With declining participation, how can we ensure that our waterfowling traditions are perpetuated? In the long term, there are no quick-fix solutions. One obvious strategy is to increase hunting opportunity and access. Conservation agencies can do this immediately by improving and expanding access to public hunting lands, ensuring that information about hunting opportunities is available and well communicated, and drafting hunting regulations that are easily understood by hunters. It's also important that all wildlife professionals are aware of and appreciate the foundations of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (see the "Conservation" column in the September/October 2008 issue).
Work by experts in social sciences, while supporting the need for access and opportunity, suggests that new hunters need the long-term support of mentors as well as a broader community of other hunters to nurture and sustain their involvement. Recruiting youth is especially vital to the future of waterfowl hunting. Unfortunately, studies show that as more people have moved from rural to urban areas, our youth have become increasingly disconnected from nature and outdoor traditions like hunting.
On a positive note, research suggests that membership in organizations like Ducks Unlimited can help increase hunter recruitment and retention. Recent studies show that DU members hunt more frequently and have lower turnover than hunters who do not belong to Ducks Unlimited. In many ways, DU serves as a community of likeminded waterfowl enthusiasts, which is vital to recruiting youth and new adult hunters. The bottom line is that it takes a hunter to make a hunter, and therein is an opportunity for DU members to play a crucial mentoring role in advancing waterfowl hunting traditions.
Membership in Ducks Unlimited also provides an association with the broader waterfowl conservation community. Demographic research shows that less than half of currently active waterfowl hunters have been DU members. However, the same analysis reveals that a number of DU members are active supporters of waterfowl conservation but do not hunt themselves. Together, active waterfowl hunters and nonhunting waterfowl enthusiasts represent a conservation community that can provide the foundation for the future.