NWTF holds annual hunting banquet, focuses on conservation

The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) Lower Delaware Chapter held its 19th Annual Hunting Heritage Banquet this past weekend. The non-profit national organization focuses on upland wildlife habitat conservation in North America. Locally, the Delaware chapters have spent close to $35,000 on habitat improvement projects, more than $42,000 on education programs and literature, and $11,418 on wild turkey research.

“Imagine a world where the young boy cannot go out and kill his first turkey… Imagine a world where a video game is the only entertainment our children will ever know,” said Shawn Weddle, NWTF regional director. “Imagine a world where you and I cannot enjoy the things we do when it comes to hunting and enjoying the outdoors.

“Imagine a world where 6,000 acres of habitat are lost every single day. Imagine a world where an area as large as Yellowstone National Park is gone — every year. Ladies and gentlemen, whether you realize it or not, that’s the world we live in today.”

Weddle said that statistics show that, every day, 6,000 acres of habitat are disappearing.

“Many of you remember the day and time when this state had no turkeys. Every dollar raised, every hunting heritage banquet that we, as the NWTF, hold goes to make sure that does not happen.”

Bob Ericson, NWTF regional biologist, noted that he had worked for state agencies for 25 years and knows that hunters are the driving force when it comes to conservation.

“Each and every one of you who goes and buys a hunting and fishing license is a conservationist. For the last 42 years, I’ve had the privilege of working for the greatest conservationists in North America — the people who hunt and fish.”

Ericson said that 85 percent of funding for fish and wildlife agencies in the country comes from hunters and anglers.

“Nobody else has stepped up to pay the bills, and no one else ever will. We need to make sure our future is secure, that conservation in North America continues. The only way we can do that is to encourage people to hunt and fish.”

Past chapter president Charles Spray introduced the crowd of more than 130 attendees at last week’s to his buddy Cody, a young man in elementary school, who has hunted with his father and even killed an alligator in Florida last spring. Spray noted that Cody also spends his free time fishing, wrestling and playing football, as well as going to school.

“Just think if every kid had the opportunity Cody has,” emphasized Spray. “The ‘Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt’ program is a new initiative the federation started a few years ago.”

Spray said the NWTF chapters of Delaware are working with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control (DNREC) to create a mentoring program.

“We’re trying to put together a mentor program so that some of these youth who don’t have the opportunities Cody has, maybe we can get them out in the field. Get them hunting, get them fishing,” he said, adding that they hope to have the program up and running in six months. “Mentoring isn’t taking him or her out one time… It’s a commitment.”

Spray said the federation is currently looking for property owners and farmers who would be interested in allowing mentoring on their property, so those who are interested in joining may have a place to hunt.

“It’s time for us all to step up, mentor other hunters, and bring them into the fold,” added Ericson.

“We’re also going to try to create 1.5 million new hunters across the country. We can do that with our JAKES program and mentoring other hunters.”

JAKES stands for Juniors Acquiring Knowledge, Ethics & Sportsmanship and is dedicated to informing, educating and involving youth in wildlife conservation and the wise stewardship of natural resources.

“One of the greatest things the Delaware chapters have accomplished is their outreach programs, having youth events and women’s events, bringing people into outdoor activities,” he said.

In the coming year, the chapter will hold its First Annual Lower Delaware NWTF Sporting Clay Shoot on April 26 beginning at 9 a.m. at Owens Station, followed by a JAKES event to be held June 20 beginning at 8:30 a.m., also at Owens Station, where participating youth will learn about BB guns and air rifles, fishing, sporting clays and more. Their Women in the Outdoors Event will be held Oct. 3 at 8:30 a.m. at Owens Station.

Indian River High School senior Farris Hauck has been a JAKES member for years and said she loves being involved and likes participating the organization’s various activities.

“You’re able to experience different types of guns, shooting clays and things like that. And self-defense, as well, which is cool,” she said. “Most of the stuff I’ve learned from my dad, but it’s nice to be taught by other people and see how they do things.”

Hauck, who has been hunting with her father numerous times and has only killed small game, such as rabbits and squirrels, said she enjoys hunting.

“I enjoy it. It’s good bonding time with my dad. It’s a cool feeling, because it’s an adrenaline rush, but it’s prideful — to shoot something and be able to eat it,” she said, adding it makes one feel closer to nature. “You have to sit still. All you have to look at is nature and listen to it and pay more attention to it.”

She said that, although she knows hunting may not be for everyone, she would encourage people to at least try it once.

Ericson said the NWTF has made a commitment over the next 10 years to conserve or enhance 4 million acres of property in the United States, as well as create 500,000 acres of additional access to hunters, to ensure hunting heritage continues to be preserved.

“It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to take a lot of effort, a lot of work, but with folks like you coming out to dinners like this, raising funds, we can get it done,” he told those at the banquet.

For more information on the Lower Delaware Chapter of NWTF, their upcoming events or how to become a member, contact Stacie Street at (302) 381-9354 or email staciestreet587@hotmail.com. For more information on NWTF, visit www.nwtf.org.