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Young women joining ranks of Wis. deer hunters

In this photo taken on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, hunters and roommates, Kelly Maynard, left, and Natalie Hunt, pose for a photo with their hunting gear at their home in Madison, Wis.,As the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources tries to slow a decade-long decrease in deer hunting, the pair represent two potentially rich pools for recruiting new, young hunters-- women and people who are seeking local, environmentally sustainable sources of food. (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, Amber Arnold)

Editors Notes: An AP Member Exchange Feature shared by the Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- When Natalie Hunt was a little girl, deer hunting was something the men did.

Now 32, the UW-Madison Ph.D. candidate was preparing for her sixth deer hunt when the firearms season started Saturday. And this year she was going to bring along one of her roommates, Kelly Maynard, also 32, for her second foray.

As the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources tries to slow a decade-long decrease in deer hunting, Maynard and Hunt represent two potentially rich pools for recruiting new, young hunters-- women and people who are seeking local, environmentally sustainable sources of food.

"My dad was thrilled when I started talking about hunting," said Hunt, an Iowa native. "My family and my dad said, 'You hunt? The tree-hugger?'?"

Maynard's family was likewise surprised.

"I grew up in suburban (Washington) D.C., and my parents didn't hunt," she said. "So now they're sort of like, 'Where did this come from?'?"

In 2000, more than 650,000 Wisconsin residents bought licenses to hunt deer with guns here, but over the next 10 years the number fell nearly 12 percent as chronic wasting disease was discovered in the herd, baby boomers aged and the participation rates of young male hunters dropped sharply, according to analysis by the UW-Madison Applied Population Laboratory.

License sales rebounded slightly in 2012 as the DNR offered new incentives such as cut-rate licenses for newcomers, and more learn-to-hunt classes, but if trends continue the total could fall below 470,000 by 2030, said Keith Warnke, DNR hunting and shooting sports coordinator.

One demographic group that has shown growth is women.

Men make up nearly 90 percent of hunters, but the proportion of women, especially younger women, has been edging slowly upward, topping 62,000 last year.

The number of female hunters is predicted to increase by 43 percent from 2010 to 2030, Warnke said.

The DNR is encouraging current hunters to recruit new blood, including their spouses and partners and younger people, Warnke said.

In a newer effort that could be expanded next year, Hunt volunteers with the DNR recruiting for hunting classes. Her job is to pull prospective hunters from unconventional sources -- typically fellow environmental studies students. About half so far have turned out to be women.

"More and more people care about where their food comes from and sustainability is a big part of their identity," Warnke told the Wisconsin State Journal ( "Part of reaching that group is to talk about how hunting is a sustainable food source."

Hunt has a great interest in those things, along with cooking and eating as social activities.

Hunt's memories of Thanksgiving when she was growing up include watching the men go hunting while the women stayed inside to talk or watch a movie.

"At the time I didn't express interest in it, even though it seemed more exciting than what the rest of us were doing," Hunt said. "Maybe it was just something that I accepted that girls didn't do, that it was just for the men. At my young age, I didn't know any women who hunted."

In 2008, several of her UW-Madison friends were taking learn-to-hunt classes, so she joined them, borrowed gear and went on the spring turkey hunt with a DNR mentor.

That fall, she borrowed her father's 20-gauge shotgun and accompanied him, a family friend and the friend's teenage grandson on private land in her native Iowa. She's hunted on one side of the Mississippi River or the other every year since then.

She got her first and only deer in 2011. She was walking with the teen when a doe ran from a slope above a streambed.

"I froze up in the moment. Gabe, the (teen), was like 'Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!'?" Hunt said.

She said she field dressed the deer and they dragged it with a rope back to their vehicle. She helped butcher it at the family friend's barn.

Hunt said that if she ever bags a buck, she is not sure she would mount the rack, because that would make it feel as though the hunt was a contest with a prize. Hunt said she totes the shotgun into the woods to feel close to the land, to track deer, to obtain food whose origin she knows and to help reduce crop damage caused by the deer herd.

"Some people are put off by the idea of hunting," Hunt said. "By and large hunting has a bad reputation -- there's the stereotype of the buck hunters who are in it for the shooting."

Hunt's roommate, Kelly Maynard, was thinking a lot about how mass-produced meat was often raised on corn, which uses more energy than grass-fed beef. Keeping cattle confined also concentrates manure in one place, consuming more energy and risking environmental problems as the waste is stored, transported and spread on fields, she said.

While in the Peace Corps in Paraguay from 2003 to 2005, she helped a family kill and butcher its farm animals. The experience cemented her commitment to having a stronger connection to her food than she had buying it from a supermarket cooler.

She earned her master's in agroecology -- the study of food production systems -- from UW-Madison in 2010 and now works with a food growers cooperative.

Maynard said the natural extension of her experiences was to take a DNR hunting class last year after hearing Hunt and previous roommates and friends talk about their hunting trips.

"I don't know if I would have gotten out if I hadn't known people I identified with and had something in common with," Maynard said. "For a long time, it's been a male-dominated thing, and it doesn't have to be."

Still, Maynard and Hunt have fond memories of the older men who were so happy to share their knowledge by taking them out in the field for the first time as part of their hunting classes.

Warnke said next year the DNR will look for more ways draw new hunters from social networks built on common interests in sustainable food.

"It takes habitat to support any species," Warnke said. "And it takes social habitat to support hunters."

Information from: Wisconsin State Journal,