MAY 20, 2024   |   Voice of Leadership Panel

Sticking Together to Promote the Overall Good of Our Hunting Community

Editor's Note - Ryan Brown was a member of the 2022-2023 Voice of Leadership Panel. His message in the July 10, 2023 edition of The Hunting Wire bears repeating, so we are. 

By Ryan Brown - Executive Director, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources

Any number of statistics will explain the national decline in hunting participation that concerns us all. And just as troubling are the declines in public knowledge of hunting and the sport’s place within our broader culture. My childhood experience in rural Virginia was likely no different than many readers of the Hunting Wire—schools closed for the first day of hunting season, seemingly every household included at least one hunter (or, even if someone didn’t hunt, they at least knew a hunter and understood what hunting was about), and a notable harvest in the field might earn someone a picture in the local paper. I even knew some individuals (including my father) who chose their careers based on the criteria of how much time the job would allow in the field during hunting season. Suffice it to say our world has changed quite a bit.

The declines mentioned above, and our evolving world is taken seriously by all in the hunting community and are problems that state fish and wildlife agencies and non-governmental hunting organizations nationwide are focusing efforts on. But even with these efforts, the facts remain that we find ourselves now a much smaller group than we’ve been historically, and we are present in a society that knows less about our passion and its contribution to our resources than it likely ever has. Judgments about hunters are made less often by people familiar with the context and more often based on snap reactions to quick bits of information, positive or negative. As such, the need for the hunting community to stick together has become greater than ever; if we were ever large enough to stand individually, we certainly aren’t anymore. Infighting among us divides us into smaller factions more easily singled out by those who oppose hunting generally. To those in the public who may not know us that well—who, as the vast majority, will ultimately make most of the decisions that affect us at the ballot box--it creates a spectacle that does not reflect favorably upon the sport and can create undeserved negative opinions that, once formed, can be difficult to reverse.

Most importantly, it’s generally unnecessary--in my role, I’m party to discussions in public and private among hunters over contentious issues; emotions can run high, and lines can be drawn. Though the topics of debate can seem of great importance in the heat of the moment, it is always very evident that we all have much more in common than not. The world seems to go on just fine no matter who prevails, and in fact, the casual observer often may have a hard time distinguishing between the parties.

So what does this mean? At a facial level, “avoiding infighting” in the community suggests avoiding conflict with other hunters. Simple enough. “Sticking together” would seem to mean coming to the aid of others when they report facing challenges, whatever form that may take. If you frequent social media, that’s how you’ll often see the ideas carried out; quick supportive comments to posts eliciting them, likewise rapid (but undeveloped) righteous indignation at the suggestion of any conflict with the outside world that’s explained as being unfair to the hunter making the original post. While support is important, it’s only step one--these are subjects important enough that they deserve much more than just facial involvement. And if our sport is to thrive in the public eye, any defense needs to be well-merited and informed. Having deep cohesiveness within our ranks and protecting and promoting our passion means holding a community mindset concerning the sportsmen and sportswomen community and all that comes along with that.

Being a part of a community rests upon a foundation of commitment to the well-being of one another and the mutual understanding that, come what may, we will all go forward together. It also comes with deep responsibility. It connotes that we will establish and maintain values of acceptable practices and behavior among community members in the greater interest of the sport and the resources. We will collectively determine the image of the sport we want to present to the nonhunting public and work together to promote that vision. And ultimately, we will engage in self-regulation by establishing accountability among sportsmen and women, correcting each other when necessary. All of this being done not in the interest of determining winners and losers or affixing labels to each other (as is the natural tendency in media and discussions these days), but to promote the overall good of our community, make it one that we are justified and proud to speak up for when needed, and help our sport stay on the right path.

There are two conversations I’ve had over and over throughout my life in hunting. The first involves a hunter describing circumstances in which they judge another hunter to conduct themselves in a way that needs correction, whether presenting a bad face to the public, violating community standards, or even possibly violating game laws or regulations. “They really shouldn’t do that,” “Someone ought to say something,” “Someone ought to do something,” or words of similar import are often uttered. And yet, the conversation ends there often, and no one gets further involved. The second can arise from similar circumstances, but the tense is that someone has been proactive and has taken action. Immediately the phrases can change to “Can you believe what they said about him?”, “They’re gonna get told to mind their own business,” and “I don’t know how someone gets a ticket for that,” even when the real answers can sometimes be that I can easily believe what they said, someone acting in a manner that damages the sport is all of our business. I know exactly how someone got a ticket because there’s a regulation booklet that says that’s what will happen if you violate the rules. The shame in both of these conversations, however, is that the participants have taken the easy way out—anyone can make commentary, but a member of a community gets involved, learns the real (rather than the reported) facts, has the conversations that need to be had, and leaves the sport and everyone involved in the situation (including the subject of the gripe) that much better for it.

I give those examples to illustrate that truly being there for each other and our sport means more than simply voicing facial support whenever it’s called for; it requires investment and works on behalf of the sport when out of the field. And rather than being in the grandstands giving commentary, it may require each of us to be on the less comfortable playing field, taking actions that are in our overall community interests. Whatever our numbers may be in the future, it is up to us as hunters to determine what view the outside world will have of us. We want that to be a unified community where we aid each other when needed. But the good of our sport, and indeed the strength of our defense when it’s called upon, calls for it to be, in total, a unified, self-regulating, responsible community in which the members are ambassadors for their sport, accountable to each other, and known to give force to their values and take corrective action among their ranks when necessary. Doing so aids not only in defense of our passion but brings us closer together and makes us a community that others will find attractive to join in the future.

Ryan Brown is the Executive Director of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. An avid hunter, angler, and outdoorsman, he grew up on a family farm in central Virginia and still lives in a rural part of the state.

The Voice of Leadership Panel is an appointed group of outdoor industry leaders who have volunteered to contribute their voices on crucial hunting and outdoor recreation issues to inform, inspire, and educate participants within our community.