“It was nice to get back into a blind after 20 years away from it. For my son it was his first experience duck hunting, and I think he’s hooked.” Bruce Therrien expressed his appreciation for the junior waterfowl program at Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge in Vermont. “Beyond shooting a few ducks,” added Therrien, “it was nice to see my son gain a firsthand understanding of why a refuge has value to people and waterfowl.”
Since 1979, hunters from 12 to 15 years old have come to the refuge to learn more about the sport of waterfowl hunting and experience a high-quality waterfowl hunt. Like many refuges, Missisquoi NWR partners with other organizations – including state wildlife agencies, local chapters of Ducks Unlimited and local sportsman’s clubs – in offering its training programs. The day-long programs instruct beginning hunters and their adult mentors in the knowledge and skills needed to become responsible, respected hunters. They learn to identify various species of waterfowl and the bag limits for each species. They learn about firearms safety, hunter ethics, blind design and wildlife conservation.
These hunter-trainees learn to estimate how far away a bird is so they know when to take a shot. They also learn how to respect both the habitat and other hunters. When junior hunters complete their training at Missisquoi NWR, they have exclusive use of premier hunting areas at the refuge for the first four weekends of waterfowl hunting season. A lottery is held to distribute blind sites. In some cases, a hunter and a mentor learn to construct their own temporary blind or use a boat. An adult mentor accompanies each young person, but only the junior hunter may shoot. Missisquoi offers hunting opportunities on other days exclusively for the mentors.
Some junior hunters from the early years now return to Missisquoi NWR as mentors to their own children. “We end up with educated hunters who will pass on the tradition,” says Missisquoi NWR Outdoor Recreation Planner. “They are aware of the importance of the refuge for all wildlife because the education they receive is broader than just how to hunt. Sometimes they don’t harvest anything — they just talk about the beautiful habitat and seeing the birds.”
Throughout the National Wildlife Refuge System, there are special youth hunts for both guns and bows, and for multiple species:
- Minnesota Valley NWR and Deep Fork NWR in Oklahoma have partnered with the National Wild Turkey Federation to host special spring turkey hunts, again pairing youngsters with adult mentors. Five of six youngsters harvested a turkey during the first year of the hunt at Deep Fork Refuge.
- The North Mississippi Refuges Complex, including Coldwater River, Dahomey and Tallahatchee NWRs, host special youth hunt days for deer, squirrel, turkey and waterfowl. During these hunts, only youth hunters and their adult supervisors are allowed on refuge lands. Youth hunters aged 12 through 15 must possess a hunter safety course certificate, a signed refuge permit and be supervised by a licensed and permitted adult 21 years or older. An adult may supervise no more than two young hunters.
- Lost Trail NWR in Montana limits the first week of archery deer and elk season and the first week of the general deer and elk season to youths 12 to 14 years of age accompanied by an adult. Twenty youths are permitted to attend a youth deer hunt on Rydell NWR in Minnesota. Again, each young person must be accompanied by a non-hunting mentor.
The night before the Youth Waterfowl Expo at Ruby Lake NWR in remote Nevada, the refuge biologist rounds up live ducks. The next day each of the 25 young expo participants holds a duck and helps to band it. The biologist instructs everyone in species identification, and then each youngster releases his or her duck. The junior hunters learn how to handle firearms while getting in and out of a boat, how to use duck calls and set decoys, and how to use dogs as retrievers. Teenage hunters practice shooting shotguns at clay pigeons provided by the Nevada Department of Wildlife. Younger children practice with air rifles.
While the point of the expo is to teach young people how to be good hunters, the Ruby Lake Refuge Manager hopes they will also learn something else: “The junior hunting program helps make the younger generation aware of refuges and the resources we have. Some high school kids want to come and work here during the summer, and I hope they become interested in the Fish and Wildlife Service as a career.”