Last week, more than 300 leaders from state fish and wildlife agencies; the firearms and archery industries; and hunting, shooting sports, and conservation groups came together for the first-ever national R3 Symposium. I was pleased to represent the Izaak Walton League at the symposium along with some of our volunteer leaders from Iowa and Nebraska.
Although this was the first large-scale national R3 event, it was not the first national meeting focused on increasing and diversifying participation in hunting and recreational shooting sports. Far from it! Staff from state agencies, industry, and nonprofit groups have been working together for years on a comprehensive strategy to recruit, retain, and reactivate (R3) hunters and shooting sports enthusiasts.
What made this meeting different was the sense of urgency and a shared commitment to take action. We heard several common themes over the two days:
We need to act urgently and boldly. The challenges are real. They are longstanding and will be hard to overcome – unless states, industry, groups like the League, and individual hunters and shooting sports enthusiasts work together and do things differently.
Recruitment needs to shift from kids to young adults and former hunters. This is a tough message to hear – there is so much attention and so many programs focused on recruiting middle-school and high-school kids. But we heard over and over again that more attention needs to be directed to recruiting people in their 20s and 30s and reengaging former hunters. Young adults have an interest in the sports, they have disposable income, and they can make their own decisions. Rather than focus all of our attention on recruiting new hunters, we should also spend time working to reactivate former hunters. Although they have stopped hunting, former participants have experience in the field, probably still have their gear, and many retain a deep interest in hunting.
Focus more on “casual” rather than “avid” participants. Many speakers highlighted how state agencies and industry direct much of their attention to “avid” participants. Look at hunting shows on TV or advertisements – more often than not they depict people with a lot of gear and equipment hunting in challenging places. State agencies take for granted that experienced hunters will jump through many hoops to get the licenses they need, accumulate bonus points over many years, and wade through complex regulations. Casual participants are intimidated by the all of this. They already understand that hunting, especially, is hard work. If they think they need expensive gear or could never hunt in a remote location, the people we need to engage will be discouraged from ever participating.
Working together, we can grow and diversify participation. I think everyone in the room understood the challenges, and no one tried to sugar coat the situation. That said, there was a palpable feeling of optimism about the future. There was a collective belief that we can bring new audiences into the sports. Will it be hard work? Absolutely. But you could feel that everyone believes, by working together, we can be successful.
And the League can play an important role in achieving a successful outcome. New participants need places to safely learn how to handle firearms or bows and have some fun with shooting sports. And they need mentors who can help them develop their skills. The need for mentoring is especially acute for prospective hunters. Getting started is hard work and success depends on having a helping hand from someone with experience.
League chapters nationwide provide places for people to experience the sports for the first time. And League members have been mentoring new hunters and recreational shooters for generations. The fact is, the League is uniquely positioned for all aspects of R3.
The future is in our hands. Let’s heed the call to action!