A reader emailed me this week in response to last week’s column where I talked about a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources survey that shows small game hunter numbers are dwindling across the state.
He didn’t want his email printed but he brought up an interesting point that I wanted to share and take a look at.
He basically made the argument that one significant reason hunter numbers are going down – and in particular we are losing youth hunters – is there is a lack of easy access to public hunting land.
In the old days he said, (and I’m paraphrasing), it was easier to walk out the backdoor and into the woods for a couple hours of hunting after school.
Now, my reader contends, “no hunting” and “no trespassing” signs dot the landscape.
I’ve talked about hunter retention multiple times – particularly youth recruitment - and my argument has been that kids today are overwhelmed with too many responsibilities and/or distractions to even find an hour or two to get in the woods.
For some high school sports, and the unsettling trend that they need to play one sport all year long (including every weekend), is occupying valuable moments where families could be in the woods.
Instead of walking trails in search of birds, they are spending quality time huddled in gyms and Holiday Inns.
For others the distraction is electronics related. It’s hard to carry a shotgun and an Xbox controller at the same time. Plus there’s nowhere to plug in the television.
And finally there are some youth who probably do want to go hunting but don’t have access to the knowledge or the tools necessary. This basically comes down to the demise of the traditional family unit.
But that is a whole different discussion.
For today, let’s just look at the idea that there is no easy access to public hunting land or that things were better in the old days.
First, to be clear: I’m not saying my reader is wrong. He has very valid point. In certain places it’s tougher to get in the woods. Urban sprawl and the ever-expanding mines have changed the landscape here.
Still, I don’t think it’s as big a detriment as he does. In fact, I believe in some cases it is easier than ever to find a place to hunt if you are after small game.
Sure, finding room to roam near the big cities is nearly impossible. But it’s never been easy. And yes one can provide several examples of other states where public land is nearly non-existent.
But in northern Minnesota, where we live, that’s not really the case and in fact there are ample opportunities across the state.
It’s true, when I was a youth if we wanted to go bird hunting we’d walk out the door and off into the woods – which usually meant onto old mining property where we weren’t really suppose to be.
And that opportunity still exists today. Nothing has changed.
It’s not legal of course but it never was.
There was also some public property in and around where I grew up which was usually city owned. The trails were mostly old railroad grades beaten down by motorcycles and three-wheelers. The woods were thick and not really the best place to hunt grouse.
Finally, 30 years ago – just like today - those with a car or access to transportation (ATV, bike) could go find an old logging road near town.
But back then without the modern tools available to us now like hunting map apps on our phones or plat books, we never really knew where we were or if we were suppose to there.
Not to mention everyone hunted those spots.
Today, while some of those old hunting trails no longer exist because something was built over them or they were paved for bicycle riding, better and often times safer opportunities exist thanks to a concerted effort by hunters, naturalists and DNR officials to expand public hunting (and wildlife viewing) areas over the past several decades.
Two great examples are Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) and Hunter Walking Trails (HWT).
These areas are maintained by the DNR and groomed to be excellent hunting habitat.
According to the DNR there are 1,440 public Wildlife Management areas in the state of Minnesota, divided by 1,600 sub units, covering 1.29 million acres of habitat.
The WMA’s provide opportunities for hunters and trappers and there are 29 such areas in St. Louis County Alone. There are actually two within five miles in either direction from my home.
They can be found all over the state – there’s one located near my sister’s home just a half hour south of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The HWT system is primarily located in the state’s primary grouse range and provides fairly easy access to good hunting land. Forty-three of Minnesota’s 223 trails are in St. Louis County.
Then there are the Ruffed Grouse Management Areas – over 100,000 acres in northern Minnesota ranging from 400 to 4,800 acres in 49 spots open to hunters interested in exploring the 184 miles of trails that are offered.
There’s also three million acres of state forest.
For more information on public hunting land see: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/hunting/tips/locations.html.
I’m interested to know what others readers think about this subject. Feel free to email me at email@example.com. I may use some of your comments in a future column.