This interview with Pope and Young Club President Jim Willems is part of OutdoorHub’s Leaders of Conservation series, in which we sit down with leaders of the North American conservation movement to learn more about the stories behind their organizations and people.
Last month the Pope and Young Club celebrated the 100,000th entry into its big game records program. It was a momentous landmark for the 53-year-old organization, which was born as bowhunting experienced a resurgence of popularity in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Club was formed to improve the image of bowhunting and took to heart many of the principles laid down by one of its namesakes, Saxton Pope. Pope himself had learned the art of building and using a traditional bow from bushcraft expert Ishi, the last of the California Yahi people. For reintroducing this “lost art,” Pope and his hunting companion Arthur Young are considered the fathers of modern bowhunting.
“The real archer when he goes afield enters a land of subtle delight,” Pope wrote in his seminal book Hunting with the Bow and Arrow. “The dew glistens on the leaves, the thrush sings in the bush, the soft wind blows, and all nature welcomes him as she has the hunter since the world began. With the bow in his hand, his arrows softly rustling in the quiver, a horn at his back, and a hound at his heels, what more can a man want in life?”
While the Club may have had its roots in record-keeping, it eventually embraced all of Pope’s ideals by promoting conservation, fair chase, and quality hunting opportunities.
“The club started in 1957 as part of National Field Archery Association’s Hunting Activities Committee,” Club President Jim Willems told me. “It was later officially founded as the Pope and Young Club in 1961, patterned after Boone and Crockett.”
Jim said that the biggest change in the Club over the past five decades has been its greater focus on conservation. From keeping records to getting involved in legislative issues and promoting separate archery seasons, Pope and Young found itself wielding considerable influence over the protection of wildlife and their habitat.
“After a time, we realized we had a membership base that allowed us to really get involved,” Jim said.
The Club currently gives out nearly $100,000 every year in conservation grants, funding groups like he National Archery in the Schools Program and Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance, along with supporting elk and deer studies for state agencies. Willems was particularly excited to discuss the Club’s work with the American Wildlife Conservation Partners (AWCP), a coalition of organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Boone and Crockett Club, and Bear Trust International. With many of the largest and most influential conservation groups in North America, the AWCP has worked to secure the passage of legislation such as the Healthy Forests Restoration Act.
The Club’s conservation efforts are hard work, but Jim says the results are worth it. He talked about the role Pope and Young played in supporting the Jack Creek Preserve outdoor education center in Yellowstone. In part because of the Club, children are able to visit the center and experience 3D archery shooting, learn about wildlife management, and walk old logging roads and trails.
“The biggest concern in hunting today is that we’re not bringing in enough young hunters and new hunters,” Jim stated.
Like many of the conservation leaders I spoke to while writing this series, the Pope and Young president emphasized that the future of the country’s hunting heritage and the success of its wildlife hinge upon the decisions we make today for our youth, and how to get them involved in the outdoors.
“We are a leader in the bowhunting community and we need to make sure our message gets out and is relatable,” he stressed.
While he may still be settling into his new position (he was just elected to lead the club in March), Jim said he is looking forward to setting a new image for the organization.
“The Pope and Young Club had gotten a reputation of being a good old boys club [that is] run by the same people year after year and nothing ever changes,” he shared. “My goal is to do away with that image and make the club more accepting of different ideas and new members. I try to be very visible and proactive.”
As bowhunting’s premier record-keeping organization, the Club makes rules on how an animal may be killed and what gear hunters are allowed to use if they want their harvests to have a shot at the books. Some hunters have long decried the Club’s rules as being overly strict: electronic devices attached to the bow or arrow are forbidden, allowed equipment is carefully defined, and any animal taken with a crossbow cannot be considered for recognition. These rules are not arbitrary, but rather derived from what the club lays out as the principles of bowhunting:
With bowhunting being the mammoth industry it is now, it should not be surprising that many new inventions fly in the face of the Club’s philosophy. Jim, however, does not want to see hunters arguing among themselves over gear.
“The Club also became known as a sort of equipment police with hunters, and that’s another image I would like to change,” Jim said. “For years and years the Club has said what is acceptable and what is not in terms of hunting equipment. And while there are limits on what is fair and ethical, hopefully we can stop this conflict between what can be used and what can’t.”
For outsiders, it may seem strange how much debate a seemingly small piece of equipment can stir up. To bowhunters, it is about balancing fair, ethical hunting with the use of new technology. The Club recently voted to allow the use of lighted nocks, one of the more contentious issues in recent years. It was a dramatic change in an organization that prides itself on following tradition.
Radio host Dan Young on why you should become a member of Pope and Young:
There are topics where Jim takes a sterner stance, though, especially if he thinks it could be detrimental to hunting and conservation as a whole.
“For decades we have not allowed any animal shot behind high-fence establishments in our record books. That goes back a long time,” Jim shared. “Recently the issue on high-fence hunting has come very much to the forefront and we believe it’s a real problem. We believe it’s unethical and dangerous to our sport.”
Jim said he views the issue of high-fenced hunting as one of the major problems of conservation today, in addition to habitat loss, disease, a lack of understanding by the general public, and a decreasing amount of young or new hunters. But it is about more than just education and protecting our natural resources; Jim said that he wants to re-energize the club’s membership and remind it of its roots.
“We want to encourage the original spirit of bowhunting, that by limiting yourself to a bow and arrow you have to get close to the animal, make better, more effective shots, and grow as a hunter,” Jim concluded.
We would like to thank Jim for taking the time to talk with us. For more profiles of leaders of conservation, please read our recent interview with IGFA President Rob Kramer.