BOSCOBEL - Brock Rosenkranz and John Cler have been friends and hunting buddies for a long time. They met in grade school: Rosenkranz was in fifth grade; Cler was the principal.
“My dad was a biology teacher at the high school,” Rosenkranz explained. “I grew up in the outdoor environment, and we were always fishing, but he didn’t hunt. Mr. Cler took me out on my first turkey hunt. Since then, I just got hooked into hunting,” he said.
Rosenkranz and Cler, both from Richland County, found each other through school, but Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is actively building similar relationships through its hunting mentorship program, which partners experienced hunters with novices of all ages. The DNR is currently recruiting volunteer mentors.
Today, both Rosenkranz and Cler participate in formal hunting mentorship programs. Rosenkranz serves on the board of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to preserving public lands and waters in North America.
Rosenkranz volunteers as the coordinator of BHA’s R3 (Recruitment, Retention and Reactivation) program in the State of Wisconsin, and the position allows him to pay it forward by mentoring other new hunters.
“It’s super cool to be able to do that,” he said. “I set up all our ‘Learn-to-Hunt’ programs, for adults most of the time. Pheasant hunts, deer hunts, turkey hunts, I just had a squirrel hunt this last weekend.”
Rosenkranz says his students bring a variety of motivations for wanting to learn to hunt. “It’s usually a 50/50 about nature and being self-sustaining,” he said. “That’s the same with me. There was one lady at the squirrel hunt that got skunked, but she acted like she might have had the best time, just because she loved her time in nature that day.”
For years, Cler has mentored students through the National Wild Turkey Federation. In that time, he’s seen the focus of the program shift from youth to adults. “Adults have money. Adults can buy a gun. They can own a gun. They have a car. It’s just much easier for them to get into hunting.”
Mentorship programs are important, the two men said, because fewer people hunt in Wisconsin today than in previous years. Traditionally hunting was a sport passed down from one generation to the next. That seems to be less the case today.
After a slight uptick in the deer harvest during the height of the pandemic, numbers declined last year. About 300,000 deer were brought home in 2021—less than half of those harvested in the peak year of 2000.
“We’re in trouble already because hunting licenses generate money for wildlife management,” Cler said. “There’s less and less and less money to fund wildlife refuges, public hunting grounds, and parks and everything else the DNR does.”
If those numbers are going to shift, it’ll require new hunters, according to Rosenkranz and Cler. And that might mean some new approaches to the sport. Both men said that the traditional father-son Thanksgiving gun season is, indeed, giving way to new approaches and new faces.
Since 2020, Cler has hosted cross-bow-hunting classes on his family farm in Richland County. “Last year we had five women and one guy. I was surprised that so many women are involved.”
Many of these students, Cler said, are motivated to source clean meat. “They want a wild, different kind of meat. It’s non-GMO. It’s just wild meat and that’s what their interested in.”
Hunting requires some obvious practical skills: Handling a weapon, finding and luring prey, field dressing, butchering, even cooking wild game.
No less important, according to the men, are the ethics of harvesting animals responsibly.
“Being a good hunter translates over into being a good person,” said Rosenkranz. “One of the things I was taught when I was really young was that if you don’t feel right doing it in the woods, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. You can’t break the law, even when nobody’s looking and you know you can get away with it.”
This sense of self-control and restraint is at the heart of being a responsible hunter, Cler said. “You owe something to the wildlife. If you do happen to hit them, you owe them the best effort to retrieve that animal and to end its life as quickly and painlessly as possible.”
It’s their hope that by bringing up a new generation of hunters, these ethics will seep out of the forest and into everyday life.
If you’re new to hunting or would like to help train new hunters, the DNR R3 program provides information on its website, or at 608-577-6332.
New hunters must take safety courses and register for the season. Discounts are available for first-time registrants.For the white tail deer season, bow hunting began in September and will continue through January. The regular gun season begins November 19.