Challenging youth to learn about tradition, ethics and wildlife is just the beginning of fun for those who participate in the Youth Hunter Education Challenge programs across the United States and in parts of Canada.
It also gives youths the opportunity to earn their way to the 23rd annual International Youth Hunter Education Challenge, which will be held Monday through Friday at the Mill Cove Environmental Area, near Mansfield.
There, hundreds of boys and girls are challenged to learn and improve their skills and become more ethical in hunting and shooting sports activities.
Charlie Fox, YHEC coordinator for Pennsylvania, said the program is a product of the National Rifle Association.
"It started in 1985 and it is the only competition of its kind. It is in 47 states and it is also in a couple of Canadian provinces," he said.
Officials with the NRA say the event is a positive influence on the future of hunting.
"At a time when the entire hunting community is concerned about declining participation, YHEC is one very clear, bright spot on the horizon of hunting's future," Bill Poole, director of education and training for the NRA, said in a news release. "Through YHEC, kids become more skilled, more successful sportsmen. Ultimately, YHEC produces good ambassadors for hunting."
In the beginning
The genesis of the program grew out of concern for the future of hunting traditions, Fox explained.
"People had concerns with hunters and a survey was done," he said. "The general public felt many hunters didn't have any shooting skills ... they felt they were poor and they felt they didn't have any respect for landowners and game. So the NRA designed this program."
The program was aimed at two age groups - a junior division, from 12- to 14-year-olds, and a senior division, 14- to 19-year-olds. All participants have to be in high school.
Locales for the international YHEC events alternate between Mansfield and Whittington Center, N.M., an NRA-owned ranch near Ratone.
The International YHEC event came east to Pennsylvania in 1999 basically as a change of scenery and to give more youths an opportunity to attend, Fox said.
"When they were holding it in New Mexico, at Whittington Center, we circulated a questionnaire about what participants would like to do," he said. "It is an expense to take a team across the country, and they wanted to come back east. We looked at this site at the Tioga-Hammond Dam Complex with the Army Corps of Engineers and we forged a cooperative agreement with them."
The site's acres of open and wooded terrain swayed YHEC organizers and they decided to use it for competitions, while housing the participants at nearby Mansfield University dormitories.
"Housing them at the university makes it safe, affordable housing and they are fed at the university, making the food more reasonable," Fox said. "That was the attraction of coming to the eastern site."
Participants perform in eight events, some focused on shooting skills, others on ethics.
"They shoot .22 rifles, sporting clays, archery and shotgun and they also take a responsibility test that includes landowner relations," Fox said.
"They also have an orienteering event where they use a map and a compass to navigate in the woods. They are given a compass bearing and a distance and once they travel that distance, there are pegs in the ground," he said, "and they are awarded points if they come to the right pegs.
"We also do a wildlife identification, a hunter safety trail where they are presented with scenarios and have decisions to make - whether a shot is safe, whether the animal is the species they are allowed to hunt," Fox said.
Participants also compete in a muzzleloader course and take a written hunter responsibility exam.
The shooting events simulate actual hunting conditions. The archery event uses 3-dimensional targets, most often in woodland settings, to challenge the youths' ability to judge distance and make accurate shots.
About 400 young people compete, vying for team and individual prizes.
According to the NRA, about 50,000 youths participate in YHEC events at local, state and regional levels. Since 1985, the YHEC program claims more than 1.2 million participants, along with parents and volunteers who help operate the events.
YHEC "teaches young people respect for property owners, respect for the game; it creates an ethical hunter," Fox said. "Hunting (participation) numbers are dropping (and) unless we have a very ethical person out there, it reflects badly on the sport. So, we are trying to train these youths. We have some of the most respectful and responsible young people in the country."
The international event is open to the public, who can observe as the youths learn ethics, orienteering, safe hunting and firearms practices and foster camaraderie, Fox said.
"I've been a volunteer for 23 years and many other volunteers have been there for a long time," Fox said. "They are almost like an extended family."
That family has a clear purpose.
"We are trying to pass on the importance of ethics to the next generation," Fox said. "Ethics are what you do when nobody is looking."
At the Pennsylvania YHEC competition, held recently at the Game Commission's Scotia Range, dozens of participants try to earn their way to the international event.
"We have 170 (YHEC programs) at the state event," Fox said. "Our need is to recruit new teams at the state level because we know the benefit filters down into the communities and clubs. Any clubs interested in having a program can get one started. We have a lot of sporting clubs, but some don't have teams or youth programs in YHEC."
Volunteer Steve Begin has been helping with the Southern Clinton YHEC program for two years.
"The benefits include hunter responsibility, hunter ethics, safe gun handling and vastly improved marksmanship," he said. "They just get a better appreciation for the shooting sports and hunting."
He and Fox both said the program seems to be meeting with success.
"I'd say we are seeing some slow growth," Begin said. "We had 24 kids in our program this year. We even had our own little mini-training weekend and a lot of parents came out to help teach the kids."
The local wildlife conservation officer from the Game Commission, Ken Packard, taught wildlife identification, bringing animal skulls, pelts and animal tracks.
"Jim Bechdel, one of our parents, went above and beyond," Begin said. "He and WCO Packard teamed up and did a phenomenal job, and we had one junior team and one senior team place in the top three at states."
Lessons aren't just for kids.
"As a parent, I learn some things, too," Begin said. "We practice with the kids, so we become better shooters and we learn a lot about wildlife, too. They have to learn bird sounds, animal tracks and even about scat."
Message filtering down
Fox said YHEC seems to be meeting its goals.
"I think the message is getting through," he said. "We are seeing more ethical hunters and the message is going out that if we are going to continue to enjoy hunting as a sport, we have to be conscious of our image to the public. Many are not opposed to hunting but, when we do unethical things, that reflects on all hunters."
Begin sees much of the same.
"I think the big things kids pick up on is hunter ethics," he said. "Being safe, ethical hunters, that is the big thing the program is trying to promote and push."