By: Michael G. Sabbeth
“When I wake up here, I see acres of land. When I wake up at home, I see concrete,” Erika said emphatically. Her eyes expressed her earnestness; her furrowed brows indicated her search for her most expressive words.
Erika was among several young hunters Leon McNeil arranged for me to interview by Zoom on a youth hunt in Devine, Texas. Awed by the quiet and tranquility of the ranch, Erika expressed her gratitude for her gracious hosts.
McNeil is an educator at the San Antonio Academy and founder of City Kids Adventures, which sponsors hunting opportunities for about 150 inner-city youth each year. McNeil and Leticia, his wife, have been involved with youth hunting for 24 years.
Erika’s experiences and observations are common for inner-city youth. David Baxter, from Houston, Texas, a Hunting Master with the Texas Youth Hunting Program, has organized dozens of inner-city youth hunts that have enriched the lives of hundreds of young adults.
Baxter affirmed Erika’s reaction to visiting a ranch:
“When the inner-city kids get off the bus or out of the van, the first thing they want to do is take off. They are amazed at the space,” said Baxter. “Their homes or apartments are small, and they do not come from an environment where they can walk as far as they can see. In their neighborhood, walking too far is dangerous.”
I build this article primarily on my visits with Leon McNeil and Dave Baxter. I spent dozens of hours speaking, texting, and emailing with them. I spent many hours interviewing McNeil’s students and hunting with Baxter’s youngsters at Chris Mott’s ranch. Steve Hall, Hunter Education Coordinator, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, refers to McNeil, Baxter and their dedicated colleagues as the “Pied Pipers” who are creating the new Texas hunting heritage. The Pied Pipers do more than provide healthy outdoor experiences for hundreds of minority and inner-city youth. The Pied Pipers and their young hunters are positively and profoundly impacting hunting’s viability.
Demography is Destiny
Demography is destiny. This truism is as applicable to a nation’s future as it is to hunting’s future.
Five key demographic trends in the United States run counter to what is optimal for hunting’s future:
1. an increase in the total U.S. population
2. increases in urban residents
3. diminishing number of older residents who have links to hunting and firearms
4. minority populations, generally concentrated in cities, who have no history of hunting
5. immigrant populations who have no history of hunting
Not to belabor the obvious, but as urban, non-hunting populations increase, the relative percentage of hunters decreases. Consequently, these trends indicate fewer people linked to hunting environments, fewer having easy access to hunting venues, less demand for hunting licenses, less funding for wildlife management and law enforcement, and the comparative decrease of political power of pro-hunting constituencies.
Fortunately, positive, pro-hunting trends have developed despite this past COVID-plagued year. According to an early 2021 study initiated by the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports, participation in outdoor recreation activities has soared, and hunting license sales have increased.
Overall, hunting license sales in 2020 increased by approximately 5 percent over 2019, and 35 of 40 states saw an overall increase in the number of licenses sold in 2020 compared to 2019. Whether more people hunted is not known with precision.
More good news is that the U. S. Department of the Interior informs that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has promoted public access to hunting and fishing in the largest expansion of opportunities to date. More on that here.
Diversity and Inclusivity Enrich Hunting
More relevant to this article’s subject is the stellar effort and investment made by the International Hunter Education Association-USA in funding surveys on the demographics of young hunters. Alex Baer, Executive Director of the IHEA-USA, told me that available data shows trends of the growth of male and female students through the COVID period.
Preliminary data shows that all numbers increased nationally in 2020 compared to 2019. The most encouraging data indicated that hunter education numbers increased across every demographic and age group, and, most significantly for purposes of this article, the numbers increased in every ethnic demographic.
Consistent with its commitment to enrich diversity and inclusivity, the IHEA-USA is building a student demographic database that will identify trends and movement.
“You get what you measure,” Alex Baer told me. “Our measuring processes will advance hunting participation in all groups.”
The challenge confronting the hunting communities is how to look at these trends strategically to achieve their goals. Mentoring, refining hunter education, school programs designed by organizations such as the Outdoor Tomorrow Foundation in Dallas, and enlarging the hunting community are examples of effective strategies.
One effective strategy is engaging landowners in partnerships with government and non-government organizations. Baxter told me a lot of white millionaires enthusiastically invite minority kids to their properties. One season he mentored a group of ten inner-city youngsters who had never hunted. Baxter reached out to a few ranchers and immediately received hunting invitations for all of them.
This past December, Brett, my son-in-law, and I joined Baxter on a youth hunt in Linden, Texas. Chris Mott, owner of the ranch, enthusiastically hosted us, three minority youth hunters, and several grandparents and one of their friends.
“If I’m not there when you arrive,” Mott told Baxter, whom he had never met, “the key is here, and there’s plenty of food in the kitchen. Help yourselves!”
You won’t find a finer person than Mott, but he is not alone.
The three youngsters and their accompanying family members and friends were black. Brett, Mott, and I are white. Color never mattered. Baxter has the skill to distill complex issues into easily digestible bits.
“The only colors I care about,” Baxter exhorted, “are camouflage and hunter orange. The color of your skin means nothing.”
Ethnicity doesn’t matter. Race doesn’t matter.
“There are no brown, black, yellow, or white values,” Baxter added. “There are human values. People are all equally capable of integrating the values and culture of the hunter. They should all be given the opportunity to do so.”
Creating a New Hunting Heritage
This brings us to the work being done now by Baxter, Hall, McNeil, and others who enrich a more diverse and inclusive hunting heritage.
Some youngsters have a hunting heritage—a parent, grandparent, another relative who has hunted or does hunt. Those youngsters do not have to be sold on hunting. But that population is diminishing. For many young people, particularly those in the inner cities and urban communities, that historic or generational link to a hunting culture or ethos or heritage does not exist.
David Baxter chuckled when he told me a common comment from inner-city youth about their hunting heritage: “I have a heritage! I go to the grocery store!”
The overarching goal is unifying the benefits of diversity and inclusion into a stronger, more resilient distillate that is committed to preserving and defending hunting. The unifying inspiration for creating something stronger from diverse sources is found in the most fundamental of all fundamental principles of the founding of the United States: E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One!
The blossoming contours of the new hunting heritage or culture are illustrated through the comments of the young hunters.
Andrew, who was on the Divine hunt with McNeil, expressed the conflicting realities of appreciating the animal’s beauty yet recognizing the value of the harvest as meat for his family.
Hunting, Andrew said, caused him to see things differently; to see a bigger picture, to know the animals and understand the cycle of life. Most impactful, he continued, “was becoming aware of the brutality of Nature.”
Unlike Bambi’s world, Nature is a rough neighborhood. “These changes helped me. I am more appreciative of anything I do. I saw how easy it was to take things for granted.”
Hunting, McNeil told me, can break down negative pre-existing beliefs and disclose previously held fallacies. Erika realized a firearm can be tool, not just a violent weapon.
“Firearms are no joke. Things can get very bad very fast with a firearm,” she acknowledged. But a firearm enabled her to take meat back to her family. Initially aggressively criticized when she started hunting, Erika was denounced as a murderer and killer of innocent animals. Those are rough accusations to be hurled at anyone, but worse when launched at a young woman or man.
But, through hunting, Erika was educated and gained experience. She patiently informed her friends about deer population management and hunters financing wildlife protection programs. As Erika passed on her knowledge and perspectives, her peers became more understanding. “I harvested that meat. I didn’t go to a grocery store. Now my friends think hunting is cool!”
Erika affirms Andrew’s statements regarding hunting’s ability to enrich personal growth. She spoke of the virtues of the hunting community.
“The hunting community is so different from what you hear in general. Hunters reinforce each other to be ethical and responsible.” Erika added, “The responsibility and discipline learned from hunting applies in real life.” They helped her in school. “They made me more respectful. The change has been dramatic in the five years I’ve been in the program.”
The foundation of this expanded hunting heritage built upon character and personal responsibility is profoundly meaningful to these young adults. Bringing home meat for the family is a tangible benefit, not an abstraction. Pride is instilled when the young hunter becomes a contributor. McNeil told me about one young female hunter who was responsible for taking care of 10 (!) siblings. Her relationship with hunting is complex. Hunting gives her an opportunity to be a kid, but at the same time hunting enables her to provide meat for her family.
Hunting helped her fulfill a need for meaning and purpose, not supplied by walking down a supermarket aisle. McNeil shared that his hope was she “would never forget how hunting has given her an opportunity to support her family in a very meaningful way and was a method for developing self-respect.”
Diversity and inclusivity imbue a new vibrant population with a sense of causality. As a general proposition, things don’t happen by accident.
“Well-managed places to hunt don’t happen by accident,” Baxter told his young hunters at Mott’s ranch. “Someone put in the time, resources, and creativity to prepare the land for hunting.”
A hunter once commented to him that some owner was lucky to have a particular hunting property. Baxter responded wryly, “You should have seen this place when God had it all by himself!”
In the 1930s, Winston Churchill said, among his many prescient statements, that “One of the signs of a great society is the diligence with which it passes culture from one generation to the next. When one generation no longer passes on the things that are dear to it, its heroes, and their stories and its religious faith, it’s in effect saying that the past is null and void; it’s of no value. That leaves young people a lack of direction and a lack of purpose.”
Baxter, McNeil, Hall, and their colleagues instill what is near and dear to the hunters; those who value and sustain healthy wildlife populations and finance law enforcement and game management. These achievements are profound. They are the modern iterations of Teddy Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold. Nothing less.
The New Hunting Heritage Goes Beyond Hunting
These young hunters come from different backgrounds, but hunting can unify them because hunting draws upon the deepest meaning and values of the human soul. Hunting is, literally, aiming at a goal. Hunting is self-discipline, work, self-sufficiency, not getting a goal at every excursion, honor, integrity, training, and personal responsibility. Hunting deals with profound issues: life and death; beauty and reality’s sadness. Hunting is a type of glue.
Baxter spoke eloquently of the youngsters’ responsibility to what he calls the camouflage community. “Show your appreciation for the people who got you here. Do not just say ‘thank you.’ Show ‘thank you.’ That builds character,” Baxter said.
McNeil, similarly, views the outdoors and hunting as hooks to give students the opportunity to develop virtuous characters.
Lots of accomplishments on a hunt have nothing to do with hunting or killing an animal.
“You have one job,” McNeil tells his students. “Be the best you can be! It’s not about hunting. It’s about making conscious decisions.”
Hard work, McNeil emphasizes, has many rewards. He told me developing stronger moral character through hunting enables young people to deal more successfully with life’s unfairness.
Every reader knows that hunting is more than harvesting an animal. McNeil and Baxter underscored with intensity that for inner city youngsters, hunting is a metaphor for the larger currents that lead to a successful life. This internal sense of respect and responsibility derived from hunting becomes a source of strength for dealing with the external environment over which these youngsters—and all of us—have no control—the unfairness, the incompetence, the difficulties, even the evil of others. Hunting can teach lessons to make lives better.
As I posit in my new book, The Honorable Hunter, my foundational premise is that when young hunters link hunting with strengthening their moral character and making them more competent, confident people, they will become life-long undaunted hunters and hunting advocates, even if they do not hunt. Linking hunting to developing virtuous character will enhance the new hunting heritage.
Each moment mentoring a young hunter from the expanded population described above is a priceless investment in that young person, in that youngster’s family, his or her community and in hunting’s future. We hunters would do well to absorb this reality. Companies spend millions of dollars advertising that focuses on a demographic that is dissipating like smoke at a campfire. Mott sees the big picture. “Everything is for the children. Only the youngsters can sustain hunting. Reaching out to inner city youngsters is strategy that is vital to securing a vibrant hunting future.”
I add a caveat, however, poignantly expressed by McNeil and which, frankly, would not have occurred to me—an example of a benefit of diversity. McNeil respectfully cautioned me, “Don’t go looking for minorities as if they are trophies. Their inclusion must be a natural, organic process.”
Erika rightly serves as a metaphor for the value of weaving diversity and inclusion into hunting. Illustrated through her is the triumphant transcendent attainment of mutual beneficiaries: Erika is enriched by hunting, but hunting is enriched by Erika. That’s how a new hunting heritage is created!
For More Information:
Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports: https://cahss.org/covid-19-and-hunting/
Texas Youth Hunting Program: https://tyhp.org
Michael Sabbeth is the author of the new book, The Honorable Hunter: How To Honorably & Persuasively Defend & Promote Hunting.