Guest post by Ondrea Spychalski, WMEAC Teach for the Watershed Intern
When I was first presented with the opportunity to attend the Conservation Leaders for Tomorrow (CLfT) workshop at the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation, I will admit I was hesitant. The program seemed focused on wildlife management and the issues that hunting can present. Being a natural resources management major at Grand Valley State University, I have never delved too deeply into wildlife biology. However, upon further discussion and research, I realized that participating in the program would be a very beneficial experience. Growing up, I was consistently exposed to hunting through my father and older brothers who loved the activity. I was used to seeing white-tailed deer hanging in the garage during the fall months (though I wouldn’t actually consume that deer until I was well into my teens). However, through my studies at Grand Valley, I became more aware of the health issues associated with farm-raised beef, poultry, and pork. In response to this, I began to consume the venison that my parents had for years been advocating as healthy and delicious. Much to my surprise, it was.
While thanks to my education I am able to understand how hunters have long impacted conservation, I had never considered that I would most likely be dealing with them on a regular basis throughout my career. I had not yet made the connection between natural resources and wildlife. That connection is that wildlife reside on the natural resources that I will one day be aiming to protect. Therefore, I realized that it is necessary to understand hunters and hunting on a deeper level.
What is the first image that pops into your mind when you hear of “hunters” or “hunting?” Do you immediately think of a man wearing blaze orange in the middle of the forest with a firearm in hand? Or are you one of the many who picture a delicious meal of wild game sitting on your dining room table? This was one of the first questions posed to me at CLfT. The program, designed for student and professional leaders within the natural resource sciences, focuses on hunting awareness and conservation education. This was a scholarship opportunity presented to myself and three other Grand Valley students who were deemed to possess leadership potential in the future management of natural resources. Throughout the course of the four-day workshop, which included 20 students as well as a few instructors from five Midwestern universities, the image that I had originally perceived of a “hunter” was molded and changed into an image that encompassed the past, the present, and the future impacts of hunters on habitat and wildlife conservation.
Many people are unaware that hunters themselves are one of the largest supporters of conservation and wildlife. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, hunters were the first to realize that humans were having an impact on the natural environment that surrounded them. They are not only credited with acknowledging this change but are also recognized as the first group of conservation leaders.
One of the major qualifications for attending the workshop was that the participants were “non-hunters.” While I come from a family who has hunted my entire life, I myself have never handled a firearm or shot wild game. The program emphasizes that it is not aimed at recruiting hunters, but it does allow the participants to decide if they would like to engage in a pheasant-hunting experience. Throughout the course of the workshop, we were allowed to gain our Hunter’s Education badge by taking the Hunter’s Education exam and were also able to obtain a hunting license so as to be legally able to participate in the guided hunt that occurred at the end of the workshop.
On the last day of the workshop, after being taken out on the hunt, we were able to prepare the pheasants ourselves, harvesting the birds for their meat and beautiful feathers. That evening we feasted on a “game dinner” of pheasant and wild game stew. After I had prepared a pheasant myself, it was a unique experience to then consume those pheasant. All of us present experienced a deeper appreciation for where that meal came from, as well as the skill and knowledge needed to obtain it.
Having the opportunity to participate in an activity that is rooted in our ancestry as hunters and gatherers was an experience that I will never forget. The CLfT program broadened my knowledge of hunting and its impact on the environment. It also deepened my appreciation for the meat that hunting produces and the skills needed to hunt that meat.