For millions of American families, the hunting conservation ethic is a way of life to be passed on proudly through generations. The DeSpains of Arkansas and the Johnsons of Minnesota are two such families.
The DeSpains and the Johnsons understand what conservation pioneer Aldo Leopold meant when he wrote long ago: “A peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than by a mob of onlookers. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this fact.”
Regulated seasonal hunting is permitted at more than 330 national wildlife refuges and wetland management districts in the National Wildlife Refuge System, in keeping with conservation objectives. The DeSpains enjoy Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge and its surroundings in northeast Arkansas. The Johnsons are partial to the lands and waters in and near Fergus Falls Wetland Management District in west-central Minnesota.
Five generations of DeSpains have hunted white-tailed deer, duck, dove, turkey and other game near Big Lake Refuge. James “Bull” DeSpain, 64, taught his now-35-year-old son, Will, to hunt decades ago. Both are passing along the skill – and the conservation ethic – to Will’s children, Ryan, 8, and Emma, 4. Hunting instills in young people “a respect for nature – a respect for what is out there in the woods,” Bull DeSpain says.
Hunting teaches gun safety, says Will DeSpain. “It makes you responsible. It’s not easy … You may hunt two or three weekends and not even see a deer … It takes patience and respect for the outdoors. Dad always told me to not litter and do things right, and we always had to leave it better than it was when we went out there.”
Hunting was “all I knew when I was younger,” says Will DeSpain. “When I was a kid, that’s all I cared about. We were hunting and fishing pretty much 52 weeks a year. When the hunting season was over, we started fishing. Me and Dad were real close because every weekend I was with him.”
Jenny and David Johnson and their daughters Ally, 14, and Rebecca, 11, hunt waterfowl and deer in the upper Midwest, near Fergus Falls Wetland Management District in Minnesota. The wetland management district is home to the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center and its annual Woodie Camp for teenage hunters. “I think the camp is important because hunters are great conservationists,” says Jenny.
“I want to teach them love and respect for the world around us, not just seeing it through the eyes of social media but to see it firsthand,” says Jenny Johnson. “Being out there firsthand and experiencing the hunt gives them the kind of love and respect that is hard to learn otherwise.”
For David Johnson, shown here with daughter Ally, hunting “has changed from getting the ‘big trophy’ to watching my children grow to love the sport. My success in the hunt is based on their success.”
What do the kids think? “I like trailing deer because it’s real fun,” says Ryan DeSpain, 8. “I like when I find them.” Ally Johnson, 14, likes bonding with family and friends – “You get to learn different ways your parents and grandparents hunted, and hear about their stories.” For Rebecca Johnson, 11, “the hardest thing about hunting is being quiet because I’m not very stealthy.”
Hunters like the DeSpains, Johnsons and others help conserve natural resources. Ninety-eight percent of the price of Duck Stamps purchased by hunters and other conservationists goes to acquiring wetland habitat on national wildlife refuges.
Find a place to hunt within the Refuge System and other detailed information in “Your Guide to Hunting on National Wildlife Refuges.”