By Lori Barrow
Students of the UW-Madison Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology (F&WE) are receiving memorable hands-on experience in hunting awareness and conservation education through a new course, Conservation Leaders for Tomorrow (CLfT). Although the national CLfT program has been around since 2005, the Department, spearheaded by Emeritus Professor Scott Craven and extension senior wildlife outreach specialist Jamie Nack, adapted the professional development program into the first campus-based course for non-hunting forest and wildlife ecology majors. Designed to supplement the educational experience of students in natural resource based majors, the course introduces novices to hunting in a controlled manner by blending interactive discussions and field exercises.
Although many students consider hunting an integral part of sound wildlife management, and as a wise and prudent use of renewable natural resources, a growing trend reveals an increasing number of natural resource graduates with limited or no exposure to hunting. This means some students are graduating from natural resources and wildlife management programs not knowing how to relate to and communicate effectively with the hunting community.
Michael Wheeler, a Masters student studying sandhill cranes with Professor Van Deelen, fits this demographic perfectly. “I didn’t grow up with hunting and had limited experience interacting with the hunting community. “I felt like I was going into a career in natural resource management without an emotional or visceral understanding of an important community within conservation, a community that is invested in stewardship and provides lots of state-level funding. Not only did CLfT provide hunter safety training and further my understanding of how impactful hunting is to conservation, I also received credit! What’s not to like?”
This is exactly the response Nack and Craven had hoped for.
“We recognized that a lot of our students do not come from hunting backgrounds and lack an understanding of why hunting is important from a biological, cultural, economic and recreational standpoint, or the role that hunting plays in conservation” Nack said. “The most important thing to me is the professional development opportunity the class provides our students.”
Inspired by the popular Wisconsin Student Hunter Program, which the late Department professor Don Rusch (former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Cooperative Unit leader), Scott Craven and WI DNR colleagues Charlie Kilian and Carl Batha launched in 1993, the course is not intended to directly recruit or train students to become hunters. Rather, the course aims to demystify hunting by giving students a deeper understanding of the history and role of hunting in conservation as well as hands-on experience.
In the classroom, students are guided through a series of roundtable discussions that range from the biological basis of hunting and the role of hunting in wildlife management to the safe handling of firearms and how to field dress game. After passing a written hunter-education exam, they spend a weekend afternoon at a shooting range learning specific skills like how to safely load and unload a shotgun, sight-in a rifle, or choosing the correct ammunition for your firearm. Donning orange vests and hats, students then have the option to be paired with a dedicated mentor to experience a pheasant hunt.
“I’ll never forget that day,” says senior Danny Erickson and chapter president of the UW-Madison student chapter of The Wildlife Society. “It was exhilarating to walk in the fields, side-by-side with an experienced mentor and a well-trained dog to flush a bird up in the air…I raised my shotgun, followed the birds flight, and pulled the trigger. In a matter of seconds, I had a bird in my hands. It may not seem like much and gruesome to some, but I appreciate the opportunity to learn alongside a mentor…it was pretty tasty too.”
In addition to the opportunity to engage in a hunting experience, the course provides students with a chance to network with an army of dedicated wildlife management professionals and instructors that volunteer their time and expertise to make the course a success. Jed Meunier (B.S. Wildlife Ecology, M.S. Wildlife Ecology), research scientist for the WI DNR and hunt mentor to the CLfT reflects on why he participates. “I think exposing burgeoning professionals to hunting in all its parts, the good, the bad, and the ugly, is an incredibly valuable experience regardless of whether or not an individual then chooses to hunt. I have often lamented that many traditional hunter education classes offer very little beyond the safe handling of firearms, which is essential of course, but this seems like a missed opportunity. CLfT helps bridge this gaps. I want people to have a sense of the breadth of understanding that comes with hunting, as well as the space to critically evaluate the various components. These components include many wonderful, and sometimes difficult, ethical dilemmas that should not be taken for granted. Thus the CLfT program plays a very important role. It is something I believe in and am willing to work for to help see it succeed.”
For students like Wheeler and Erickson, their positive experience in the program has solidified a lifelong interest in wildlife-related recreation and gained future support for wildlife and resource conservation. “I am forever grateful to all who made CLfT possible and for the opportunity to be a part of Wisconsin’s hunting tradition ” notes Erickson. “I hope to use what I learned in order to study wildlife populations and conserve not only game species, but non-game species, habitat, and the interactions between organisms and their environment.”
You can learn more about the Conservation Leaders for Tomorrow by visiting their >>home page.