For those of you who might not know the details about youth hunting weekend, here they are:
Anyone who is 15 years of age or younger on the weekend of the hunt and who has successfully completed a hunter's safety education course may participate during youth hunting weekend. The youth must be accompanied by an unarmed adult with a valid Vermont hunting license and is over the age of 18. Along with the license, the hunter must obtain a free hunting tag from a license agent. With that tag the youth hunter can shoot one deer of either gender.
Although the promise of future hunters begins during youth weekend, over the past decade there has been a startling decline in the number of youth hunters throughout the State of Vermont.
When youth hunting became available in 1993 more than 7,500 participated. The peak came in the year 2000 when more than 10,000 youths registered to hunt. Since then however, Vermont has experienced a steady decline. Last year, 2011, the number of registered youths dipped under 8,000 for the first time since 1997, a decline that has caught the attention of some local hunters.
Chris Saunders, the hunter education coordinator for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, is worried that young people are starting to become less interested in hunting.
"It's obviously a concern because the average age of hunters is pretty old and we need as many youngsters as we can get participating in hunting to replace the folks who are going to leave or we are really going to start seeing even steeper declines in hunting participation," said Saunders. "That's bad for the department, bad for the state in terms of managing deer, so yes it is a concern. This is in part to why we have youth hunting weekend."
Jamie Briggs, a local resident who has hunted the area for a couple decades, said that he has heard from other people that numbers among youth hunters are starting to decline in Vermont, but around the Manchester area interest seems to still be strong.
"I think around this area there are a lot of hunters and hunting families who are keeping the tradition going," said Briggs. "I have had kids leave basketball practice early to take there hunting tests and these kids are excited about being outside and hunting."
Over the weekend Briggs' son, Griffin, who is eight years-old, shot his first deer, a 115 pound doe, Saturday morning. It was his son's first time out hunting and Briggs described it as a great father-son moment.
"I was teaching my son how to track deer and read signs and everything else that he needs to learn when it comes to hunting; how to hold a gun, and stuff like that," said Briggs. "When kids get out in the woods that young it is a good sign that kids are still interested in being outdoors."
The State of Vermont is making strides to make youth hunting more available.
Vermont has began a program called mentor hunting that became effective Jan. 1, 2011. The program creates a $10 mentored hunting license, which gives hunters the opportunity to hunt for two seasons before completing a hunter education course. To ensure that the mentored license holder is hunting safely and ethically, he or she must be under the direct control and supervision of a regularly licensed hunter age 21 or older at all times, and all game harvested counts against the mentor's tag limit.
"I think the mentor program is great," Briggs said. "It allows for kids who might not have passed their written test to still go out and learn how to hunt in a safe way."
Along with the mentor program, Saunders said that the state has many avenues for youngsters to begin hunting.
"We don't have an age limit for hunting in Vermont," Saunders said, "anyone can take hunter education. Certainly, when you look at the average age of our students they are 10 to 12 years old. So it's not like there are a lot of barriers for participation in this state. As a result we try to provide as many opportunities as we can. We know that the way to make lifelong hunters is to get them out a lot when they are young with family and friends."
The problem is getting them outside. With more hobbies to participate in and technology starting to make its way down to younger ages some kids just don't have an interest, he said.
"There are certainly more things kids can do these days. It's easy to forget that 20 or 30 years ago there were less things to do. Now-a-days there are a lot of time commitments," Saunders said.
The hope is that more families will be involved in encouraging their kids to get outside and one way to do that is to hunt.