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Healthy habitats with hunters: building allies with hunters for a positive influence on habitat.

Is your agency allied with local hunters? Why Not?!

Little more than 100 years ago there was a great movement by hunters to preserve their prized game so they could continue to hunt. At first this seems counter-intuitive. Yet, their efforts raised money, preserved habitat, and restricted access that allowed populations at risk to recover. Hunters make up eight percent of the population, but fund more than 80 percent of the budgets for state wildlife agencies. Making alliances with hunters is a chance to teach and participate in this big picture of healthy habitats.

Impact of Hunters on Wildlife

In 1937 a pivotal event changed hunting from degradation to conservation. Senator Key Pittman and Congressman Absalom Willis Robertson proposed that hunters should pay for conservation. The measure passed into law as Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration, or the Pittman-Robertson Act. This law imposes an excise tax on firearms, ammunition, and archery equipment that funds wildlife habitat and research projects.

According to Steve Hall, executive director of the International Hunter Education Association (IHEA), "Hunters' purchases of sporting/ hunting equipment and licenses have provided the bulk of funding for acquisition of wild landscapes, research, habitat management, and hunter education--a win-win formula." In 76 years this has raised over $8 billion for active management of wild landscapes, benefitting game and non-game.

Naturalists often interpret for hikers and birders. However, as Fred Wooley, interpretive naturalist for Pokagon State Park in Indiana, explained, "The effect of hikers and birders is more passive," he said. "They encounter the wildlife, watch it, then they all go their separate ways. The habitat does not change."

But sometimes habitat change is necessary. As the populations of creatures like white-tailed deer, muskrat, beaver, and raccoon grew out of balance, they became nuisances. There was no cover for box turtles. Some birds stopped nesting in the park. The forest lost years of growth.

"We have used hunters to manage our deer herd since 1995. Science guides us and hunters do the work. The results have been dramatic," Wooley said. "There is cover again for box turtles. Several pair of hooded warblers are nesting here again. The deer look better too. They are heavier and healthier."

Opportunities and Hunter Ethics

The mission of interpretive naturalists is to make the outdoors relevant. The action of hunters directly affects wild populations. This brings a tremendous opportunity for interpreters to guide hunters' actions and ethics.


Teach a hunter safety course, completion of which is mandatory in many states. Indiana's hunter safety curriculum has sections on wildlife habitat and ethics. Lt. Larry Morrison, director of Indiana Law Enforcement's Outdoor Education Section, said, "Teaching them about habitat, they will understand it takes a combination of things to survive for these animals. We emphasize that loss of habitat is the main reason for animals becoming extinct."

LaGrange County Parks (LCP) in Indiana trains the next generation's hunters. Jim Gust, Indiana Master Naturalist and park volunteer, teaches hunter safety "to see environmental management and sustainable principles as something to be perpetuated." He explained, "If we don't take care of what we've got, we're going to lose it."

Are interpretive naturalists good candidates for hunter safety instructors? Steve Hall of IHEA says absolutely! "Interpretive naturalists are skilled at providing experiential education, motivating participants toward meaningful action, and helping students see the bigger picture. Interpreters tend to make some of the best hunter education instructors."

Ginger Murphy, assistant director for stewardship for Indiana DNR State Parks Reservoirs said, "Some of the best 'naturalists' I know who understand plants, wildlife, and relationships are hunters. Interpreters would do well to get to know hunters, learn from them, and understand their outdoor ethics and intent."

Rich Pawling, proprietor of History Alive, created his character Bucky Jones to interpret the story of Pennsylvania's Game Commission. Bucky lives 100 years ago and is a murderous poacher who doesn't like being told what to do. Pawling's program launches decades later into the great success story of Pennsylvania's wildlife through game laws and management. Pawling believes that interpreters can guide the influence hunters have on wildlife. "I did not grow up hunting," he said, "but I had a mentor take me on hunting trips and introduce me to the values that should be carried by hunters. Interpretive naturalists have an opportunity to fill the void in that cultural experience gap."

Pawling added, "To really be effective and have positive influence in the hunting culture, take time to learn the hunting culture. We are basically talking about the same stuff. Find that common ground and build it into relationships of trust.... Reverence for wildlife is essential to be an ethical hunter."

Bob Dispenza of Metea County Park, Fort Wayne, Indiana, advocates for interpreters instructing hunters. "Interpreters understand thematic presentations and providing memorable experiences. One of the main objectives is to have participants remember and apply what they learn, which is more likely with an interpretive framework."

Produce Media and Displays

More tools are available now than ever before for innovative interpretation. Use things such as electronic media to your interpretive advantage.

LaGrange County Parks has produced videos addressing topics in the hunter safety curriculum: "10 Commandments of Firearm Safety," "Shopping for Habitat: The Pittman-Robertson Act," "Smith & Wesson & the Poacher: A Tale Of Hunter Ethics." These videos are accessible on YouTube for anyone's use. Consider the impact of making podcasts or mobile apps for hikers and hunters--waterfowl identification, track identification, wildlife signs, and so on.

Metea County Park has an interpretive display provided by their local chapter of National Wild Turkey Federation. Why would NWTF be willing to pay for something at a nature center? "NWTF knows our visitors may have more knowledge of nature than most, but some need to be aware of what hunters and hunting do to benefit wildlife and habitats," said Bob Dispenza, Metea's park and education manager.

Host Events

Host an event that welcomes hunters. One ready-made opportunity is National Hunting and Fishing Day, the fourth Saturday of September.

Build an event from scratch. Master Naturalist Jim Gust initiated "Wild Game Recipes" at Gene Stratton Porter State Historic Site, Rome City, Indiana. Gust said that the successful program "was an idea to align interpreters, volunteers, park patrons, and hunters in a positive setting. Sharing recipes and fine food in a festive atmosphere brought folks from two camps of wildlife lovers to common ground. This was important for us to help non-hunters understand the value of hunting as a valid management tool."


There are many conservation organizations that specialize in their favorite wildlife. They share a common goal. Habitat is fundamental for the survival of all wildlife, game or non-game. Your interpretive site has lots to offer these conservation organizations.

Dave Arrington of Pheasants Forever's Pigeon River chapter said, "What I appreciate about our partnership with LaGrange County Parks is they teach ethics. Other programs seem to be lacking discussions on ethics, but with LCP it is an emphasis. We want to encourage hunters to practice the values of respect, conservation, and fairness."

Christine Rolka, education director for the National Wild Turkey Federation, encourages partnerships. "The return of wild turkey from the brink of extinction to nearly 7 million today is a great example of what partnerships between conservation organizations like NWTF and wildlife agencies can accomplish. Research shows people who know hunters tend to support hunting. Partnering with NWTF is a great way to introduce your visitors to a hunter, a conservationist, and a lifestyle."

Resources Are Available

Starting any new program can be a daunting task, especially if it is expanding into an unfamiliar realm. There is no need to feel out of place and overwhelmed. Many resources are available to assist hunter education programs. In addition to your state's certification training, there are educational visuals, research data, videos, and even grants to acquire teaching materials.

A grant from NWTF Hunting Heritage Superfund acquired a non-firing Mossberg five-gun training set for LCP. Pheasants Forever provided the remaining non-firing arms to complete our set of training props. This allows interpretive role play with real-weight and functioning arms to practice safe handling, loading, unloading, and carrying. There are realistic airsoft arms (plastic pellet shooters) that can be used to teach safe habits. Even props from a toy box can be useful for learning safe habits.

Remington's hunter education package contains posters illustrating sporting arms actions and shell-and-cartridge cutaways. It is free for the asking. Federal Ammunition has teaching aids available for minimal investment.

NWTF provides K-12 curriculum materials and exhibit and display resources. Christine Rolka emphasized, "Thanksgiving is when we receive the most requests for everything turkey, and that presents a huge teachable turkey moment for interpreters."

Many sport hunting vendors provide free catalogs for class participants. Free practice targets are available for download that make great stuffers for participant goody bags. Temporary transportation tags are available for download. They are a great thing to have in a student's hand before leaving class.

Tap into all your creativity as an interpreter to make a class or event successful. Make props, produce videos, assemble slide shows, and apply the principles of interpretation.

Professional interpreters have a reputation for being enthusiastic about the wild world. Hunters, too, are enthusiastic about wildlife. When the worlds of the interpreter and the hunter infect each other with care and reverence for wildlife, we can work together for positive influence. It's all about habitat!

Scott Beam is an interpretive naturalist with LaGrange County Parks in Wolcottville, Indiana. Reach him at
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Title Annotation:MANAGEMENT
Author:Beam, Scott
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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