HOST INTRO: Each year, fewer and fewer Americans go hunting. That trend worries the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, because they get the bulk of their funding from hunters. So they’re beefing up their efforts to recruit new hunters. The latest plan is to recruit kids through a reality TV show. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports.
WILLOW BELDEN: It’s a sunny December day at Wagonhound Ranch near Douglas. Fourteen-year-old Kyle Thomas positions his rifle on a shooting range table. He’s wearing a brand new camouflage jacket and pants. His guide, Dax McCarty, shows him how to aim at the target.
DAX MCCARTY: And then just keep that tight – not too tight, where you’re tense, but tight where you’re comfortable. And then just squeeze the trigger. OK, you want to just increase the pressure until it goes off.
BELDEN: The bullet hits just shy of the bull’s eye. An hour later, Kyle has left the shooting range and is out in the field with his guide, peering over a ridge at a herd of elk. He waits until he has a clear shot at one particular female, and then BANG: he shoots. The elk falls. Kyle beams. His mother, Mary Billiter, is equally excited.
MARY BILLITER: Kyle, that’s huge! That was a really far away shot, wasn’t it?
MCCARTY: Two hundred eighty yards.
BILLITER: That’s far, right?
MCCARTY: That’s a good shot, yeah. A great shot.
BELDEN: They tromp over to the fallen elk … pose for pictures … and watch as the guide puts on long plastic gloves…
[plastic gloves rustling]
… slits open the elk’s stomach….
…and removes a steaming heap of innards.
MCCARTY: Here’s the heart. Here’s the liver. … That’s the lung.
BELDEN: This could be like any other teenager’s first hunt, except in this case, a TV crew is documenting everything. Kyle, his mom and his guide all have wireless mics clipped to their jackets. And the camera man occasionally asks them to recreate a scene so he can get a close-up.
Kyle is one of a handful of kids chosen to appear on a TV series that the Game and Fish Department is putting together. Hundreds of kids, most of whom had never hunted before, auditioned. Those who were chosen got to go on hunting and fishing trips with local guides. And everything was filmed.
The goal of the show, which is named “Call of the Wild,” is to get more people – particularly kids – interested in hunting.
ERIC KESZLER: Something like this is something we thought could really reach kids and their families and kind of make hunting and fishing look like something cool that families can do together.
BELDEN: That’s Eric Keszler of the Game and Fish Department. His department depends on money from hunting and fishing licenses … as well as taxes on hunting and fishing gear.
KESZLER: Overall, from hunters and anglers, we get 80 to 90 percent of our total budget.
BELDEN: With fewer hunters, Game and Fish would have less money to spend on conservation and wildlife management.
Certain research groups might also feel the pinch.
Matt Kauffman heads the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, which does ecological studies with an eye to managing and conserving animal populations. Kauffman says state funding doesn’t cover all their research expenses … so they often turn to sportsmen’s organizations for additional money.
MATT KAUFFMAN: If those groups become less active and their membership drops, a likely conclusion is that they will be generating less funding for conservation projects and for research.
BELDEN: Kauffman also says sportsmen’s groups are often more successful than conservation organizations at preventing development in pristine areas.
But nationwide, the hunting population is declining. There are about six million fewer sportsmen than there were 20 years ago. And older hunters are dying faster than they’re being replaced.
So far, WYOMING hasn’t lost many hunters. But Game and Fish is worried anyway.
KESZLER: We’re kind of anticipating that the same factors that are affecting people nationwide are going to affect people in Wyoming as well. And we kind of want to get ahead of that trend as much as we can.
BELDEN: So will this TV series do that? It’s a little unclear. The show is being aired on the Sportsmen’s Channel, which is all about hunting and fishing. So will the target audience (i.e. non-hunters) actually watch it?
KESZLER: That’s a good question. They probably won’t.
BELDEN: That’s one potential problem. Then there’s the question of the medium.
DAVID HUNT: If the only way that this program is available is a pretty traditional cable broadcast … I doubt these kids are sitting down on a weekly basis to watch the Sportsmen’s Channel.
BELDEN: That’s David Hunt, a marketing professor at the University of Wyoming. He says to reach today’s kids, programming needs to be available online, which this show won’t be.
But Keszler with Game and Fish is still optimistic, in part because of parents.
KESZLER: I’m hoping that we’ll reach some of those people who haven’t hunted or fished for a while but maybe have some experience doing that, and this will kind of spur them to get up off the couch and get their kids outdoors.
BELDEN: And at the very least, he and Hunt both say the TV series could bring more hunters from out of state to Wyoming.
For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.