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Fostering Support for Women Hunters in Wisconsin

Four weeks ago, I accompanied my friend Brittany on her first deer hunt. She was participating in a “Learn to Hunt” program through the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, who initiated the program in 1996 in response to a decade of falling hunter numbers both in Wisconsin and the United States.

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While hunting can be a controversial form of recreation, few people know how intimately tied it is to American environmental history and the way natural resource agencies fund their current conservation practices. Many of our great conservation leaders, including Theodore Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold, saw the need for conservation policy because they loved hunting. Their hard work and passion for wildlife helped pass laws to make hunters the main stakeholders and funders of government wildlife management.

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Today, over 90 percent of Wisconsin’s budget for wildlife management comes from hunters! This funding comes directly to the DNR through the sale of hunting licenses and indirectly from a policy called the 1937 Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (also known as the Pittman Robertson Act), which taxes hunting-related equipment like firearms and ammunition. Since overall participation in hunting has been decreasing, these funding structures are struggling to meet the budgetary needs to continue conservation practices. With so much history and thought behind these policies, it will take time to adapt them to reflect recent changes in how people interact with nature.

In 2008, researchers at Bryn Mawr College and the University of Illinois at Chicago showed that participation in many types of outdoor activities has declined at alarming rates since the 1980s—activities not limited only to hunting, but also including hiking, camping, backpacking, and visiting national and state parks. Due to urbanization, increasing constraints on personal time, and changing attitudes toward nature, people have started to spend less time outdoors and more time indoors interacting with electronic devices.

Because of this, natural resource professionals fear a disconnect between the public’s consumption of resources and their sustainable management. Right now, professionals in Wisconsin are tackling these issues by attempting to slow the decline of wildlife’s traditional stakeholder base of hunters, who often pride themselves on caring enough for wildlife to participate in and fund their sustainable management.

Where do women hunters fit into the mix?

That’s where my research focusing on nurturing the participation of women in hunting comes in. Interestingly, women constitute one of the only demographics of hunters on the rise nationwide. Throughout history, men have overwhelmingly dominated the hunting scene in most cultures. Records in the U.S. show that women traditionally comprise only 2-10% of the hunter population, and that the number of women who hunt is closely tied to the number of men who hunt in a given year. However, over the last few decades, the number of female hunters has been going up ever so slightly as the number of men goes down.

We know only a little about the interests, motivations, and learning styles of women hunters and how they differ from those of men. However, this shift in demographics might correspond with an overall increase in women’s participation in recreation. With the passing of legislation in 1972 prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity, the number of women participating in high school varsity athletics has increased from only 7% in 1972 to over 40% in 2011. We have no direct evidence of a connection between the Title IX legislation and hunting, but it seems plausible that an increase of this magnitude may have secondary, if not direct effects, on participation of women in many traditionally male-dominated recreation activities.

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This shift presents a unique opportunity for wildlife managers to learn more about women as a growing demographic of Wisconsin hunters. To explore ways to better support women interested in hunting, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Aldo Leopold Foundation have partnered to advise my Master’s project, which focuses on women who hunt. We are working to interview women of varying hunting participation rates in hopes of better understanding the reasons why women want to learn to hunt, and what helps and challenges their progress. Using this information, the DNR can make changes to regulations, Learn to Hunt programming, and mentoring strategies to better suit the learning styles of women, whose experiences of hunting are likely different than those of men.

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After sitting in the rain for seven hours, Brittany shot her first deer—a beautiful doe. For both of us, this experience embodied more than a few hours of outdoor recreation. Hunting together allowed us to help pave the way for new groups of people to interact with nature in a powerful way that is fading with our changing culture.