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Finding ways to get more kids into the outdoors

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Ellynn McLean, 11, of Saginaw aims her bow at a target during the United Northern Sportsmen's Club Youth Outdoor Field Day. Despite the efforts of groups such as the United Northern Sportsmen's Clubs, the percentage of youths getting into hunting and fishing in Minnesota has declined. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 5
Fire erupts from the .50 caliber flintlock rifle that Zach Greniger, 16, fires during the United Northern Sportsmen's Club Youth Outdoor Field Day north of Duluth recently. About 70 youths attended the event, aimed at acquainting them with shooting sports and hunting activities. Fewer Minnesota kids are taking up hunting and fishing than did in the past, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 5
Victor Erickson, 9, of Cotton shoots a .22-caliber rifle during the United Northern Sportsmen's Club Youth Outdoor Field Day held north of Duluth recently. The event gave kids an opportunity to try out archery, trap shooting, rifle shooting and black-powder shooting. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com4 / 5
Tover Allen, 8, of Duluth shoots a compound bow during the United Northern Sportsmen's Club Youth Outdoor Field Day at Island Lake north of Duluth recently. Fewer young people are getting into hunting and fishing than in past years, according to studies. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com5 / 5

Minnesotans love to fish. The state likely will again sell more than one million angling licenses this year. Hunting, too, remains a strong tradition in the state.

But beneath those passions lies a troubling trend, say Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials.

“Our total number of license sales has held relatively steady, but our population is increasing and our hunting and fishing participation as a whole is dropping. That’s a concern for us,” said Jeff Ledermann, DNR angler recruitment, retention and education supervisor.

That’s why the DNR will convene a summit next Friday and Saturday in Brooklyn Center, Minn., to explore ways to get — or keep — more Minnesotans hunting and fishing.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, about 40 percent of Minnesotans ages 16 and older had a fishing license, according to a 2014 DNR study. By 2013, that figure had fallen to 27 percent.

Hunting participation was relatively stable near 16 percent from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, according to the study, after which it fell to about 12 percent by 2013.

The overall declines in fishing and hunting participation from 2000 to 2013 can be attributed mostly to the decline among young adults (younger than 45), according to the study. People age 16 to 44 who were licensed to hunt dropped 19.1 percent from 2000 to 2013, the study found; those in the same age group licensed to fish dropped 17.2 percent from 2000 to 2013.

Why the decline?

Experts in the field offer a multitude of reasons for the per-capita drop in hunter and angler numbers. They include, among others:

  • the shift of our population from rural to urban living.
  • people having less free time for those activities.
  • the increasing importance of technology in our lives.
  • the increasing demands of youth sports.

Tim Bates, associate director of the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Recreational Sports Outdoor Program, has seen the shift in outdoor pursuits among students coming to UMD. He cited several reasons for the shift away from hunting and fishing.

“I think it’s partly the loss of mentorship of someone older to take a person hunting or fishing,” Bates said. “When Mom or Dad or Grandpa is so busy, they don’t have time to take the youth, or they never had the opportunity themselves. There are less and less people who have the skills as mentors.”

People have many more opportunities competing for their time now, too, he said.

“It’s everything from organized sports to video games and indoor activities,” Bates said. “It seems that organized sports are becoming more organized in the summer than they used to be.”

Duluth’s Darrell Spencer agrees. He teaches firearms safety classes twice a year for the DNR. He holds youth camps during the summer that offer sessions on hunting and fishing. He helps organize the Youth Fall Outdoor Expo for the Izaak Walton League.

“Families are so busy now,” Spencer said. “Soccer’s year-around. Baseball’s year-around. Hockey’s year-around. Both folks are working 40 to 60 hours a week. They’re tired. They’re not taking kids hunting and fishing. It’s not that the kids don’t want to do it.”

The DNR’s Ledermann agreed with those assessments and added another.

“There’s also increasing urbanization, people moving away from more rural areas and off the farm,” Ledermann said. “That makes it more challenging and people have more of a disconnect with nature.”

People’s perception of what is safe for kids to do might also lead to the decline in some activities. Bates calls it the “fear factor.”

“When you and I grabbed a fishing pole and got on our bikes and were gone all day, it was no big deal,” Bates said. “Now, there’s the perception that things are dangerous out there.”

Lack of revenue

Minnesota’s decline in hunting and fishing participation is an issue for the DNR, which relies on license sales to fund its management activities, and for the outdoor industry that sells ammunition and other gear. The decline in participation also makes a difference to conservation groups that count on hunters and anglers who value the outdoors to stand up for its preservation.

But Ledermann said the concerns go beyond economics.

“Our biggest reason for concern is the disconnect between people and the outdoors,” he said. “We want to try to change that. We know when folks spend time outside, they tend to be more concerned about nature.”

Beyond all of that, the restorative effects of immersion in the natural world have been well-documented in scientific studies.

For years, conservation groups and outdoor programs across the Northland have made efforts to get young people outdoors. In Duluth, several sporting, civic and outdoor groups have devoted a lot of time and energy exposing kids to hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities. Those groups include the Izaak Walton League, Hartley Nature Center, United Northern Sportsmen’s Club, the St. Louis/Carlton County chapter of Pheasants Forever, the Duluth Retriever Club, Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, Vintage Sport Camps, Ruffed Grouse Society, Arrowhead Fly Fishers, the Lake Superior Steelhead Association, the Minnesota Trappers Association, Proctor Gun Club and more. All have offered either workshops, day-long expos or other activities designed to give young people hands-on experiences in the outdoors.

In addition, hundreds of youths attend the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association’s Forkhorn Camps each summer. Hundreds of school kids travel to Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center and Laurentian Environmental Center each year through school-sponsored trips. The DNR offers many mentored hunting events annually.

Hartley Nature Center and several other preschools in Duluth now offer extensive outdoor play as a part of the learning experience.

And just last year, the DNR launched an effort making grants from $5,000 to $50,000 available to organizations working to get more people into hunting and fishing.

Will efforts work?

Structured programs and one-time experiences, no matter how good, may not replace the natural way kids of an earlier era grew up in the outdoors. Richard Louv explores that issue in his book, “Last Child in the Woods.”

“As recently as the 1950s, most families still had some kind of agricultural connection,” Louv wrote. “Many of these children, girls as well as boys, would have been directing their energy and physicality in constructive ways: doing farm chores, baling hay, splashing in the swimming hole, climbing trees, racing to the sandlot for a game of baseball. Their unregimented play would have been steeped in nature.”

Although Duluth’s Spencer is involved in expos and camps that teach kids about hunting and fishing, his concern is less about declining participation than educating today’s kids.

“My goal is to teach people to be good hunters,” Spencer said. “Hopefully, we’re bringing up good, environmentally conscious outdoors people… I think what we’re doing makes a difference. I don’t care about quantity. I care about quality — that we have good people out there.”

At this week’s DNR workshop, participants will be given a “toolkit” of ways to help groups with limited resources encourage kids to get outside, Ledermann said.

“Our future depends on being able to understand and be part of nature,” the DNR’s Ledermann said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, no doubt about it.”