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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Hunting During the Pandemic: Respite for Families is Boon for Conservation

   forestDeep Fork National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oklahoma is a dense bottomland hardwood forest that can flood during heavy rain events. Visitors enjoy the boardwalk that traverses flooded parts of the refuge during the spring rain events. Year-round fishing is available at the refuge, and there are also seasonal draw hunts on there for small game, turkey, waterfowl and deer. Photo by USFWS

While the toll on countless families has been catastrophic during the pandemic, the people of this nation are doing their part to slow the spread by social distancing. It’s been a time of adjustment, to say the least, as many typical family activities are under restrictions in the interest of minimizing the spread.

More and more families are enjoying traditional outdoor activities that come with built-in social distancing measures. Nationwide spikes in hunting and fishing license sales for 2020 are unprecedented. The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation reports an increase of around 50 percent in resident fishing license purchases. The use of parks has more than doubled in many cities, driving urban residents to seek out less crowded places to recreate, and this means a win for wildland conservation.

“We're seeing more people coming from the Tulsa area. People are going outside the city to recreate and reduce their risk of catching COVID-19,” says Supervisory Refuge Specialist Catherine Bell of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who works at Deep Fork National Wildlife Refuge, 50 miles south of Tulsa. “It’s been great for us.”

wooden walk in forestAn excellent activity for visitors to Deep Fork National Wildlife Refuge is a stroll on the newly renovated boardwalk, which spans the refuge’s dense bottomland hardwood forest that can flood during heavy rain events. The boardwalk allows visitors to traverse flooded parts of the refuge during the spring rain events. Photo by Catherine Bell/USFWS

While closely following Center for Disease Control and Prevention, state and local health department guidelines, the Service’s top priority has been and continues to be the safety of staff and visitors. This has meant that refuge visitor centers were or continue to be closed to the public. However, many refuge lands have remained open for responsible recreation throughout the pandemic.

An important part of the Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System’s mission is attracting visitors to the refuges. When visitors enjoy wild spaces like national wildlife refuges, they tend to want to keep that place around for future recreation and the enjoyment of future generations. This also goes for refuges that allow hunting and fishing opportunities. And in a state like Oklahoma where there are a lot of potential hunters and anglers with few public lands available, national wildlife refuges are often an oasis for outdoorsmen and -women amid private ranches and farms.

youth kneeling with turkey

The Hendrix family of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, has benefited from one of the hunting opportunities during this unprecedented age of lockdowns. Easton Hendrix, 12, was one of 10 youth selected to participate in the Deep Fork Refuge spring turkey hunt. (Easton is at left with the turkey he harvested from Deep Fork Refuge. Photo Courtesy of John Hendrix)

“The best part of hunting for us is getting the family away from the routine and electronic devices that take up so much of our time. We enjoy the camping and preparing meals outside,” says Easton’s father, John Hendrix. “We see a lot of wildlife every year and we don’t necessarily have to harvest anything to feel like it's an enjoyable time. When we are able to harvest something, that’s an added bonus: a source of pride and potentially some meat for those family meals.”

John Hendrix is a supervisory wildlife biologist for the Service’s Tulsa Ecological Services Office. Easton entered the refuge draw hunt and was randomly selected by an Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. It was by blind luck that a Service employee’s family member was drawn for the hunt.

   youth holdding big fish

The Hendrix family has middle school- and high school-age children who are both active in competitive athletics. But even sports with traditionally less contact, such as cross-country runs, have been scaled back or cancelled. (Mackenzie Hendrix, 16, with a flathead catfish she caught while camping with family. Photo Courtesy of John Hendrix) So for the Hendrixes, activities that are intrinsically social distanced (hiking, camping, hunting, fishing) have surged in popularity recently. Luckily, the Hendrixes have a family history of outdoor recreation.

“My wife and I were married for 11 years before we had kids, and we spent a lot of that time hunting,” says John. The couple also volunteers in the community as shooting sports instructors, teaching trap (clay pigeon) shooting to youth. John says that his values as a wildlife biologist go hand-in-hand with his values as a sportsman.

“I have wonderful memories of hunting and fishing as a boy, and I decided from a young age that I wanted to work outdoors. When I started deer hunting here in Oklahoma in the 1970s, we had very few deer, and it took me several years to harvest a buck,” says Hendrix. “Thanks to habitat improvements, Oklahoma is now known for its deer. I’m fortunate to be working in a field where I can help to improve these very habitats to recover threatened and endangered species. Sometimes I just can’t believe they are paying me to do something I love so much. It’s incredible.”

The national wildlife refuge side of the Service has made extensive expansions to hunting and fishing opportunities in recent year – a welcome development for sportsmen in places like Oklahoma, where only a small fraction of the land is open to the public.

youth kneels behind harvested deer holding its antlersMackenzie Hendrix, with a mule deer buck she harvested on a family hunt in 2019. Photo Courtesy of John Hendrix

“Families like mine appreciate the refuge system opening up and providing more hunting and fishing opportunities on those lands that have sustainable wildlife populations,” says Hendrix. “I think it's vitally important because it keeps youth interested in this field, it keeps them interested in outdoor activities as family traditions, and keeping conservation efforts going.”

By Al Barrus, Public Affairs Specialist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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