Hunt­ing seen as ben­e­fit to lo­cal ecosys­tem

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In many fam­i­lies, the tra­di­tion has been handed down for gen­er­a­tions. But as long­time sports­men age and chil­dren lose in­ter­est, con­ser­va­tion ad­vo­cates say a new ap­proach is needed. Gov­ern­ment agen­cies and non­profit groups are even launch­ing men­tor­ing pro­grams like the one that helped Ma­jid get started.

A men­tor hunter, pro­vided through a pro­gram at the Black­wa­ter refuge, taught the 35-year-old El­li­cott City res­i­dent how to know a buck is nearby (based on drop­pings or scrape marks against a tree) and what to wear (light­weight lay­ers and cam­ou­flage, plus bright or­ange when you’re on the move).

“I didn’t have any­body to learn it from,” Ma­jid said. “The more in­for­ma­tion I got, the more and more it seemed doable.”

Mar­cia Pradines, project leader of a com­plex of wildlife refuges that in­cludes Black­wa­ter, said a men­tored hunt­ing pro­gram launched this year is about more than just pre­serv­ing an in­dus­try and a cul­ture. More hunters could mean more pro­tec­tion for wildlife and their habi­tats — through deer pop­u­la­tion con­trol and in­vest­ment.

“Hunters fund con­ser­va­tion in many ways,” Pradines said. “They’re also the peo­ple out there en­joy­ing the re­source and want­ing to make sure it’s pro­tected.”

Fed­eral ex­cise taxes are paid by the man­u­fac­tur­ers of firearms, am­mu­ni­tion, archery equip­ment and fish­ing gear, and the money is di­vided among state wildlife agen­cies. The Mary­land De­part­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources re­ceived $11 mil­lion last year, in­clud­ing $7.8 mil­lion from hunt­ing ex­pen­di­tures. It uses the rev­enue for pro­grams that ben­e­fit wildlife and their habi­tats, in­clud­ing species not hunted or fished, such as but­ter­flies and birds.

The money has helped re­verse pop­u­la­tion de­clines of species in­clud­ing elk, and in Mary­land has helped pay for work to map pop­u­la­tions of am­phib­ians and rep­tiles and to grow species such as the black­banded sun­fish.

But wildlife man­agers worry that a de­cline in hunt­ing could cut into con­ser­va­tion bud­gets. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice sur­vey found the num­ber of hunters in the United States fell by 2 mil­lion from 2011 to 2016, to about 11 mil­lion.

Mary­land has avoided such a de­cline so far. The state has con­sis­tently sold more than 90,000 hunt­ing li­censes to adult res­i­dents in re­cent years, plus a grow­ing num­ber of non-res­i­dent li­censes — more than 18,000 of them in the sea­son that ended this spring.

None­the­less, hunters and state nat­u­ral re­sources of­fi­cials worry a change is com­ing. “Even though our num­bers right now, thank­fully, are hold­ing steady, we all kind of see the writ­ing on the wall,” said Chris Markin, a hunt­ing spe­cial­ist for the state nat­u­ral re­sources de­part­ment. “Ev­ery­thing is chang­ing. Kids are grow­ing up in front of video games and com­put­ers in­stead of go­ing hunt­ing.”

At a re­cent hunt at the Patux­ent refuge, the sen­ti­ment of many hunters was sim­i­lar. Mark En­gle, a 57-year-old from Glen Burnie, hunted as a child, but took a break for much of his adult life while he fo­cused on work­ing and pro­vid­ing for his fam­ily. He said he fears those pres­sures are pre­vent­ing many other po­ten­tial hunters from go­ing out, and from rais­ing the next gen­er­a­tion of hunters.

“They’re putting in all kinds of hours to make ends meet,” En­gle said. “I was the same way. Life’s now so fast-paced.”

The Meade Nat­u­ral Her­itage As­so­ci­a­tion, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that helps man­age hunt­ing on the Patux­ent refuge, shrinks ev­ery year, said the group’s pres­i­dent, Frank Rif­fle. Now 69, he started hunt­ing there in 1968. He, too, blames video games and busier lives for keep­ing more peo­ple from hunt­ing.

“When I was younger, I’d save my two weeks of va­ca­tion to go deer hunt­ing ev­ery fall,” he said. “Times are chang­ing.”

See­ing the gen­er­a­tional shift, hunt­ing clubs, as­so­ci­a­tions and refuges have for years pro­moted youth pro­grams. But, based on her own ex­pe­ri­ences, Pradines re­cently de­cided more needed to be done to help re­cruit and train adult hunters. She learned to hunt from her then-hus­band, but stopped af­ter get­ting di­vorced. It wasn't un­til fe­male friends in­vited her a decade later that she got back into it.

At Black­wa­ter, she launched the men­tor pro­gram for first-time adult hunters for last spring’s turkey-hunt­ing sea­son, and got 60 ap­pli­ca­tions. For this fall’s deer sea­son, there were 60 more.

Be­cause of lim­its on space and the num­ber of vol­un­teer men­tors, or­ga­niz­ers had to choose about three dozen from those ap­pli­cants, but they were able to in­clude a va­ri­ety of peo­ple. One was a fa­ther who had taken his son to a youth hunt­ing pro­gram, but didn’t oth­er­wise have an op­por­tu­nity to learn hunt­ing him­self. An­other was a woman who wanted to hunt, but couldn’t learn from her hus­band be­cause his hunt club doesn’t al­low women.

“We re­ally wanted to fit a niche no­body else was ful­fill­ing,” Pradines said.

Hunt­ing is im­por­tant for pre­serv­ing refuge ecosys­tems, she said. If sika deer over­pop­u­late the refuge, they’ll overeat the shrubs and other veg­e­ta­tion that pro­vide im­por­tant habi­tat for birds, for ex­am­ple. On the Western Shore of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay, hunt­ing is im­por­tant to pre­vent ve­hi­cle crashes and the spread of dis­eases like Lyme. “This is a habi­tat man­age­ment tool,” she said.

Markin worked with Pradines to de­velop the men­tor pro­gram at Black­wa­ter, and now is work­ing to spread a sim­i­lar ini­tia­tive across the state. He said he hopes to build up a database of pos­si­ble men­tors by the end of the year.

There are still plenty of can­di­dates, if hunters like Craft, 48, are will­ing. He was born and raised hunt­ing in Lou­i­si­ana. “It’s kind of like in my blood,” he said.

And there are those still ea­ger to learn, like Ma­jid. He was just look­ing for an out­door hobby he could share with his chil­dren when he came across the men­tor­ship pro­gram. Now, he feels ca­pa­ble of hunt­ing on his own, but also has some­one he can text with ques­tions that pop up.

His new pas­time has al­ready paid off for him — on his se­cond hunt with his men­tor, in the last min­utes of day­light, he bagged his first deer.

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