UNIVERSITY PARK -There was a time not so long ago when virtually every college student desiring a career in wildlife management was focused on the outdoors because he or she was a hunter.
But no more. Hunting no longer is a major factor in modern American culture. Now just 12.5 million people nationwide hunt - or just one in 12.
At Penn State, it is not at all unusual for students with no hunting experience to enroll in the College of Agricultural Sciences' Wildlife and Fisheries Science major with the intention of becoming a wildlife manager after graduation, according to Gary San Julian, professor emeritus of wildlife resources.
But these students may have difficulty interacting with hunters when they enter the workforce, due to their lack of knowledge of hunting and hunters, he explained. And many are not aware of the value of hunting in wildlife management.
To combat this lack of knowledge, San Julian helped create a program in which students could learn for themselves about hunting.
The idea was based on a program at the University of Wisconsin. With help from the Wildlife Management Institute in Washington, D.C., San Julian developed a prototype, offered the program at Penn State for two years, and eventually created a national-level program.
"Students who take part in the three-day training program attend lectures on hunting matters, such as who hunts and why, the biological basis of hunting, and gun safety," he said. "The students also have hands-on experience as they learn how to shoot skeet and even can participate in an actual hunt for pheasants, though the hunt is not mandatory."
All students who are going to work with hunters after they graduate should participate in this program, San Julian said.
"The clientele for wildlife and fisheries majors are often hunters," he said. "Without understanding the passion these hunters have and the hunting language, students may not be able to have a reasonable conversation with them.
"It's important that these students make on-the-job decisions based on knowledge and, by taking part in this course, they learn enough about the hunting culture to give them tools they need to be successful in their future," he added.
This year, three students from Penn State traveled with San Julian to Chesapeake Farms in Maryland Feb. 23-26. Students from other universities also attended, bringing the total number of students on the trip to 16.
Megan Davis, a Penn State wildlife and fisheries science major, was impressed by the experience.
"This program is important to educate nonhunters and anti-hunters about the background and history of hunting," said the senior from Warsaw, Va. "Hunting is more than simply shooting animals. It's a management technique for wildlife populations and also provides a recreational tradition our country has had for ages."
Davis believes this program will help her with her future career.
"Being able to communicate with hunters and understand why many people hunt and their individual purposes will make me a stronger wildlife conservationist," she said.
After the three students from Penn State passed the hunter-education exam and received their hunter-safety certificates, they and other students went on a pheasant hunt with hunting dogs.
"My favorite part was participating in the hunt and watching our hunting dog work," Davis said. "I've never hunted before, so I never understood the adrenaline rush one gets from it. It's an amazing feeling to walk through the fields, be outside with nature and see how much enjoyment our hunting dog had finding and retrieving birds for us."
Sara Mueller, a Penn State sophomore in wildlife and fisheries science, said she was afraid of the guns at first.
"From day one, they were on display so we could get used to their presence," she recalled. "Then we handled them and practiced gun safety for hours. By the end of the weekend, I was able to clean and handle my gun without fear and with a healthy respect for it."
Mueller, a State College native, also had never hunted before.
"I was never against hunting; I just figured I would never do it," she said. "However, I am realizing the importance of hunting as a management tool, and I should at least understand some of the mentality behind hunting."
Watching the well-trained dog search for pheasants also was a highlight for Justin DiRado, a Penn State senior in wildlife and fisheries science.
"It was amazing to watch the dog work, and I truly enjoyed what he was doing," said the Greensburg native. "He was so well behaved, and we could tell the guide was proud of his work with the dog.
"After taking this course, I will be able to communicate better with the hunting public during my career after college," DiRado added. "I also will have a better understanding and appreciation for hunting and the millions of people who participate in this recreational activity every year."
San Julian enjoys watching students gain an appreciation for hunting.
"Most young people don't hunt these days because there are so many other things for them to do," he said. "By having this experience, students have a better understanding of how hunting fits into the fabric of our culture."
This story was provided by Penn State Live. For more information, see live.psu.edu.