BEARCAT HOLLOW, Ark. • With traditional hunting participation in a slow but steady decline, conservation organizations are doing their best to address the issues that reach well beyond the mission of maintaining their own bases of membership. True reversal of the trend calls for self-propagating solutions. Perhaps no group working in this arena has so far gathered results from as sweeping a field as has the National Wild Turkey Federation in its outreach programs.
With a national membership of more than 250,000 enthusiasts whose concerns include wild turkeys but extend into all facets of conserving the outdoors, the NWTF has many separate missions underway dedicated to introducing new people to hunting, and to improving access to and the quality of public places to hunt.
“The societal decline in hunter numbers means less revenue for wildlife conservation through the loss of hunting license dollars and the fall in Pittman-Robertson funds,” Bob Karel, an NWTF staffer from Arkansas, said.
The Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937 established an excise tax on hunting equipment specifically to provide funding for wildlife habitat and management. With fewer licenses sold and fewer purchases of equipment being made, the fall in funding has become a major concern.
“It also means a steady loss of societal support and voting power,” Karel said. “Here in Arkansas we’re lucky to still have eight percent of our population regularly hunting. That’s about double the national average. Because of that, we’ve been able to put hundreds of trial hunters into the field through community initiatives of mentor-mentee hunting.”
Karel coordinates the Recruit, Retain, Reactivate mission for the NWTF in Arkansas. Commonly referred to as “R3,” the mission calls on all experienced hunters to commit to making a difference for the future, not only for hunting, but for the good of all wildlife.
“Our biggest challenge has been the question of, what happens after a new hunter’s trial hunt is over?” he said. “We’ve heard many say they’re hooked on hunting and want to keep going, but they don’t know where to go next. Without committing to paying an outfitter every time they go or joining a hunting lease, many are discouraged.
Plenty of room
“The thing is, though, we have three million acres of public land in Arkansas available to hunt. Making sure they have access to finding it, and making sure it has quality hunting opportunities when they get there, is a critical step to take next.”
That’s where the NWTF’s habitat improvement mission at Bearcat Hollow comes in. It’s created outstanding public hunting opportunities already, with much more yet to come.
“This started as a partner project in 2003, creating habitat for elk, drawing them off of the private lands, the farms and ranches, down in the valleys, and pulling them back up here onto the Ozark National Forest,” Jeremy Everitts, the NWTF’s district biologist for Arkansas and Louisiana, said.
The Ozark National Forest covers 1.2 million acres in northwestern Arkansas. Of that, 18,000 were put into a management agreement with the NWTF and a host of other agencies for the purpose of improving elk habitat and, by extension, habitat for many other game and non-game species.
“Into what had been all canopied timber forest we’ve created 55 openings that range in size from seven to 50 acres,” Everitts said. “In these, we’ve planted both warm and cool season forages for elk, and it’s created edge effect habitat that’s been tremendously beneficial to bear, deer, quail, turkeys, song birds and other species.”
The United States Forest Service has allowed the sale of timber from the creation of these openings to offset the program’s costs.
“Additionally,” Everitts said, “since it’s public land, it’s created opportunities for hunters as well.”
That’s what brought Karel and others to Bearcat Hollow earlier this week.
“Bearcat Hollow is a great place, and the habitat quality improvements made for elk have made all hunting better,” Karel said. “It’s made for a great place to introduce new hunters to hunting, and it’s made for a great resource to introduce new hunters to. The future of hunting in Arkansas, and throughout America, depends on involvement from the everyday citizen.
“All the programs by the NWTF and other conservation organizations can’t reverse the trend but, with 240,000 licensed hunters in our state, if just one percent of those mentored a new hunter every year, we’d not only halt the trend, we’d send it in the other direction.
“If you’re an experience hunter and the passenger seat of your vehicle is empty when you’re on your way to go hunt, you’re doing something wrong.”