ST. MARYS — A flight of doves breaks above the tree line. Fourteen-year-old Robert Goodall fires his shotgun. The birds continue on their path unharmed.

“Never shoot at the bird,” Robert's grandfather, Richard Funk, said. “Always in front of it.”

Robert enjoys going hunting when his grandfather asks him to go along. But the morning’s been slow. He’d prefer something a little more exciting, like football.

“Dove hunting — you’re kind of just sitting there,” Robert said. “In football, you get to go hit people.”

Hunters come to Kansas from across the country for a shot at the state’s deer, elk and turkey. But older Kansas hunters are setting down their rifles, and guided youth hunts — Kansas' go-to method for attracting the next generation of hunters — aren’t stopping the decline among the next generations.

So the state is now working on a plan that focuses on what it stands to lose: 60% of Kansas’ conservation dollars (the rest comes from taxes on firearms and ammunition sales).

“We're at that point where it's like, hey, the bells and whistles are going off,” said Tim Donges, president of the Kansas branch of Quality Deer Management, a nonprofit hunting organization. “We've got a problem.”

Hunting’s decline and the results

More Americans are spending time outdoors, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Additional fishing lines are being cast. Would-be wildlife photographers are growing in numbers. But 2 million fewer hunters took to the field between 2011 and 2016.

Kansas has remained popular for out-of-state hunters, with the total number of licenses and permits more than doubling over the past two decades to over 150,000 total. In-state, though, hunting licenses have declined about 14%.

Hunting licenses of all kinds contribute about $28 million to the state’s conservation coffers. Out-of-state licenses cost more, and their popularity has made up for having fewer Kansas hunters. But 2019 was the first in five years where non-resident sales decline, showing there is not a guaranteed way of covering the cost of identity and protecting endangered Kansas species.

Hunting advocates blame several factors: There’s the other entertainment options competing for kids’ attention, from sports to Netflix. Plus, more Kansans live in cities, which requires a road trip to bag a buck.

Yet the biggest concern hunting advocates point to is a lack of public hunting land, the same thing that draws out-of-state hunters in. That is to say, a vacationing hunter with money can lease a ranch owner’s property, giving himself or herself a large stretch of open land.

But less than two percent of Kansas land is free and open to the public, according to the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Tourism. That’s less than nearly every other state.

“The state behind us is Rhode Island, so it’s not great,” said Brad Loveless, secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Tourism.

For years, Kansas encouraged younger hunters by taking kids out on guided hunts. Organized trips could break down the access barrier created by the limited amount of public hunting land. Mentors passed down hunting knowledge to kids whose parents didn’t participate in the sport. And the state figured that early exposure may lead to a lifelong interest.

It worked for 27-year-old Justin Saathoff: He killed his first deer on a youth hunt at Evergy’s Jeffrey Energy Center in Saint Mary in the northeast part of Kansas.

Saathoff, now a labor relations specialist at Evergy, gives back by leading youth hunts.

“Somebody does not have a true understanding of what hunting is until they actually go do it themselves,” Saathoff said.

Still, the youth numbers are declining. Hunting advocates say part of the problem is that it often takes several hunts to get someone hooked. Recruits can spend hours in the field without a guarantee of excitement or anything to show for the effort. For experienced hunters, that wait is worth it.

“It takes more than one time for somebody to understand what it takes to go out and hunt and be successful,” said Jim Pitman, a district biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation. “We need to be putting mentors with these people that can take them out multiple times.”

That requires a lot of volunteer hours and mentors. Evergy says it’s not short of mentors willing to lead the hunts, but younger guides like Saathoff are the exception. Mentorship programs are starting to see the same problem that hunting at large faces — the need to find young replacements.

The next steps

Past recruitment efforts emphasized the importance of continuing Kansas’ grand hunting heritage. “Carry on the tradition” is the subtitle for Kansas’ previous hunter recruitment plan, which was created in the 1990s under former Gov. Bill Graves. Funding the state’s conservation efforts came second.

“I don’t know that it’s ever going to be as popular as soccer or football,” said John Ritchey, the Kansas director for the conservation group Ducks Unlimited. “But there is a deep tradition and heritage that follows hunting that would be the saddest thing if it were to disappear.”

"My dad and brothers hunted, and I didn't necessarily feel welcome to go out with them even though they invited me."

So, while continuing the youth hunt tradition, the state is looking to flip that by leading with the conservation message.

Last year, Kansas hired 23-year-old Tanna Fanshier to be the Department of Wildlife and Tourism’s new hunting recruitment coordinator. She said the traditionalist message doesn’t work for the young Kansans she’s trying to recruit, and is betting causes like protecting wildlife will reach their ears.

“We're kind of the ‘Go Fund Me’ generation,” Fanshier said. “We want to give our money to something that's important to us.”

The department is looking to attract groups they know have historically been underrepresented in Kansas’ hunting scene. New women-only hunting education events will be led by women instructors.

“My dad and brothers hunted, and I didn’t necessarily feel welcome to go out with them even though they invited me,” Fanshier said.

Plus, Kansas is looking at starting gear-rental programs at colleges so students don’t have to have the money to buy or the space stash hunting equipment.

Kansas is also taking inspiration from other movements, like farm-to-table. Think field-to-fork: a way to encourage urban-dwelling Kansans to get some of their food from hunting for the same reasons they eat local. Fanshier has experimented with going to farmers’ markets to give away samples of meat gathered from a hunt, showing shoppers that game doesn’t have to taste gamey.

The full recruitment plan is about six months off. The overall goal isn’t to get the number of Kansas hunters back to where it was 50 years ago, Fanshier said. It’s keeping tradition alive, the conservations coffers filled and having urban dwellers spend a little less time in the city and more time connecting with the Kansas prairie.

Stephan Bisaha, education and young adult life reporter for the Kansas News Service, can be reached via bisaha@kmuw.org or @SteveBisaha on Twitter. 

To learn more about the Kansas News Service, an alliance of public radio stations, visit www.ksnewsservice.org. To view the latest version of this story, visit: https://www.kmuw.org/post/kansas-danger-losing-generation-hunters-and-their-conservation-money

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