LEBANON, Pa. — Emily Kantner grew up during a generation that loved computers, but experiencing the great outdoors was the only lifestyle she knew.
The 29-year-old Cleona native would tag along with her father when he went out hunting, and she took her hunter safety test the day she turned 12.
“When other kids were learning their barnyard animals, I was practicing gobbles and grunts,” she wrote in an article for Petersen’s Bowhunting.
The hobby turned into more of a passion when she began shooting a compound bow in college – and now she even gets paid to hunt at times as associate editor of Petersen’s Bowhunting.
“Who wants to sit and stare at a TV all day? It’s much better to be outside,” Kantner said.
But she knows that isn’t the prevailing attitude. So does Charlie Fetter, a South Lebanon Township resident who teaches Pennsylvania Game Commission hunter safety courses that are required before hunters can get their licenses. The amount of course participants in Lebanon County has dropped from 500 to 200 in just the last five years, he said.
“(The drop in hunting license course participants) is on a lot of people’s minds,” he said.
While the PGC doesn’t report licenses by county on its website, general adult hunting licenses statewide have declined by more than 10 percent over the past decade. Perhaps more alarming: general junior licenses have been cut in half during that time, although junior combination licenses – which allow the hunting of deer, turkey and small game – have held steady.
“We’re trying to get (young people) interested in our club, but sometimes that’s a fleeting effort,” said Russ Hopstetter, president of Jonestown Fish and Game. “Twelve, 14-year-old kids would rather by playing on the internet than they would be shooting.”
But hunters say electronics aren’t the only reason interest in hunting is declining, and diminishing license sales have impacts beyond the hunting community.
THE THREAT WAS REAL
The Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, a 6,254-acre region of natural woods and waterways that straddles Lebanon and Lancaster counties, received a scare less than two years ago that officials say stemmed in part from declining hunters license sales.
The PGC told the state legislature in February 2016 it would consider closing the preserve as a cost-saving measure as revenues from both natural gas leases and hunting license fees decreased. The threat of closing at least the visitor’s center was repeated again this spring. Funding was not ultimately pulled at the end of either budget season.
Middle Creek is used by more than just hunters: it is a popular sight for bird watchers, has a variety of trails for hikers, and a visitor’s center that hosts a public lecture series and art shows. Yet it is only the hunters that generate revenue for the PGC.
The closure of Middle Creek is not currently under consideration so far as visitor center/biological manager Lauren Fenstermacher knows – but the threat was “definitely real” and was only saved after a strong outcry from Middle Creek users who advocated for keeping it open.
More generally, Kantner emphasized, the revenue generated from hunting fees is essential to maintaining the quality of Pennsylvania’s gamelands.
Yet turning the tide may not be easy.
“I think there’s too much electronics, and the interest in hunting just isn’t there,” said Nelson Jacobs, president of the Myerstown Rod and Gun Club.
That isn’t the only reason young people aren’t experiencing the thrill of the hunt, according to Fetter. He believes fewer families are taking the time to go out hunting with their children and give them the experience.
“If you’re brought up around hunting, if your family hunts, you’re probably going to hunt,” he said.
Fetter also thinks the decline in small game hunting may have had a negative impact. When he was a child, pheasant hunting was considered the entry point and deer hunting was just icing on the cake. It’s easier to get bored when starting with deer than with small game, he said.
A decrease in pheasants as a result of bird flu in recent years has hampered the popularity of small game hunting, he said.
ARCHERY IS GROWING
If there are any bright spots in the Pennsylvania hunting world, Kanter embodies them. Both women hunters and archery licenses are on the rise, according to PGC officials.
Middle Creek had more than 1,100 people apply this year for 48 coveted spots in an archery deer hunt in a part of Middle Creek that is typically off-limits to the public, Fenstermacher said. There were 16 deer shot during the hunt.
By contrast, there were just 455 people who applied to participate in Middle Creek’s muzzleloader season.
Fenstermacher credited the increased popularity in archery to the PGC’s 2009 expansion of legal hunting with crossbows, which are easier to use, especially for youths and people with shoulder injuries.
Kanter uses a compound bow, which takes a great deal of skill. But she enjoys the challenge, as well as the intimacy of getting closer to the animal you are targeting.
The challenge of archery also compels people to stick with it and make it more of a lifestyle than rifle hunting, which many people only do the first day of deer season to keep the family tradition alive, she said.
Whether its archery or rifle, Fetter encouraged parents to continue teaching their children to hunt even if it is going out of fashion. His 55-year-old son still hunts and recently told Fetter he would never have gotten into what has become a lifelong hobby if his parents hadn’t introduced it to him when he was young.
In the end, hunting is less about the act of shooting and getting meat than it is about gathering a lifetime of stories to share with a community that can be like a family, he said.
“It’s not the killing – that’s not what hunting is,” he said. “If you keep your son fishing and hunting, you’ll keep him off the streets, and you’ll keep him occupied with something you can use for the rest of your life.”
Pennsylvania’s firearm deer hunting season begins Monday, Nov. 27.
Information from: Lebanon Daily News, http://www.ldnews.com