In the hunt for younger recruits

Hunters are trying to get children more involved in their sport in hopes of keeping it alive


GREEN MOUNTAIN NATIONAL FOREST, Vt. - Chomping wad after wad of Bubblicious Strawberry Splash gum and giggling as she tickled people's necks with a piece of grass she pretended was a spider, Samantha Marley could have been any 9-year-old girl.

A couple of things set her apart, though. She was cloaked in camouflage from boots to baseball cap. And propped next to her on the seat of a truck was her very own 20-gauge shotgun.

Samantha, a freckle-faced, pony-tailed fourth-grader, was on a bear hunt. Not the pretend kind memorialized in picture books and summer-camp chants, but a real one for black bears that live in the woods of southwestern Vermont.

She had won a "dream hunt" given away by a Vermont man whose goal is to get more children to hunt, and she had traveled about 200 miles from her home in Bellingham, Mass., and was missing three days of school to take him up on his offer.

"Almost everything you hunt is pretty fun," said Samantha, grinning and perfectly at home with a group of five men, the youngest of whom was nearly three times her age.

At one point, as the group crossed a wooden bridge, Samantha's father, Scott, who had accompanied her - and had filled out her application for the hunting contest - teased her that trolls lived under the bridge.

"Dad," Samantha said with bravado, "I got a gun."

The dream hunt - all expenses paid, including taxidermy - was the brainchild of Kevin Hoyt, a 35-year-old hunting instructor who quit a job as a structural steel draftsman a few years ago and decided to dedicate himself to getting children across the country interested in hunting.

His efforts reflect what hunting advocates across the country say is an increasingly urgent priority, and what hunting opponents find troubling: recruiting more children to sustain the sport of hunting, which has been losing participants of all ages for two decades.

"Forty years from now our kids will be learning about this as history," said Larry Gauthier, one of Hoyt's buddies on the bear hunt. "Hunters should be included as an extinct species because we're falling away so fast, we need to be protected."

This year, three pro-hunting groups - the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance and the National Wild Turkey Federation - started Families Afield, a program to lobby states to lower the age at which children can hunt or to loosen the requirements for a child to accompany a parent on a hunt.

"We're trying to take down some legal barriers so kids can get involved earlier," said Steve Wagner, a spokesman for the shooting sports foundation, who said bills to those ends were being introduced in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The group says the 20 most restrictive states set 12 as the minimum hunting age and do not let a child accompany an adult on a hunt without completing hunter education training.

Vermont, by comparison, allows children of any age to hunt if they have passed a hunter's safety course and have parental consent.

Fish and game departments in some states, whose programs depend in part on the licensing fees hunters pay, are trying to entice youngsters with special hunting weekends. New Hampshire, for example, plans to have Youth Waterfowl Hunting Days this month for children 15 or younger, just before the start of the official waterfowl hunting season.

The number of hunting licenses in the United States dropped to 14.7 million in 2003, from 16.4 million in 1983, according to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. Hunting advocates note many reasons for the decline.

"Some of it has to do with habitat loss, urban sprawl taking away places where people used to hunt," Wagner said. "And people just don't have time."

He said that getting children involved in hunting earlier would be one way to turn the trend around. More than 90 percent of hunters are 35 or older, and nearly 80 percent of current hunters started between ages 6 and 15, the shooting sports foundation says. Hunting advocates say children are much less likely to become adult hunters if they wait until they are 16.

Hoyt, a father of five children under age 13, says he is committed to recruiting younger hunters.

"My youngest child was with me when he was 2 months old and I shot a deer with a muzzle-loader," he said. "He was in a backpack. I was stuck home baby-sitting, and I felt like hunting."

With his wife, Heather, supporting the family by working from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. at a veterans' home and a Wal-Mart, Hoyt devotes himself to his mission, asking for donations of services from outfitters, taxidermists, hunting guides and others.

Animal rights groups and other hunting opponents denounce Hoyt's efforts in part out of concern for the children's safety.

But Hoyt and other advocates say they take adequate precautions and argue that hunting builds appreciation for nature. They also say that hunting fees pay for restoring animal habitats, and that if the animals were not hunted, some would die anyway from sickness or hunger.

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