Walter “Deet” James Jr. is saddled with a hefty chore: to maintain and increase the number of hunters in North Carolina.
James, who is the Wildlife Commission’s hunting heritage biologist, says the task is not as daunting as it may seem.
“Mentoring new hunters is the key. It’s all our responsibilities as individual hunters to introduce new people to the outdoors, especially youth,” he said. “My responsibility is to be a facilitator and catalyst…Although my focus is on hunting…our collective focus is much broader and meant to include other forms of outdoor recreation…Our main goal is to address awareness of …wildlife associated recreation and conservation…”
James explains that the wildlife commission believes “it takes a hunter to make a hunter.”
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“The majority of hunters began hunting because someone took the time to introduce then to the activity,” he said.
James, 54, uses himself as an example. When he was 12 growing up in east central Pennsylvania, “my Uncle Bill introduced me and my brother to hunting and fishing. I didn’t realize it back then, but Uncle Bill was slowly building an outdoor foundation in his nephews that would last a lifetime. My brother and I were seeing all kinds of wildlife and everything nature had to offer. It was not a movie or a video game that provided the background. It was Uncle Bill and the outdoors.”
That was exactly the mission that James and the commission pushed in the 2011 and 2012 “Hats On” campaign. Hunters pledged “to mentor a new hunter (youth or adult) on his or her first hunting trip…as my contribution to preserving our hunting heritage in North Carolina.”
“Ultimately the future of hunting depends on the individual hunter…It is vital; therefore, that hunter mentoring is recognized as an essential component toward recruitment and retention efforts in North Carolina…” James said.
The 2011 campaign involved 9,442 Tar Heel hunters who took the mentoring pledge, with 6,761 completing the post campaign survey, according to James.
Now the emphasis is on “skilled based seminars” for folks interested in turkey, deer and waterfowl hunting. A recent turkey event drew 1,400 participants.
Hunting heritage programs around the United States are viewed as critical if wildlife management and conservation programs are maintained financially.
“For over 70 years, hunters and anglers have provided on average of about 70 percent of the funding for most state fish and wildlife agencies…” James reported. “Decades of decline in the number of licensed hunters have resulted in hunter recruitment and retention becoming a high priority issue among the North American wildlife conservation and management community…”
Hunting and my work are my life.
Walter “Deet” James Jr.
In a commission report, James said hunter numbers declined 10 percent from 1996 through 2006. In 1996, there were roughly 370,000 hunters (age 16 and older) in North Carolina, but by 2006 the number was down to 304,000 hunters.
A recent report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which surveys every five years, shows an increase in the number of hunters in North Carolina.
“In fact, hunter participation increased nine percent nationally from 12.5 million to 13.7 million in 2011 including a nine percent increase in Tar Heel hunters from 304,000 in 2006 to 335,000 in 2011. Despite the recent increase, however, North Carolina still experiences a 16 percent decline in adult hunters between 1991 and 2011,” the survey noted.
Since childhood, James has maintained a healthy interest in hunting. For 25 years, he worked in manufacturing. Then at age 38 he turned his passion for the outdoors into a career. He enrolled at Penn State and earned a degree in wildlife science. He came to North Carolina in 2007 as a wildlife technician for the NCWC. A year later he was promoted to heritage biologist.
Now James is living his dream: “To preserve the tradition and culture of hunting both personally and professionally.” His immediate goal is to stabilize the decline in the number of hunters.
“Hunting is still thriving in North Carolina. It’s too important to lose,” he said. “The challenge is access to land to recreate on. Agencies have got to continue to acquire land.”
In the meantime, James engulfs himself into the pleasures of hunting and preserving its traditions.
“Harvesting deer, wild turkey and bear are a great reward for me,” he said. “It’s magical and precious, a gift that sustains me directly with a freezer full of wild game. Hunting and my work are my life.”