The 2009 North Dakota Legislature continued a recent nationwide trend by creating a few new opportunities designed to recruit and retain hunters.
A year ago, elected representatives of North Dakota endorsed an apprentice license for hunters who haven't taken and passed a certified hunter education course. The legislature also reduced the minimum age for deer hunting with a gun from 14 to 12, though 12- and 13-year-olds can participate only during the early youth deer hunting season and not in the regular firearms season in November.
Many readers likely established their hunting heritage long before specific youth deer, waterfowl and pheasant seasons were set up to create environments that would help create or maintain interest among young hunters. In all honesty, I've been in many discussions where hunters of my generation - the knocking-on-40 category - question the necessity of youth hunts and special licenses, the argument being that they developed a life-long involvement without any special seasons or licenses.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department's overall response is, why not? I don't necessarily agree that the competition for time among today's youth is any greater than when I grew up in the 1980s, or for others in decades before. We too had sports, friends and games. Football, baseball and kick-the-can or anti-I-over are games we played outside, but they were games and it was a competition for other activities including hunting. The competition now is just more electronic.
It's obvious we’ve experienced a population shift from rural to urban areas. This is perhaps the most significant factor for embracing youth-specific hunts and seasons. As Bismarck, Fargo, Grand Forks and Minot populations maintain or expand, most smaller communities have fewer residents and young people.
While it's certainly possible to foster an interest in hunting, fishing or trapping within an urban setting, there just seems to be a little more opportunity and less congestion farther from population centers. Youth seasons provide that little extra time for young hunters to gain quality experience when there is usually less competition for hunting space, and the accompanying adult's attention is focused solely on the youth hunter.
It's still too early to judge the long-term success of last year's legislation in terms of hunter recruitment or retention. We do know that 2,349 hunters age 16 or older took advantage of the apprentice license option with its one-year exemption from hunter education requirements. That's 2,349 hunting licenses that likely would not have been sold otherwise, about two-thirds of which went to nonresidents and one-third to residents.
Game and Fish will measure long-term success based on how many of those who bought an apprentice license last year (or in the future) move on to take a hunter education course and participate in future years.
Nearly 1,600 12- and 13-year-olds purchased an antlerless white-tailed deer license for the youth season. That's 1,600 licenses Game and Fish would otherwise not have issued.
However, the success of this effort will eventually be measured in how many of those youngsters become deer hunters who would not otherwise have hunted deer if they had been required to wait until age 14 to get their first deer license. We do know that since the first youth deer season in the mid-1990s, the percentage of 14 and 15-year-olds who at least try deer hunting has increased notably. In recent years, the total number of deer hunters has increased as well.
While we’ll have to wait years to measure the long-term influence these two new pieces of legislation have on hunting in North Dakota, the numbers at least for the first year are encouraging.
Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. He can be reached by email:firstname.lastname@example.org