A Hunter’s Heritage – NWTF and the True Meaning of Conservation

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I have already written about my father getting his award for completing the North American sheep Grand Slam. We had a great time in Las Vegas (how could you not???). Really enjoyed the time talking guns and hunting with my brother and the guys at the Bergara booth, wonderful meal at the awards banquet and my wife apparently was a hit at the ladies luncheon for dancing with the Elton John impersonator (story for another time!). And of course, there’s just being with family for a long weekend. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

However….

Something was really put into perspective for me at the Grand Slam Club Ovis (GSCO) banquet we attended. The large banner across the stage at the end of the banquet hall read “Hunting is the #1 Tool of Conservation!”. My first thought, was “Great!”…as I’ve pointed out in previous blogs, and will continue to point out in future ones, I fundamentally agree with that statement. Done correctly, hunting can be the number one tool in the conservation toolbox. So I waited with baited breath for the inevitable conservation messages and programs to be announced during the course of the banquet.

NWTF prescribed fire
A Prescribed Fire Project Co-Funded by the NWTF, CDA, and the USFS on the Sierra National Forest near North Fork, CA.

Now, I’ve been to several NWTF National conventions over the years, and perhaps I’m a little tainted. After seeing the banner on the GSCO stage (which was up throughout the convention), I expected to see individuals recognized for their volunteer contributions to increasing sheep populations, or getting young hunters into sheep hunting, or educating new generations on the importance of proper land management and providing access. I was waiting to see corporations and organizations being honored for their contributions to restoring land for sheep habitat, or establishing new policies for extracting natural resources that do not harm sheep populations or the surrounding landscapes, or simply donating funds to conservation organizations who work for hunting access and habitat restoration. I was expecting to see videos of conservation projects in action, sponsored by GSCO members, that increased the number of habitat acres for sheep and other wildlife species, or introduced non-traditional hunters like women or the disabled to their first hunts, or honored individual volunteer efforts to get kids into the outdoors. And I was looking for brochures, pamphlets, books and other media on how GSCO members’ dollars were contributing to saving habitat and the hunting heritage for all.

As far as I could tell, the only “conservation” award that night was to a couple whose only claim to fame appeared to be nagging the US Fish and Wildlife Service to allow more exotic trophies into the US.

Look, I’m not naïve. Sheep hunting and turkey hunting are different. Sheep occupy some very limited spaces in North America at the moment, are difficult to hunt and are found in areas that cost a lot to get to. Costs for hunting sheep are extremely high (for both real and social reasons) and most who can afford to do it are limited to a few at the top of the economic scale. Turkeys, by contrast, are almost everywhere in North America now, and a lot of places in Canada and Mexico. There simply aren’t that many sheep and sheep hunters, so GSCO and other big game organizations can be given a pass for not emphasizing conservation, right?

NWTF grassland restoration
Native Grassland and Wildflower Restoration Co-Funded by the NWTF, TNC, and the USFWS on the Sul Norte Unit of the Sacramento River NWR.

Problem is, there was a time in the 1970s when there weren’t that many turkeys, either. But through the unshaking efforts of a few pioneering individuals and a fledgling volunteer organization called the National Wild Turkey Federation, conservation efforts began to save existing turkey populations, expand habitat through restoration and conservation efforts, and increase hunter access of all types. In only a few decades, habitat, hunter access and populations of wild turkeys spread from a few locations in the eastern states to across North America. And the NWTF continues its mission of habitat restoration, increasing public access and ensuring our hunting heritage lasts for generations. When you go to the National NWTF Convention, of course there are guns and camo and hunting videos and trophy mounts. But there is so much more – the atmosphere just drips with focused attention on conservation, volunteers, habitat restoration, increasing public access and having fun, hunting or not, in the great outdoors.

Now, look, I’m not knocking rich guys who can afford to sheep hunt. I know too many rich guys who contribute significantly to conservation organizations and because of their generosity, my hunting opportunities and those of my children have been enhanced. I’m not begrudging a guy on a Yukon sheep hunt because I can’t afford it. I’m just saying that there was a distinct difference in the atmosphere between the two conventions.

Now keep in mind that this is just my perspective, and in all fairness, I did not see the convention in its entirety. So maybe I missed some important conservation efforts that weren’t displayed sufficiently. There’s also the fact that GSCO split off from the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep some time ago, so maybe conservation efforts are concentrated in another arm of the sheep hunting organizations. I’m not entirely sure. However, I feel like wild sheep conservation efforts needed to have a larger spotlight at the GSCO convention.

UBBWA turkey release
Releasing Wild Turkeys on Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area after they were captured and banded by NWTF and CDFW Staff and Volunteers.

Rightly or wrongly, that’s the distinction I came away with; and my wife, who hasn’t been to NWTF National but has attended a lot of local and state NWTF banquets, noticed the same thing. We continue to support the NWTF because of their broad, strategic view of what it will take to ensure wildlife habitat, access and our hunting heritage for years to come. Nobody does conservation better.

Save the Habitat, Save the Hunt! Go NWTF!

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