The number of youth hunting licenses in Maine has dropped precipitously over 15 years, and proposed legislation this session – including one bill suggested by a pair of East Machias Middle School students – along with a new effort by the state to recruit hunters are aimed at turning that decline around.

Sales of the licenses to young Mainers have dropped 40 percent, from 17,515 in 2002 to 10,593 in 2017, the last year for which the state has data; sales to out-of-state youngsters have also dropped. The state requires the licenses for hunters age 16 and under.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is concerned, in part, because the department relies heavily on these sales for revenue. The reasoning is that if Mainers begin hunting as children, they’ll continue to do so as adults.

On Monday, members of the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee will vote whether to advance a bill that would create a youth turkey season around Thanksgiving. The bill was the idea of middle-schoolers Dakoda Davis and Makenna Gardner, both avid hunters, who think hunting is a better way for their peers to spend their time than how many do now.

“A lot of kids can’t wait to get home and play on their Xbox, or on the weekend they stay up until 3 a.m. playing video games,” said Gardner, who is 14. “It’s pretty much all they do.”

The two students asked their local state representative, Rep. William Tuell, R-Machias, to sponsor a bill to increase hunting opportunities for young people. A snowstorm prevented them from testifying on its behalf at a recent public hearing, but they plan to travel to Augusta to speak before the committee Monday. (Normally, the public may not speak at committee work sessions, but the legislators made an exception in this case because of the weather.)

RECRUITMENT EFFORT

At the same time, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has a new hunting recruitment officer working full time to recruit hunters of all ages. In July, DIF&W hired Katie Yates to serve as its first R3 coordinator. The same position is being created at many fish and game agencies nationwide to address recruitment, retention and reactivation of hunters.

Why is the state concerned?

“The Department is funded almost entirely through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and through a federal excise tax on hunting and fishing and shooting sports,” new Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Judy Camuso said at her confirmation hearing in January, adding that she would work with the Legislature “to identify the need to secure a more stable, consistent source of funding for the agency.”

In addition to funding the department’s work, hunters help state wildlife biologists manage the populations of whitetail deer, black bear and moose.

In her new job, Yates has been working with interested groups to put together an action plan. She’s interested in a tactic that R3 coordinators in other states have employed successfully – the use of surveys and targeted marketing, both through email and social media. The surveys indicate which age groups are not hunting, then the marketing reaches out to encourage folks in those groups to try the sport – or return to it.

Already, DIF&W surveys have found that adults between the ages of 25 and 35 make up one of Maine’s biggest non-hunting demographics, Yates said. So one goal of the new action plan is to recruit that demographic – which includes young families. Young parents, it’s hoped, will then raise their children to hunt.

“If we’re just targeting youth and not targeting moms or dads and the parents are not interested, then that’s a challenge for the kids,” Yates said. “So we’re shifting the focus to the guardian in charge of the kids. What are the barriers? What will motivate them to go out hunting? We’ve done the survey work. Now the next step is create some workshops (for adults).”

In March, the DIF&W will hold a turkey hunting seminar at its Gray headquarters to teach young families – parents and children – turkey hunting skills. Later in the year, a workshop on Swan Island in Richmond will teach young families how to forage for food, track wildlife and cook wild game.

The workshops will be advertised through a targeted marketing campaign. “We don’t want to hit someone who’s been a hunter forever,” Yates said. “We want to get someone who is new.”

LOST GENERATION

The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine identified the decline in youth hunting license sales as a problem years ago. In 2016, to combat the drop, the organization built an indoor shooting range for youth at its Augusta headquarters. Last year, the alliance opened a Youth and Family Outdoor Education Area behind its headquarters, featuring an outdoor shooting range, a stocked fishing pond and a 600-yard archery trail with 3D models of animals.

“I’m 55, and when I was growing up hunting and fishing was a major part of the community,” said David Trahan, the group’s executive director. “That seems to have skipped a generation.”

Some worry if the trend continues, Maine’s deep hunting tradition will miss another generation.

Middle-schoolers Davis and Gardner are living proof that families often foster an interest in the sport. Davis credits his interest to his grandfather, Bucket Davis, who takes him to camp every fall. Gardner was taught to hunt by her father. Both teenagers like to explore the outdoors, and they think their classmates are missing out.

Last week’s hearing on L.D. 33, Rep. Tuell’s “Act to establish a Thanksgiving youth turkey hunting season,” generated little public comment. Testifying for the department, DIF&W Wildlife Biologist Kelsey Sullivan was neither for nor against it. In sum – yes to youth hunting, no to November, when the weather hinders management of the turkey population. Given the department’s stance, Tuell doesn’t expect the bill to get far.

Regardless, he’s hopeful. “I think some form of the concept of getting kids out and more engaged in hunting will survive” in the Legislature, he said. “People are at least thinking about those types of issues.”

A second related bill is scheduled for a public hearing on Feb. 20. L.D. 617 would increase the number of youth deer hunting days from one to three. It’s sponsored by Rep. Sherman Hutchins, R-Penobscot, who did not return calls seeking comment. Trahan said a third bill to expand the number of young hunters may be in the works, as well.

Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: FlemingPph


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