Many new hunters turning to sport for local, 'green' tablefare
Jackson Landers grew up in a vegetarian household — he didn't eat his first cheeseburger until he was 10 or 12 — but he might be the future of hunting.
Shoot, he might be the now of the sport.
The 35-year-old resident of Charlottesville, Va., became a hunter nine years ago. He was drawn to it not because he wanted a trophy set of antlers to hang on the wall, but out of a desire to harvest, process, prepare and consume his own healthy meat.
“It's sort of the same value that makes people plant their own garden or bake their own bread. It's the same question, really,” Landers said.
He's far from being alone in thinking that way. Today, more than ever, people are turning to hunting for sustenance.
Responsive Management, a Virginia-based research firm, conducted a nationwide survey this year asking hunters 18 and older to identify the “single most important” reason they went afield. Respondents were asked to choose from a list of potential reasons, including being with family and friends, being close to nature, for the sport/recreation, for the meat or for a trophy.
According to Responsive Management president Mark Damian Duda, more hunters chose “for the meat” than any other reason, including even for recreation/sport.
That's a change from how things used to be.
When Responsive Management did a similar survey in 2006, recreation/sport was the top motivation among hunters, followed by “to be with family.” Food was only the third-most-cited consideration.
In this year's survey, the percentage of hunters looking for meat increased while the other motivations all saw declines.
That information, combined with other studies done in seven states with the greatest increase in hunter participation between 2006 and 2001 that revealed similar results, are proof of a trend that “is widespread and unmistakable,” Duda said.
There are likely three reasons for the changing face of hunting.
Duda said more women are hunting, and they tend to be more motivated by obtaining meat than men. The recession is driving people to put food on the table, he added. And the locavore movement — which has people looking for local, natural, “green” food — is growing.
Landers said he sees all of those things.
After writing a book called “The Beginner's Guide to Hunting Deer for Food,” he began teaching classes on how to become a hunter. Students start off in a classroom, learning about anatomy, natural history, ballistics and gun safety, then go into the field to learn about tracks and scats, terrain, wind, ambush spots and more. They shoot on the range and even butcher a deer.
His clients aren't your traditional hunters.
They range in age from 20 to 80. Forty percent are women. Some are devotees of “crossfit” fitness training. Others are former vegetarians or even vegans. Many are politically liberal.
But all — despite their disparate backgrounds — want to secure their own healthy food.
“They don't want you helping them get a deer if you're going to then tell them how to drag it out of the woods and take it to a processor. That would be like growing tomatoes and, when it's time to harvest them, bringing in a contractor,” Landers said.
“They want the pride of turning this into food on their own.”
There's no denying that venison is a healthier alternative to most beef, said Martin Bucknavage, a senior food safety extension associate at Penn State University's main campus.
“Venison, like beef, is a great source of protein. However, venison has much less fat, and especially saturated fat, compared to beef,” Bucknavage said.
“Venison also has less cholesterol and is a great source of vitamins, including vitamin B12, B6, thiamine niacin and riboflavin.”
It might be that the people interested in deer and other game for those health benefits will “save” the sport.
Statistics from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other sources show that participation in hunting had been on the decline nationally for decades prior to a recent uptick. Might linking hunting to food gathering sustain that momentum?
That's being explored.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources recently partnered with Michigan State University to organize a symposium called “Food for Thought: Hunting as a Connection to Nature Through the Food We Eat” at a national conference of wildlife managers. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife recently hosted a seminar on “Sourcing Proteins: A Panel Discussion on Hunting, Fishing, and Foodies” at another.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries recently hired Landers as coordinator of its hunter safety program then expanded the job to involve developing a curriculum to train new hunters.
It's important such programs work, Landers said. The North American model of wildlife conservation says all wildlife belongs to all people, he said. But it requires having lots of license-buying hunters for the funding to support it.
People interested in food can be those hunters, he said.
“I've been telling people this is the future of hunting,” Landers said. “We have an opportunity where we have all of these people who want to do it. We just have to teach them.
“I hope it works. It's certainly the first daylight we've seen for a while.