How many rabbits does it take to satisfy young Michiganhunters?
If the youth hunt held recently at Flat River State Game Area (in Ioniaand Montcalm counties) is any indication, the answer is “not very many.”
Two dozen youngsters – mostly boys, but some young ladies as well – were on hand for the Saturday, Jan. 21, event, which was hosted by the Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Division, the Mid-Michigan Chapter of the United Sportsmen’s Alliance (MMUSA) and the Belding Sportsman’s Club. The youths came with parents, mentors or friends to be part of the first of what the sponsors envision as an annual event.
The idea sprang from the imagination of DNR wildlife biologist John Niewoonder, whose original thought was to promote a youth hunt in conjunction with the DNR’s recently launched Pheasant Restoration Initiative. But pheasants – as well as pheasant habitat – are relatively scarce these days in the area and when DNR wildlife staffers began kicking around the idea, some staff members thought there may be a more appropriate quarry.
“One of the guys said we really should do something with rabbits,” Niewoonder said. “We’ve got a lot of rabbits. They’re everywhere.”
The DNR has initiated new rabbit habitat programs at a number of southern Michigan state game areas and now, Niewoonder said, timbering contracts at the Flat River area (like other state game areas) require loggers to leave brush piles for the bunnies – “rabbitat,” if you will – as part of the logging contract. A rabbit hunt seemed like a natural fit.
Niewoonder contacted the local sportsmen’s groups (MMUSA is an umbrella group made up of members of other conservation groups, while the Belding Sportsman’s Club is a long-time institution) and they went all in. The groups provided a meeting facility, breakfast and lunch, and door prizes – including two firearms, as well as variety of other practical items – for the participants.
“They were instantly fired up,” Niewoonder said. “They stepped right up immediately.”
So on a snowy Saturday morning, the Belding Sportsman‘s Club’s headquarters was abuzz with the youngsters – and twice as many adults – who came to be part of the event.
The DNR provided maps of where habitat work has taken place on the game area “and we got some experienced rabbit hunters to come out and ‘guide,’ ” Niewoonder said. “So we had people who didn’t know anything about rabbit hunting and guys, who, that’s what they do.”
Ken Engebretsen is one of the latter. Engebretsen, who said he didn’t have to be asked twice, brought his three beagles to the club and took out a mixed party of adults and youngsters.
“I love to support kids,” said Engebretsen, who has coached Junior Olympics archers in the past and has been running rabbits with beagles for years. “I’ve always worked with kids.
“I think this is a fantastic sport to get kids into hunting. They don’t have to sit still and they don’t have to be quiet. They can go out and be themselves.”
Steve Foster, a board member of MMUSA, said his group had wanted to partner with the DNR on a project for some time and this fit the bill perfectly.
“Everything today is about partnerships,” Foster said. “That’s what the United Sportsmen’sAllianceis about – everyone partnering together for conservation. This event has been a dream for a long time.”
John Byrne, president of Belding Sportsman’s Club and a veteran hunter, said the event fit his club’s mission, too.
“Small game hunting has gone downhill and we know there are kids out there who would enjoy it, but their parents are busy and a lot of parents don’t hunt,” he said. “I don’t have any kids, but this is a way I can help out. It’s promoting hunting and getting the youth outdoors again.
“Small game hunting is a good thing for kids. Get them outdoors and away from the TV.”
Ten-year-olds Joe Degarmo ofRockfordand Nick Dayhuff of Grand Rapids were among the hunters at Flat River. And though the boys didn’t see any rabbits, they both said they had a good time being out in the woods.
“We walked for an hour through prickers and stuff,” Dayhuff said.
Added Degarmo: “We got to see a turkey and a few squirrels and we got to see all these carcasses where the crows were eating. We saw, like, 50 crows come up out of there.”
Josh Sluiter, a 10-year-old from Belding, was one of the few who did see a rabbit, but “I couldn’t get the gun up fast enough,” he said.
A lack of bunny sightings by most youngsters didn’t put a damper on the event, said Niewoonder, who’s already eyeing the calendar for next year’s hunt.
“I was really impressed by the generosity of everybody,” he said. “We didn’t have a budget. We just organized it and fired up other people to help with the work.
Niewoonder said the DNR plans to continue to offer events like the youth rabbit hunt, hoping that the instruction, hands-on field experience and camaraderie is more than enough to entice kids to get outdoors and try their hand at hunting.
Judging by the smiles and excitement shown by the kids at hunt, the DNR can consider that a mission accomplished.