Bryna Godar and Jake Gillberg with mentor Jacob Zeuske

Students Bryna Godar and Jake Gillberg with mentor Jacob Zeuske show a pheasant they shot during a one-day Learn to Hunt for Food class in November. Zeuske is President of the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association.

PHOTO BY EMILY LEH

As the number of hunters in the U.S. continues to falter, natural resources officials hope the tradition can get new life from a relatively recent trend: the local food movement.

The wave of interest in local, sustainable food has spurred growth of farm-to-table restaurants, CSA farms and farmers’ markets. But meat that aligns with sustainable values can still be prohibitively expensive or hard to find.

Department of Natural Resources Hunting and Shooting Sports Coordinator Keith Warnke has been working to capitalize on increasing demand with a Learn to Hunt for Food program geared toward people interested in local, ethical and hormone-free food.

Warnke said he got the idea for the class in 2012 when his then 12-year-old daughter announced she was going to become vegetarian — unless they hunted and killed the animal themselves.

“That kind of spurred the thought in my mind: There may be interest there from people who otherwise would have had no track into hunting,” Warnke said.

He was right. The Learn to Hunt classes in Madison usually fill up within 24 hours with a mix of environmental studies students, DNR employees, former vegetarians and others interested in hunting as a food source.

“I wanted to see what it takes to make the sausage, so to speak, from an ethical standpoint,” said Leo Roth, a recent University of Wisconsin graduate and former vegetarian who took the class in 2015. “It’s a serious thing to eat an animal. The animal lived and died so you could eat it.”

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Bryna and Jake hunting

Bryna Godar and Jake Gillberg participate in a Learn to Hunt for Food class teaching how to hunt pheasants.

Chelsea Johnson, a communications specialist at the University of Wisconsin Department of Surgery who first told me about the class, was a vegetarian during high school and most of college. She started eating meat during an environmental studies trip in Montana, when a host served burgers made from an elk he had shot.

“I started eating meat, but I was looking for ways to make choices I felt good about, and so hunting seemed like a great option,” Johnson said.

The multi-week Learn to Hunt classes are focused on deer or turkey, culminating in mentored hunts and including everything from firearm safety to hands-on butchering lessons. There are also classes in Watertown, Amery, Menomonie, Stevens Point and Rhinelander, as well as one-day offerings on pheasant, small game and other animals.

I signed up for the Madison deer class this fall without ever having held a firearm. I’ve since butchered two deer, shot and skinned pheasants and cooked a variety of venison dishes, including a delicious spice-rubbed backstrap for Thanksgiving. Venison is a very lean meat, so it needs to be cooked slowly at a low heat or quickly on high heat, taking care not to overdo it.

“What I really like about game meat is it’s a really strong and flavorful meat,” said Jeremie Favre, a University of Wisconsin PhD student in agronomy who is from Switzerland. “If I’m going to eat meat with the high environmental impact and life and everything, it’s got to be strong.”

In addition to the ability to harvest meat, a major draw to hunting for Favre has been the opportunity to get out into the woods and go deeper emotionally.

“I wanted to look myself in the mirror,” Favre said. “Expose yourself to death and dragging an animal in the dark.”

Removing barriers to new hunters

Those who grow up in families of hunters often get into the sport at a young age — I was mostly surrounded by kids under the age of 15 in my hunter safety class this summer. Without that early exposure, it can be difficult to know how to start.

“Even the existence of the class told me: You can learn to do this as adult. It’s not too late,” Johnson said.

Warnke has worked to take down as many barriers to hunting as possible, teaching students how to butcher a deer in his garage the first year and starting a firearm loaner program in 2015. Learn to Hunt students can now borrow firearms for a year or longer from the DNR’s inventory of seized firearms.

“The attorneys and the chief warden and the DNR leadership here were initially a bit skeptical and perhaps worried,” Warnke said. “But they authorized it and backed it and I think it’s working out great.”

The classes, mentored hunts and firearm loaner program are all provided free of charge to students as part of the DNR’s effort to recruit new hunters.

Across the country, the number of hunters has declined significantly since the early 1980s as older generations of hunters die off and fewer young people take up the tradition. At its peak in 1990, Wisconsin had 699,275 licensed gun deer hunters, according to Department of Natural Resources data. In 2016, there were less than 600,000, the lowest since 1976.

The decline in hunters is a problem for natural resources departments, whose funding comes largely from hunting and fishing license revenue plus federal taxes on firearms and ammunition. With the Learn to Hunt for Food program in Wisconsin and others like it nationally, natural resources officials are hoping to slow the decline in hunting.

Warnke said about 40 percent of Learn to Hunt students become avid license purchasers and 100 percent become supporters of hunting. He said the food and camaraderie during mentored hunts help do away with many stereotypes about hunters and hunting.

“All of that transcends the differences that people might have, and it really changes people’s understanding and acceptance of hunters,” he said.

For many new hunters, that community becomes as important as the food. Johnson and Roth became close friends during the class and have continued to hunt together each year, sharing venison and cooking meals together.

“Hunting and gardening — it’s all a lot more work,” Johnson said. “It’s not efficient, but it’s a lot of other things, like good learning opportunities, good ways to connect with people, to challenge yourself and grow.”