Keeping the Natural State … Natural

Agree, Mr. Peacock, and that family has nicknamed Arkansas the Natural State, with good reason. Our diverse geography ranges from the Boston Mountains in the northwest, to the densely forested land in the south, to the eastern lowlands along the Mississippi River and the Arkansas Delta. All of these areas and habitats are alive with a stunning variety of game and nongame species. Arkansans enjoy all of it; whether we hunt, fish, hike or watch birds ... we value our wild places and our wildlife.  

However, our ability to continue enjoying the Natural State’s wildness, to continue our outdoor lifestyle and hunting heritage, is at risk. Hunter numbers are in decline, which means that the revenues generated by the sale of licenses and the taxes placed on hunting equipment through the Pittman-Robertson Act are also in decline. Those revenues are used by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to conserve and manage our unique habitats across the state, and the wildlife that live there.

How serious is the decline? Since 2013, we have lost 7 percent of our hunters. That’s 18,000 fewer hunters and license holders. Serious enough that the AGFC, with the support of partners like the NWTF, has created the Hunt Natural Mentorship Program across the state to help fulfill the R3 mission — recruiting, retaining and reactivating hunters, shooters, anglers, boaters and outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds.

Spencer Griffith, director of marketing for AGFC, was one of the key architects of the Hunt Natural Mentorship Program.  

“The program came out of the need to increase the number of trial hunting opportunities offered to beginning hunters through our agency,” Griffith said. “With a decline of over 3,500 hunters annually, we simply needed to create a higher volume of opportunities available to interested, new hunters.”

To do that, Griffith knew the program would need to go statewide, touching all 75 counties in Arkansas.  “When we started the development of this program, we took a careful look at our past programs, other states’ programs, NGO programs and industry programs,” he said. “Two of the things that we saw and wanted to improve were long-term scalability and a unified effort across partners.”

To achieve scalability, the program calls for one Chief County Volunteer in every county of the state.  The role of the CCV is to coordinate at least one mentored hunt in his or her county annually. To make a trial hunt happen, the CCV will need to recruit volunteers for the day of the event, or County Support Volunteers. As well, the CCV may need to work with landowners or land managers to gain access to properties that can offer a quality hunting experience for the beginners.  

That’s a lot to ask of a volunteer, which is where Griffith’s idea for a ‘unified effort across partners’ comes into play. This is an all-hands project. The NWTF, Ducks Unlimited, Friends of the NRA, Pheasants/Quail Forever, Quality Deer Management Association, Delta Waterfowl — all of us have been asked to get the word out and to help recruit volunteers and mentors from within our membership rolls. As well, organizations like The Nature Conservancy, US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission have been brought on board to support the land access need. We are even seeking partnerships with commercial hunting outfitters to help conduct hunts that will be memorable and safe for our new hunters.

The size and scope of the program is such that it requires an incredible amount of coordination within the agency. Griffith noted that, “AGFC is very fortunate that we have had a small group of staff that have really been dedicated to R3 efforts for the past decade. We are in the process of scaling our internal team to be able to onboard the program. We are busy finalizing equipment, insurance, processes and protocol.”

The installation of HNMP has begun. Volunteers and mentors have been identified and selected from across the state. Most of our CCVs have been to one of our Hunt Natural Academy classes, where they learned about the challenges, their responsibilities and the opportunities for them to make a difference in the program. Hunts are in place and it’s exciting to think of all the new hunters that will be given a chance at a great experience because of the work being done by so many dedicated volunteers and AGFC staff.

Those of us involved in the program realize it is only one step in the process to recruit a new hunter, albeit a critical step. Chris Colclasure, deputy director at AGFC, emphasized the importance of getting started.  

“Hunting and fishing are activities that will last your entire life,” he said. “My Dad is 80, and he still loves to fish. If we can introduce hundreds [or thousands] of new people to the outdoors through the HNMP, we have the chance to change their lives, to add value and quality to those lives. It’s a gradual thing, but it can begin with our program.” 

For the program to work long term, Tabbi Kinion, AGFC’s chief of education, said, “We have to be adaptive. We need to ask participants what is working. And, when changes are indicated, we need to be willing and prepared to make those changes. If we can do that, then we will realize our vision of passing along the outdoor heritage to thousands of Arkansans all across the state.”

I am proud to be part of a team working hard to insure Kinion’s vision and to keep the Natural State … natural. Surely, God’s family would approve.

— Bob Karel   

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