Ashley, N.D. — Slowly driving North Dakota backroads to scout promising late-season pheasant and sharp-tailed grouse habitat, Joel Brice uses the prairie pothole setting to project ideas and goals for preserving hunting.
Bottom line, Brice said, hunting’s future rests on hunters taking the time to mentor budding non-hunters one on one, and mentoring them often.
That simple formula has touched the lives of thousands of young non-hunters and hunting novices exposed during the past several years to waterfowl hunting through Delta Waterfowl’s creative “First Hunt” program. Follow-up surveys by the group have shown that some parents of participant youths take up the activity, and program participants also report branching into other forms of hunting, as well.
Even as continental waterfowl populations reached record levels this year, waterfowl hunter numbers in the United States and Canada declined. That impacts millions of dollars in conservation spending supported by hunters, as well as tens of thousands of jobs.
Brice, 40, a Fall Creek native and wildlife biology graduate of UW-Stevens Point, is vice president of conservation and hunter recruitment for Delta Waterfowl, a 50,000-member conservation and research group based in Bismarck, N.D.
“Waterfowling is our bread-and-butter focus and we encourage our (250) chapters to hold events, with each chapter allocating up to 25 percent of money raised locally for these activities,” Brice said. “We provide a participant handbook and mentor manual, the mentors provide their equipment and know-how, and off they go. We stress many points of contact, doing it more than just once.”
According to the group, about 23,000 people have been introduced to hunting through First Hunt since the first youth hunt in 2000 at Delta Marsh, Manitoba, and Brice anticipates annual growth of at least 10 percent. Mentors now number some 4,600 Delta Waterfowl members.
“This year we’ve reached about 8,000 (participants), most of them non-hunters, and the overwhelming majority are not Delta Waterfowl members and probably would not have hunted without this program,” he said.
Growing up in a rural setting in west-central Wisconsin, from childhood on Brice and his two brothers were taught about the challenges and joys of waterfowl, deer, and small-game hunting by their late father, Dennis Brice. The elder Brice, who died at age 57 of cancer, shepherded his boys around the state, but mostly to the lower Chippewa River bottomlands.
“While hunting with my dad, I learned the comfort of sitting with him in silence, and how to speak with him without saying a word,” Brice said of his family’s shared outdoors passions. “We were completely in touch, and I hope to share this bond with my (two) children.”
First Hunt committee members, who are all duck hunters, rely on videos, handbooks, and other instructional resources provided by the international group (www.deltawaterfowl.org).
“The documents don’t teach people things like how to call ducks or place decoys. We rely upon the event mentors to do that,” Brice said. “We also teach shooting skills, firearm and hunting safety, cleaning and cooking game, recipes, and gear.
Volunteers do a very respectable job. That’s been the golden ticket, trying to choose the best delivery option. A staff-driven program would not be as effective.”
However, Brice, who has held numerous positions in his 13 years with Delta Waterfowl, said he envisions over the next five years the group bringing on a full-time staff person to take on First Hunt.
“It’s run by (dedicated and qualified) volunteers, self-funded, and working tremendously,” Brice said. “And it’s growing.”