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Pa. Game Commission wants to reel in more students

| Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013, 8:41 p.m.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Gary Stanczak (left) and his son, Tyler Stanczak 13, of Irwin and members of Boy Scouts of America, troop 257 Irwin Moose, Jeff Batchen, of Monroeville, is donating his time and two German Short Hair Pointers, Sadie, bottom right, 2 years old, and Lexi, 1, not shown, Joe Benzinger and his son, Luke Benzinger, 16 and also a member of Boy Scouts of America, troop 257 Irwin Moose, at the youth pheasant hunt for boys and girls, ages 12 to 16 on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, at the Apollo-Spring Church Sportsmen's Club in Spring Church.

The good news?

The Pennsylvania Game Commission put nearly 41,000 students through its hunter-trapper education classes this year. That's the most in more than a decade and ranked second only to Texas in certifying new hunters last year.

The bad news?

History says not all of those students will ever hunt. Typically only about two-thirds of hunter-ed graduates go on to buy hunting licenses.

The trend is similar with mentored youth hunters, those who get to try the sport before age 12 under the guidance of an adult. Only about 50 percent of them become license-buying junior hunters.

“We're losing quite a few of them,” said Joe Neville, director of the commission's bureau of information and education.

Why that is and what can be done to address it will be the focus of some new research. The commission has contracted Penn State to build a “data mining machine” that will take the gobs of information collected through the automated licensing system and other sources and figure out what's going on, Neville said.

The cost of the contract is $200,000. It's being paid for with grant money.

Those within the agency are excited about the returns the project may offer, though.

“We're hoping they can help us answer some questions,” Neville said.

The commission knows some things already.

There's a “significant positive relationship” between the number of students who take a hunter safety course and the number of junior license buyers, said Coren Jagnow, human dimensions research specialist for the commission. More kids in class mean more hunters.

In years past, though, the commission offered classes around the schedules of its instructors, said Keith Snyder, chief of the commission's hunter education and outreach division. That often meant classes were held months outside of the hunting seasons.

In 2011 — as a result of web analytics, a system for measuring when people were on the commission web site looking for hunter-ed classes and where they were from — it switched to offering more classes in the fall in areas of high demand, such as southwestern Pennsylvania.

That “strategic scheduling” is partly behind the increase in students being seen now, Snyder said.

“Everything we had before in terms of demand for our classes was anecdotal. We really had no idea what people wanted or where they were located. It was really eye-opening,” Snyder said.

But what can be done to get more of those students to buy licenses is a question that remains. The hope is that the data mining machine will provide answers, Snyder said.

“This will allow us to isolate the disconnect that exists with hunter education graduates who never become junior hunters and mentored youth who never become junior hunters,” Snyder said.

“What are the barriers out there? What can we do to help them take that next step? What do they look like? Where are they from?”

It might be that some answers are gender related. Twenty percent of mentored youths are female, as are 24 percent of hunter education graduates, said Samantha Pedder, hunting outreach coordinator for the commission. Yet only 17 percent of junior hunters are girls, and only 7 percent of adults.

Some early look at adult license-buying trends — which the data mining machine also may be able to further explain — indicates the most die-hard hunters also tend to be fishermen, Snyder said. If it turns out they also tend to frequent places like state parks and forests, that might impact future strategies, Snyder said.

“As strange as it may sound, to create more hunters, we may have to help create more all-around outdoorsmen,” he said.

To that end, the commission — a longtime supporter of the National Archery in the Schools program — is working with teachers to get an “explore bowhunting” curriculum introduced into physical education classes, promoting it as a lifelong recreational activity. It's also getting involved in the state's GetOutdoors Initiative. State parks, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and partners like Venture Outdoors have long used it to introduce people to fishing, hiking, snowshoeing and more. The game commission wants to promote its youth field days and junior pheasant hunts.

Will any of that help?

“We are just beginning to learn the science of hunter recruitment, retention and reactivation,” Snyder said. “And we have a lot to learn.”

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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