Grad Student: Advocate Conservation with College-Age Hunters

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A Clemson University graduate student’s research gauging young adults’ interest in hunting suggests that the demographic can play a key role in the future of wildlife conservation.

Brett Stayton, a graduate student in Clemson University’s parks, recreation and tourism management department, isn’t just a hunting enthusiast who wants to justify a passion to his peers. He wants to tell “the greatest story never told” in the conservation community.

College-age hunters and other students interested in hunting or the outdoors are among the top advocates for conservation. Also, these college-age students are keen on learning new ideas about conservation and how the role of hunting, license sales and other aspects of it are important factors.

That story, according to Stayton, reveals that recreational hunters are actually the last and in many ways only line of defense against animal extinction. Money collected through the sale of hunting licenses and excise taxes on hunting supplies provide the lion’s share of funds for wildlife conservation efforts. Advocating for hunting programs and defining the best groups for advocacy has become a focus for Stayton’s work and research. He has been pleasantly surprised by what his research has revealed about college-age hunters.

“Hunting programs have struggled with advocacy and reaching a broader base of people, and there isn’t a real, unified effort to reach college-age students,” Stayton said. “but there would be if there were evidence that this particular group has an interest in hunting.”

Stayton said the majority of previous outreach to young hunters only reached youth from families that were already predominantly pro-hunting. Outreach to those motivated by organic food movements was less impactful than previously thought. During the data analysis portion of a recent study gauging hunting interest in 5,000 students from Kansas State University and Clemson University, Stayton expected to see minimal interest in hunting.

Surprising Numbers

However, the results shocked him and his fellow researchers. While the percentage of students who hunted recreationally stood at about 40 percent (higher than the national average), almost 60 percent of students who didn’t hunt were interested in doing so. According to Stayton, the data suggests college students might just prove to be a hidden, ideal target for hunting advocates.

“Research proves that recreation activity and experimentation peaks in college, and those habits generally shape a person’s habits for the rest of their life,” Stayton said. “Our research suggests that college students are interested, even more so if they have access to the tools they need to hunt.”

In the last two years, Stayton has helped translate youth hunting clinics offered by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources to Clemson students. These deer hunting clinics take place at Clemson’s shooting range and cover topics including scouting, gear, regulations, licenses, safe shooting practices and tips on using tree stands and blinds. Stayton also helped organize and recruit students for a smaller, mentored hunt with experienced hunting guides from the National Wild Turkey Federation, and all students involved gave positive feedback on the experience.

Stayton said there are issues with commitment to hobbies among college students. But that same audience is also more autonomous than youth and usually has a source of income to pay for their own licenses. He said many find themselves after high school with a dearth of extracurricular activities once occupied by sports that can now be substituted with outdoor activities like hunting. Stayton counts himself as one of these converts, as time spent playing football and baseball in high school has been replaced with hunting and outdoor activities in college.

John Frampton, President and CEO of the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports, is a Clemson alum who is encouraged by Stayton’s research. Frampton said outreach to college-age adults has typically been done haphazardly or not broadly enough, but with data proving an existing interest, that might change. He said Stayton’s research can go a long way to entice and encourage development of programs aimed at this demographic.

He is anxious to see where Stayton’s research leads, and he is glad to see that Stayton is emphasizing the full experience of hunting in his outreach efforts instead of just the shooting aspects. Frampton believes active wildlife societies like the one found in Clemson don’t have to be an anomaly.

“With more urban areas and many negative external factors, many people aren’t exposed to hunting outside of an unfavorable depiction in the media,” Frampton said. “There are segments of the population that we’ll never convince regarding misunderstandings related to wildlife conservation, but people of all ages who really listen become concerned about these issues; they just need the opportunity for involvement and education in hunting.”