the recruitment needle” extremely well (α=0.88). We then compared the pre-assessment to the post-assessment for participants in big game and small game camps. My research suggests small game camps recruit just as effectively as big game camps (HDI -0.24 to 0.17).
Many of you commented on my past article about the decline of hunting and expressed a desire to change. I would invite conservation decision-makers to consider focusing recruitment camps on small game. The Boone and Crockett Club, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Safari Club International, Whitetails Unlimited, Mule Deer Foundation, and the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep (all organizations that I am a member and/or supporter of) are wondering why I am betraying them. I contend that a small game hunter is just as beneficial to their organization as a big game hunter. Here’s why I might say that:
- Small game hunting can be done frequently. If you only hunt big game, you might be able to go with the youth in your life 3-6 times as youth (12-17). It is difficult to create traditions that last a lifetime going that infrequently. My children and I may go hunting that many times a month, and they know that a slushie from Circle K is always at the end – our tradition.
- Small game allows for more than one trigger pull. When I hand a firearm to my kids, all they want to do is bang, and that’s great. Small game hunting encourages that. Plus, not so much is riding on each trigger pull, so a miss only lasts a few minutes.
- Small game is easier. I have hunted quarry of nearly every size. Small game is easier because there are more opportunities and you can target multiple species each outing. *Note that in the header, my son has a .22; he was in charge of rabbits that day because he doesn’t like the kick of a 12 gauge. Plus, it can be spontaneous; no need to wait for a successful application to draw.
- Small game is cheaper. You can buy a shotgun or .22 for a few hundred dollars and have bacon-wrapped fill in the blank , in a few hours. To hunt big game, you have to plan, apply, successfully draw, take off work, buy a rifle and scope, buy equipment, invest a few days, butcher, taxidermy costs, etc.
- Small game doesn’t raise expectations. Big game camps conducted by well-meaning agencies and NGO’s are fantastic! The draw rates are more generous, the harvest rates are higher, there are usually higher quality animals, there is a lot of experience that is paired with a newbie that often has a guided-hunt like feel, and there are prizes, activities, and demonstrations. Sound great right? Why would anyone think that is a bad thing? Once newbies turn 18 or try to hunt on their own, the ‘standard’ hunting experience may not replicate those experienced in big game camps. This may lead to long-term dissatisfaction with hunting because the experiences later in life don’t match the expectation.
- In the West, there is enough biomass in the form of small game to allow nearly everybody who wants to go hunting a chance to go. Plus, less biomass is coming out of the system each time.
This research suggests that small game camps recruit just as effectively as big game camps, but they don’t have the potential drawbacks. I am not suggesting a “this-or-that” proposition, this is NOT a matter of big game or small game. What I am suggesting is a “this-then-that” proposition. Putting on hunting events is expensive and NGO partners donate a tremendous amount of experience and time. If they can hook youth into hunting small game, over time the will develop into big game hunters and join sportsmen organizations later in life. It is a long-term investment, but the evidence suggests it is a savvy venture, with immense returns.
The legal stuff- The views and ideas contained herein are my own and do not represent an official position of any agency, organizations, federations, committees, technical advisory groups, or boards that I am affiliated with. Use of trade names, companies, or specific products/services does not imply an endorsement by any governmental organization.