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Restoring Canada's Waterfowling Heritage - One Duck Hunter at a Time

WINNIPEG, Manitoba - Rob Olson is on a mission. His goal: To recruit new duck hunters from the Maritimes to British Columbia and every nook and cranny in between.

"Canada had more than 500,000 waterfowl hunters back in the 1970s," says the president of Winnipeg-based conservation organization Delta Waterfowl. "In recent years that number has shrunk to less than 170,000. Our goal is to restore Canada's proud waterfowling heritage, one new hunter at a time if that's what it takes."

If history repeats itself, the Delta campaign will attract some vocal opposition from gun-control advocates saying it's wrong to introduce youngsters to guns.

"We've heard all that before," says Olson, who in 2000 led the fight against anti-gun activists who opposed the Canadian Wildlife Service's Waterfowler Heritage Days, which allowed young people to participate in mentored hunts without a permit.

"We drew plenty of criticism back then." Olson recalls. "Wendy Cukier of the Coalition for Gun Control was quoted in the National Post as saying youth hunting was ‚'completely inappropriate' and would ‚'put children at risk.'"

Olson disagreed, saying hunters have a proven record of gun safety, and hunting is one of the safest recreational activities on the planet. He and Delta biologist Jim Fisher argued their case across Canada, and thanks to strong support from provincial wildlife federations and provincial governments, the youth hunts were approved.

Just a few weeks later Delta teamed with the Manitoba Wildlife Federation and Manitoba Conservation to hold the country's first-ever mentored youth duck hunt.

Olson says the decline in the number of hunters represents a conservation crisis. "The truth is that hunters are the best friends the birds have. Without hunters, the most successful habitat conservation programs would soon be in jeopardy."

Olson cites recent rumors of budget cuts at the Canadian Wildlife Service as an example of what can happen when ducks lose their most important constituent‚--hunters. "No one would have dared cut the CWS budget when there were half a million waterfowlers," he says. "But we're losing our political clout, and as a result ducks are losing their most important voice."

Ducks aren't the only beneficiaries of hunters' conservation efforts, Olson says. Populations of many upland-nesting and wetland-dependent non-game birds have prospered as a result of conservation and research conducted by hunter-sponsored organizations like Delta Waterfowl.

"That's one reason there's a lengthy discussion about conservation at each of our mentored hunts," he says. "In addition to teaching gun safety and responsible gun handling, we also teach youngsters about hunting skills, bird-cleaning and cooking. Some of our kids even take the birds home and prepare them for their parents. We're pretty proud of that."

Olson says it's impossible to isolate a single reason for the long-term decline in the number of Canadian waterfowl hunters. "An aging population and urbanization are big factors," he says. "As people move from the country to the city, they lose touch with their roots."

Delta's initial efforts to recruit waterfowl hunters focused on young people, but it didn't take long to identify other audiences. Working with several partners, Delta Biologist Carly Michie recently held Canada's first women's duck hunt, as well as a hunt for university students.

"We're beginning to understand that adults are as receptive to our message as youngsters," says Olson, "and new research shows that a surprisingly high number of people took up waterfowling in their 20s."

In fact, there are so many potential hunters that Delta recently hired a full-time hunting recruitment director, Cam Meuckon, to coordinate the nation-wide program.

"After youth hunts were approved, our chapters started holding events, and it wasn't long before hunters across the country jumped on board.

"It's all very exciting," Olson says, noting that the number of Canadian youth hunts doubled from 2006‚ -- from 13 to 26. "We're building the next generation of waterfowl hunters, and in the process we're creating a new generation of conservationists. It doesn't get any better than that."

For more information about Delta Waterfowl's hunter recruitment program contact Rob Olson at 204-956-7766.

Delta Waterfowl is dedicated to the future of waterfowl and waterfowl hunting.