In the fall of 2006, a man walked into the Johnson Street home of a group of UW-Madison seniors. Without much of a knock, the man ended up in their living room, complaining about what he had seen hanging from an upper balcony. He didn’t like it. He told them to take it down. The students home at the time suggested that the man call the police if he had a problem with it.
The group of seniors had done nothing wrong, aside from hoping to draw a little attention. Had they been in the Northwoods during hunting season, the sight of a hanging dead deer wouldn’t have bothered anyone. In full sight of one of the busiest streets in downtown Madison, however, the deer hanging from the second-floor balcony was bound to draw some disapproval.
Yet Kyle Hendricks, one of the students living in the house, says the deer didn’t really have the impact he and his roommates thought it might have. It was a busy street, but Hendricks says there was no commotion, aside from the man who barged in. And that might not be such a surprise.
“It is Wisconsin, after all,” Hendricks says.
Hendricks’ roommates — avid hunters — had been able to hunt during their time at UW-Madison up to this point without complaint, perhaps an indication of the rich hunting tradition in Wisconsin.
It’s a culture that runs deep, as families pass it on from one generation to the next. But as hunters move away from home, they leave behind the land and family traditions they were rooted in. A move to college is no different. Not having land or a cabin to hang that trophy deer — or in this case, to hang the deer before donating it to a food pantry — is just one of the adjustments to hunting in a city away from home.
For some hunters at UW-Madison, the Badger Hunting Club is their way to adjust to a new city and learn how they can still pursue their passion for hunting while in school. Club President Matt Davis says the main goal of the club is to serve as a social network, connecting those who hunt and those interested in hunting while fostering the culture that goes along with it.
But even the hunters of Wisconsin are having to make some adjustments of their own in order to keep the hunting tradition alive. It’s a sport that’s seeing numbers decline nationally and here at home in Wisconsin. But there’s hope for the future of the sport if it can attract new hunters and understand the groups who now show more interest in hunting — women and people looking for sustainable food sources.
While Wisconsin still boasts nearly 590,000 gun deer hunters, that number is down from more than 640,000 in the mid-2000s. The number of hunters in the state has been declining for the past 15 years among all types of hunting. Nationally, the number of hunters has been sliding even longer, dropping since 1980.
Keith Warnke, hunting and shooting sports coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, says the decline in hunting is due largely to aging of the baby boomers and generational differences.
While hunting used to be a tradition based on the need for food, Warnke says hunting shifted more to a recreation rather than a necessity. He says his generation, coming after the baby boomers, moved away from this culture because they grew up in a more mechanized culture with more abundant — and convenient — ways of obtaining food.
Many millennials have shown interest in local and sustainable food sources, which Warnke says is a huge opportunity for the hunting industry. But he also says it’s tough to make the intergenerational connections through a hunting tradition that is “so strong and very set in its ways.”
But there are signs of progress.
Warnke says the number of female hunters is growing fairly rapidly. Though he says this growth will never offset the demographic decline of men in the near future, he hopes they can begin to slow down the slide and set the stage for the future of hunting.
“There’s still a lot of hunters in Wisconsin,” Warnke says. “But are they willing and able to reach out beyond the current brand?”
Attracting new hunters
A group of friends created the Badger Hunting Club in 2005 as a way to hang out and find other students who didn’t want to return home to hunt.
The club is still a way to connect those who have spent their lives immersed in the hunting tradition, although it’s grown from the small group it started as. Davis estimates he has 130 students on an email list and says probably 30 of those are active members who partake in group events like cookouts or are out hunting in Madison.
And they’re not all experienced hunters. Davis says the club definitely gets its share of students — at least for the initial turnout — who have never hunted before and aren’t sure where to start.
Dan Schäfer was surprised just how easy it was to hunt in Wisconsin.
Two years ago, Schäfer, an exchange student from Germany, was looking for an experience that would be least likely for him to do back home. When he found the Badger Hunting Club, he knew hunting was it.
Schäfer was studying at UW-Madison for the year and found the club at the fall student organization fair. He had become interested in hunting several years earlier, but says in Germany it’s a big hassle to hunt, as it requires a lot of classes.
Through the club, Schäfer found out about Learn to Hunt, one of the main recruitment development programs offered by the DNR. He took part in a Learn to Hunt Turkey event and spent a day attending classes and learning the use of different turkey calls. He also had the option to rent out hunting equipment and got to enjoy a wild game buffet. After the classes, he was able to go out on a turkey hunt with the Badger Hunting Club’s Davis, his mentor for the program.
Schäfer says he only was able to make it out on a hunt once during the school year he spent here, but stayed involved with the club until he had the chance to go out.
“What I also like about hunting here is the whole tradition that comes with it, like bonfires and being out in the country,” Schäfer says. “So this is also something that’s completely different from the hunting scene in Germany.”
In his role at the DNR, Warnke is tasked with keeping this tradition alive. He implements and adapts programs, like Learn to Hunt, to ensure that hunting remains strong in Wisconsin and into the future.
The programs have made hunting more accessible than ever for new hunters. The DNR, in many cases, has been able to waive season dates, hunter education courses, licenses and restrictions on the number of animals hunters can kill and keep.
But Warnke says there has been a natural tendency to use the programs to get more young kids involved, which isn’t the most effective use.
“Here we are with these great programs with tons of flexibility to train new adults to hunt … and what do we do? We invite our own children to go,” Warnke says. “Well they’re gonna hunt anyway.”
Warnke says what he’s trying to do is shift the perspective from which the DNR and hunters view the programs and encourage them to look beyond their own children in order to identify who doesn’t have the same family link to hunting and who could benefit from programs making it easier to hunt.
Warnke also administers a DNR grant to support pilot projects for recruiting and training new hunters. He says he evaluates different programs and finds examples of successful projects to implement.
Through the grant, Warnke says the DNR is trying to encourage truly new hunters through groups getting paid to attract new hunters, like the Badger Hunting Club, which received a grant in 2014.
The club has already been getting hunters like Schäfer involved in the Learn to Hunt programs, and Davis also serves as a mentor to hunters who want to go out with him, being the father figure for the kids who didn’t grow up with the same family tradition of hunting.
“The one nice thing about Learn to Hunt program is that people that are new to hunting don’t have to take hunter safety to go,” Davis says. “It’s kind of like an introduction to hunting where they can go with a mentor.”
Schäfer returned to campus this fall for a temporary stay and was able to go on a duck hunt with Davis. He didn’t attend a class this time, but was able to get a license to go on hunt with a mentor — the DNR’s other main recruitment program.
Both Learn to Hunt and mentored hunting programs allow first-time hunters to go out on a hunt without having gone through a hunter education course. Learn to Hunt programs are before or after hunting seasons, consisting of classroom instruction followed by a hunt.
A mentored hunt allows anyone aged 10 and older to obtain a license to go out and hunt within arm’s reach of a licensed mentor, any time during a regular season. Warnke says any hunter can continue to do the mentored hunt and never go through hunter education, but he says the DNR has recently implemented a hunter education test-out for adults that allows them to take a class online and then be approved for a hunting license so they can go out on their own.
Bryce Kies, in his second year with the Badger Hunting Club, has served as a mentor on duck hunts to two different students already this fall, and he also served as a mentor to a young woman in a Learn to Hunt Deer program when the club was contacted by the DNR to see if anyone could help out.
Kies says Learn to Hunt programs offer a more in-depth understanding of hunting, but says the classes can be a big time commitment, especially for busy students.
“For college students, the mentored hunt is a good way to get your foot in the door,” Kies says.
Madison: city of opportunity
While the demographic decline is inevitable with the baby boomers, the millennial generation has returned to an interest in local and sustainable food sources, and hunting is still a perfect way to achieve that — especially in Madison.
About five years ago, Warnke says the DNR began a Learn to Hunt for Food program and did a lot of recruiting in Madison. The programs are offered in the fall for deer and in the spring for turkey, and Warnke says the turnout has been amazing — there’s a waitlist every time.
Suzy Limberg managed to squeeze her way into the Learn to Hunt for Food program in September. She works at the DNR as a stormwater specialist, but she’s always been intrigued by the “hype” surrounding deer season, and co-workers encouraged her to go through one of the Learn to Hunt programs.
Limberg reached out to Warnke, and when there was a last-minute opening, she made it into this fall’s roster. Limberg says she grew up with a brother and uncles who hunted, but always felt like it was a guys’ sport and that they had never reached out to her to join them.
Warnke says a lot of the people who sign up for the learning to hunt for food program are UW-Madison students and says most know nothing about hunting. They take part in the four-week course, learning the ins and outs of hunting, conservation, legal issues, ethical concerns, how to find a place to hunt, how to field dress, how to butcher and take trips to a range — all before a weekend hunt.
Through the program’s training, Limberg had the opportunity to learn the basics and get comfortable with everything — so comfortable that she’s planning a hunt this deer season with her brother.
In the five years Warnke’s been promoting this program in Madison, he says not one person has come out to him as being opposed to hunting. He says that 25 years ago, he imagines there would have been more of an anti-hunting sentiment, but now there are all types of people showing a strong interest in hunting for food.
“We need to realize that this different perspective is here and really make the most of it and train folks who are interested in hunting for all the same reasons we are,” Warnke says.
At the end of the course — after the hunters have spent time training, hunting and enjoying the camaraderie with the mentors — Warnke says the Madison hunters and the average, rural hunters learn a lot about each other.
“Everyone realizes that hunting as a part of sourcing your own food runs deeply into all of our psyches,” Warnke says. “It transcends any of those political boundaries that you might think would be such an obstacle.”
A year ago, Kies was a freshman who was unsure how he would continue hunting while at UW-Madison, and he believed there was a strong anti-hunting view in the Madison community. He says it was great when he found the Badger Hunting Club and knew there was a network of other hunters on campus.
Kies is now poised to take on the task of recruiting more hunters when he takes over as co-president of the Badger Hunting Club, with hopes to expand what the club has to offer for those on campus looking to hunt. Kies says he and other club members are more than willing to serve as mentors, as he’s done for several students and the Learn to Hunt participant.
“The DNR hunt that I did a couple weeks ago with the DNR Learn to Hunt program, it was just as rewarding for me to sit next to her and have her shoot the deer as it would have been for me to go out on my own hunt. It’s fun,” Kies says. “You get to teach somebody something new that they can become passionate about and you get to share your passion.”