Generations of Hunters

North Dakota Hunting
(Photo: Chuck Traxler/USFWS)

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.

Young waterfowl hunter
(Photo: USFWS)

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
(Photo: Tina Shaw/USFWS)

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.

Big lake refuge
Cypress trees in bottomland hardwood forest at Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. (Photo: USFWS)

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.

Will Despain age 14 in 1995
Will DeSpain at age 14 in 1995. (Photo: Courtesy of the DeSpain family)

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.”

Bill DeSpain and grandson Ryan in 2014
Bull DeSpain and grandson Ryan in 2014. (Photo: Courtesy of the DeSpain family)

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.”

Fergus Falls
Prairie pothole habitat at Fergus Falls Wetland Management District in Minnesota. (Photo: Courtney Celley/USFWS)

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.

Jenny, Ally, Rebecca Johnson and Grandfather Mitch Anderson
Jenny, Ally and Rebecca Johnson with the girls’ grandfather Mitch Anderson. (Photo: Courtesy of the Johnson family)

“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.”

Girl Scouts Planting Milkweed
(Photo: Courtesy of the Johnson family)

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.”

(Photo: Rebecca Johnson and dog Frankie. Courtesy of the Johnson family)

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.”

Monarch in Michigan at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge
Federal wildlife officer Bruce Butler talks to youngsters about hunting safety at Vieques National Wildlife Refuge in Puerto Rico. (Photo: USFWS)

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.

Colleen Graue and son Thomas
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee Colleen Graue and son Thomas, now 12, at Devils Lake Wetland Management District in North Dakota. (Photo: USFWS)

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey estimated that 13.7 million people spent $33.7 billion hunting in United States in 2011. Watch as these young people share why they hunt (video).

Sunride at Agassize Refuge
Sunrise at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota. (Photo: USFWS)

Find a place to hunt within the Refuge System and other detailed information in “Your Guide to Hunting on National Wildlife Refuges.”

Compiled by Bill_O', September 28, 2016