Teaching Tomorrow’s Conservation Leaders

The late November air was crisp, forming a thick haze across the expansive corn stubble and rendering a well-placed pit blind nearly invisible. Huddled inside, a crew of first-time goose hunters — wildlife management students participating in a Delta Waterfowl University Hunting program course — crouched with their instructor, Dr. David Koons, a professor of wetland and waterfowl conservation at Colorado State University.

A safety briefing was provided, along with what to expect when geese were spotted. “One smooth move,” the students were told, would slide back their blind covers so they could shoot.

“More like 10 smooth moves,” joked Colorado State graduate student Kelsey Navarre, who’s researching lesser scaup, as she finagled her cover into position.

Then the cries of Canada geese resounded above, and when a massive flight broke through the low ceiling, the novice waterfowlers were mystified. Despite gusty winds centering the birds perfectly, most students held their fire.

“They were so awed by the number and proximity of the birds that they developed ‘buck fever,’” Koons said. “Also if you’ve never harvested an animal, that’s a powerful moment, and I’m sure it played a role. But they quickly pushed through and went full-bore.”

Delivered in partnership with universities throughout the United States and Canada, Delta’s University Hunting program arose in 2017 in recognition of a looming issue: Increasingly, aspiring biologists who will one day use hunting license and permit revenues to manage ducks, geese and other wildlife, are not hunters themselves.

“Not long ago, nearly every waterfowl biology student in North America was a dedicated hunter, but that’s no longer the case,” said Joel Brice, vice president of waterfowl and hunter recruitment programs for Delta Waterfowl. “We believe that’s a real problem, because waterfowl managers need a sense of hunting culture, and hunting’s role in conservation, to set appropriate hunting regulations and effective conservation policies. Our long-term plan is to expand the program to every major university on the continent offering a wildlife management degree.”

Currently, Delta’s University Hunt program is being delivered at Colorado State, University of Nebraska—Lincoln, University of Arkansas—Monticello, University of Manitoba—Winnipeg and the University of Delaware. Buoyed by early successes, many more universities have expressed interest in implementing the program, so it undoubtedly will grow.

A wildlife professor at each University Hunting program-enrolled school develops a course curriculum with guidance from Delta Waterfowl. A variety of hunting topics are included, with special emphasis on the critical role hunting plays in managing wildlife and funding conservation. However, arguably the most impactful aspect of the course arrives at the grand finale: participation in an actual waterfowl hunt.

“If we can give the students that visceral experience of going on a hunt, it will leave a mark on their lives,” Koons said. “Even if they don’t become hunters themselves — though we hope they do — they’ll remember it someday when making high-level policy decisions.”

A group of Colorado State students will forever recall the foggy morning they spent hunting with Koons and guide Luke Schmidt of Last Pass Outfitters (who provided the hunt free of charge). Geese in groups of 25 to 100 repeatedly swarmed the spread.

“We had a morning of legs-down, wings-cupped geese and, incredibly, these first-time hunters began doubling,” Koons said. “One percent of me feels bad because they might never see something like that again.”

By 9 a.m., they’d shot limits of dark geese, plus a few snows and Ross’s geese. The unseasoned students, of course, lacked perspective.

“I’m told we were pretty spoiled,” said student Kristen Ellis, who enrolled in the course given her interest in wetland and shorebird research. “(Schmidt) was amazing with his goose call and I loved watching his dog work. It was just a really cool experience, and I would definitely go again.” — Kyle Wintersteen