The future of hunting mainly depends on those who can decide about it. While many pro-hunting advocates invest enormous amounts of time and resources to convince guides of their value, one Louisiana university emphasizes the conservation value of hunting long before guides are hired or elected. Known as the First Hunt Program, pro-hunt professors at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge send graduates of their program into the workforce with more than the idea that hunting is necessary; They equip them with first-hand experience.
dr Bret Collier and Dr. Kevin Ringelman have coordinated LSU’s Collegiate First Hunt program since 2014.
“We teach hunter education and marksmanship, safety and ethics, and coordinate all hunts from our offices,” says Collier. The professors are expanding their recruitment, reaching far beyond the bayou.
“We’re inducting all-comedors from a variety of institutions, including Auburn, University of Florida, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Tulane and [students] distributed across all LSU majors,” says Collier. He notes that class demographics average 65 to 70 percent female, 10 to 20 percent black, and mostly urban/suburban students. These metrics are typical of most land grant universities.
According to Collier, the program has created more than 45 hunting opportunities, despite the lack of outside funding. So where does the funding come from to pay for all the expenses associated with hunting? Quite a few places, including professors’ wallets. “Typically, Kevin and I pay for all supplies (e.g. ammo, food for trips, etc.) out of our pocket,” says Collier.
Louisiana State University wildlife ecology students and LSU Professor Bret Collier celebrate a successful morning deer hunt in Bienville Parish, Louisiana. Bret Collier
The outdoor industry has provided some help. “Nomad Outdoors has provided free clothing to new hunters in the program for the past five years,” Collier explains. He notes that other industry partners have also helped, including Delta Waterfowl, Benelli, and the Dallas Safari Club.
But such an extensive program requires more than equipment, ammunition and capabilities. It also takes time, a commodity that’s in short supply for most people these days, Collier says.
“Kevin and I have full-time jobs as professors; none of us have any professional benefit from it, but we do it because we love it and think it’s important. We have built a program here that is at the forefront of what collegiate marksmanship and hunting engagement programs should be.”
Ringelman added, “This is purely pro bono work, and it’s a lot. I haven’t hunted for myself in two years.”
More than Hunter Ed
LSU Professor Dr. Kevin Ringelman with wildlife students on a blue-winged teal hunt. Kevin Ringelman
According to Larry Reynolds, director of Wildlife Protection and Conservation Management for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries, the LSU program goes beyond a typical hunting course. What sets the program apart is how it actually engages participants in experiencing exactly what they are learning about.
“LSU’s collegiate hunting program does this very well, making them hunters, if only for a season, and putting them in camp, on guard, and in hideout with real hunters,” says Reynolds. “At the camps and lodges, the students not only hear from us what hunting means for conservation, but also from landowners, land managers and club members. [They hear] about why they invest so much in hunting, what it means for them and their families, and how they see the role of young biologists in maintaining the foundation of this relationship between hunting and conservation.”
LSU is creating more than just a new fighter. The program is building a sustainable supply of future decision makers who work with the interest of hunting and the North American model of wildlife conservation in mind.
“We make over 40 hunting ambassadors each year,” says Ringelman. “By hunting ambassador, I mean a student who fundamentally and intuitively understands the importance of hunting and hunters in wildlife management and not only internalizes that reality, but carries that message along to their peers. This peer group could be others in the wildlife management field, but it could also be veterinarians, zoo keepers, politicians, bankers, lawyers, elementary school teachers, or camp counselors. A hunting ambassador, seeing his colleague roll his eyes at dudes in camouflage driving by in a pickup truck, says, ‘Well, actually…’”
The ability to recognize and engage in such educational moments is one of the critical skills that Collier and Ringelman equip their First Hunt program graduates with.
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“Understanding the role of hunting and hunters in conservation is critical to negotiating virtually any conservation and people issues that these students will engage with in their careers,” says Reynolds.
Change of perspective through education
Lauren McFarland (right) and another student on their first hunt for teal. Bret Collier
Ducks Unlimited biologist in Illinois and Indiana, Madelyn McFarland, is a hunting ambassador-turned-wildlife expert.
“I don’t come from a ‘traditional’ hunting background,” says McFarland. “No one in my immediate family hunted. We got our meat from the grocery store and I rarely knew where it came from. I wasn’t against hunting or hunters, but I didn’t want to carry the emotional burden of taking an animal’s life. I’m ashamed to say this, but prior to LSU’s first hunting program, I couldn’t understand why I would ever want to hunt when someone else was willing to harvest or grow this protein for me and process it into proper food packaging.
Through supervised training and duck blinds detentes, the First Hunt Program transforms the pro-hunting-agnostic or apathetic hearts and minds of students like McFarland.
“Since completing the program, I’ve become an avid waterfowl hunter,” she says. “I’ve developed a sense of community and a connection to nature since taking up a new sport. Participating in LSU’s First Hunt program has changed my perspective on several things — namely, the foods I consume and where it comes from, how I connect with others, and my role in conservation.”
LSU’s program goes beyond cultivating a hunt-friendly environment; In order for these students to engage in hunting, their concerns – especially the uncomfortable ones – are answered and, most importantly, addressed professionally.
“My main concern was how I would feel if I took the life of an animal,” recalls McFarland. “I had never fired a gun, let alone at a living being. I wasn’t sure if I would be proud to harvest my first duck or cruelly take her life. My lack of experience with weapons also made me uneasy. I really wanted to avoid accidents when flying blind.”
McFarland’s metamorphosis from hunting agnostic to lawyer was more than a single decision. It was a complex process that included personal, ethical, and even technical teaching moments that Collier and Ringelman always managed with grace, patience, and inclusion.
“From a hunter safety course, to rifle range weapons training, to waterfowl identification, to the history and science of hunting as a management tool, our discussions revolved around managing the emotions and experience of being a first-time hunter,” says McFarland. “LSU’s First Hunt program was a comprehensive process that took me through the new hunter journey from start to finish.”
A family affair
How effective is the program? Good enough to enable students to recruit future hunters.
“I like to think that I opened the door to a new experience for my little sister, Lauren,” says McFarland. According to Lauren, her sister did just that.
“She was so excited that we could share our passion for hunting,” says Lauren, who, according to McFarland, is primarily a pescetarian but now eats ethically caught game.
“I think there’s something poetic about it,” says McFarland. “We haven’t had a chance to hunt together yet, but I’m really looking forward to it.”
This family passion was developed through a thorough, balanced mentoring approach at LSU.
“From the first impressions it was clear that the new hunting program was well thought out and organized,” says Lauren. “Aimed at people of all backgrounds and experience levels, the program included mentoring and help from several passionate hunters, professors and Wildlife Service officials. All of my concerns were addressed on the first day of the hunt program. In particular, the program made sure all participants were comfortable and prioritized hunter training and safety.”
As with many ambassadors, Lauren’s takeaways were more important than just being prominent.
“This experience gave me a profound appreciation for the sport,” says Lauren. “I realized that it’s not just about harvesting, it’s also about respecting wildlife and its habitat, creating a deeper connection to the resource and understanding its impact and role on the environment.”
Like her older sister, the Ambassador label suits Lauren well. It allows her to connect with people far outside the traditional hunting demographic.
“The program has allowed me to provide a woman’s perspective on hunting and promote inclusion for underrepresented groups, both critical factors in trying to increase hunter participation and recruitment,” explains Lauren. “By sharing how my first hunt changed my perception of wildlife conservation, my priority is to impact future generations of conservationists and hunters.”
A decade of the first hunts
An undergraduate student at LSU shoots her first deer as part of a college hunting experience. Bret Collier
What did the First Hunt Program teach two graduate students like Collier and Ringelman?
“An incalculable amount,” admits Collier.
“The program taught me to value my own upbringing, which was rich in fun-filled outdoor experiences, including hunting with my mom and dad,” Ringelman adds. “That prompted me to evaluate each individual harvested animal more consistently. It’s easy to get exhausted by just one more chicken scoop added to the pile, but when it’s the very first bird a student takes down it takes on special value. That extra layer of meaning isn’t paramount when you’re dating a group of experienced hunters. I have also learned from students not to take anything for granted; The most common question I get asked is which way the metal part of the shotgun goes.”
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As the First Hunt program approaches its tenth year in 2024, Collier and Ringelman quantify its success. “We’ve had excellent results,” says Collier. “We estimate a retention rate of more than 50 to 65 percent of the people who go through our program in five years.”
This prediction means the future of the hunt could depend on a tiger sitting at the decision table. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Collier and Dr. Ringelman has a good chance.