HUNTING FOR THE FUTURE – National Wild Turkey Federation
WITH PROGRAMS AIMED AT HUNTERS WHO UNDERSTAND THE IMPORTANCE OF CONSERVATION, THE NATIONAL WILD TURKEY FEDERATION SHOOTS TO PRESERVE HABITAT AND HERITAGE FOR GENERATIONS TO COME.
It is very early on a chilly spring morning on a rural tract of land. Two camouflage-clad figures at the base of an oak tree sit very still. It is a difficult task for a twelve-year-old under any circumstances, but for the young hunter who sits with her father, the excitement of the opening day of turkey season makes it all the more challenging. Since early fall, the two have worked together to prepare for this day, and she has learned how important it is to take care of the land so that it can support wildlife. She studied hard to pass hunter’s education, and for the first time she will put her knowledge to use in the field.
As they wait, the sky begins to lighten. Hens roosting in the trees on the edge of the woods drop to the open space, bobbing their heads and clucking as they search for their morning meal. The gobble of the big Tom turkey shatters the stillness, and her eyes go wide at the unexpected sound. The bird struts boldly into the field—his feathered fan extended and beard dragging in the sandy soil. As the sun rises, the light catches the bronze feathers and bright blue of his head. Drumming and gobbling with all his might, he begins his courtship ritual. She is enthralled.
The fact that they leave empty-handed will be of no consequence when they later recount the morning spent watching the wild turkeys across the sandy field. Awed and amused by the birds’ complicated and competitive dance, they take away different but equally important and rewarding experiences. One has passed the baton of stewardship, and the other has taken it to run into the future. Together, they have put into practice the mission of the National Wild Turkey Federation, an objective dedicated to the conservation of the wild turkey and the preservation of our hunting heritage.
It is an objective that Becky Humphries, CEO of National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) could not be more proud to advocate. It is also the guiding principle behind a platform that has been instrumental in the restoration of the wild turkey population in this country and the improvement of more than 17 million acres of wildlife habitat.
“NWTF has long understood the importance of active habitat management, and that the future of conservation depends largely on the recruitment and education of hunters,” she says of the mission that attracted her to the organization.
Humphries, a native of Michigan and former Director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment, assumed leadership of NWTF in April, bringing more than 40 years of conservation and wildlife management experience to the table. Her dedication continues a legacy that began when NWTF was founded in 1973, and which is chronicled in the impressive Winchester Museum on the grounds of its headquarters.
But the organization does not rest on its impressive laurels. From the 700-acre Hunting Heritage Center in Edgefield, SC, the flagship of the federation, Humphries explains that the organization “practices what it preaches,” offering unparalleled outdoor education, wildlife research, and sharing the results of ongoing applications of conservation techniques with others across the country. Their 10-year initiative: Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt, focuses NWTF’s efforts to address the biggest problems facing conservation today—the loss of 6,000 acres of habitat every day and declining participation in hunting.
Conserve. Hunt. Share. The words are at the heart of NWTF’s outreach programs. Women in the Outdoors, Wheelin’ Sportsmen, and JAKES (Juniors Acquiring Knowledge, Ethics, and Sportsmanship), invite and encourage hunters and conservationists at all levels of experience and physical ability to help meet three critical goals: to conserve or enhance 4 million acres of critical habitat, recruit 1.5 million hunters, and open access to 500,000 acres for outdoor enjoyment.
To help facilitate those goals, Travis Sumner, NWTF Hunting Heritage and Habitat Specialist, who oversees the property and manages food plots at the Hunting Heritage Center, is busy cutting brush and making preparations for upcoming mentored events, designed to teach conservation principals and pass on the traditions of safe, ethical hunting. He has spent the morning with interns from a local high school who are participating in a wildlife management technique class. The students spend 1-2 hours at the Center every other day and will participate this winter in a gathering which will test the skills they have learned throughout the year.
“We know that the future of conservation rests with outdoor enthusiasts who have learned basic wildlife management from the ground up. Our approach is to recruit, retain and reactivate a hunting population that is invested in the ecosystem as a whole—from pollinators and songbirds to game animals such as turkeys and deer.”
Sumner stresses the role that mentors play in helping new hunters see the big picture, and through their programs NWTF has found that many who have hunted their entire lives now find even more enjoyment in passing along the culture to those new to outdoor interests. Though hunters currently pay for 80% of conservation funding through license purchases and excise taxes on equipment and more, one of the many lessons mentors teach by their example is that the harvest is secondary to the rewards of the outdoor experience.
On the far side of the Edgefield Center, NWTF’s premier shooting destination, the Palmetto Shooting Complex, helps fulfill the organization’s commitment to shooting sports, offering members and non-members access to two dedicated sporting clays courses, five trap and skeet fields, a 3D archery course, and a picturesque 9,300 square-foot pavilion.
As she oversees the many different facets of NWTF’s programs and projects, Humphries says she is optimistic about the future and encouraged by the role that NWTF continues to play in setting the standard. She has observed better cooperation between government, for-profit, and not-for-profit agencies, resulting in larger-scale tracts of land being set aside as habitat across the nation. And though she is concerned that hunter population numbers have declined, as people become more concerned about sustainability—what they are eating and where their food comes from—she sees a trend toward greater acceptance of hunting.
“There have definitely been peaks and valleys throughout the years, but NWTF has proven that, with education and a culture of good conservation practices, we have the ability to mitigate the peaks and valleys of devastation and restoration.”
Miles away, a deer pauses beneath the pine canopy of a forest, and a covey of quail scurries beneath a windrow of thick brush. From another direction, the tracks of a flock of wild turkeys lead to a magnificent bird standing on the edge of a dusty field. And thanks to the efforts of NWTF, somewhere a future steward of the land awaits the opportunity to step up and be a part of the future of conservation for us all.
Sumner tells his students to think of themselves as artists when approaching the management of fields and forests for wildlife, and of the land as their canvas. “They have to help create the landscape of plants, animals, and birds they want to see in their picture of the future,” Sumner says of helping students understand that preservation of natural resources takes effort.
Women have proven to be the fastest-growing sector of the hunting population, and the organization’s Women in the Outdoors Program hosts opportunities for affordable introduction to hunting classes, as well as other activities such as archery, fly-fishing, shooting sports, and more.
Through Juniors Acquiring Knowledge, Ethics, and Sportsmanship, better known as the JAKES program, youngsters are offered age-appropriate activities and events. Xtreme JAKES provides teens with more advanced outdoor opportunities, and JAKES Take Aim gives youth the chance to try target shooting, clay target shooting, and other shooting sports in a safe, fun environment.
Recognizing a need to provide for those with disabilities to be able to enjoy hunting and the shooting sports, NWTF’s Wheelin’ Sportsmen Program events open up outdoor activities to those who might not otherwise have opportunities due to lack of hunting land access, knowledge of how to return to the field after an injury, or a need for assistance in the field.
By Susan Frampton