On a chilly morning outside Colorado Springs, Erin Siepker is learning to shoot clay pigeons.
“Pull,” Siepker says.
The target springs from a trap. Siepker aims, then misses, muttering, “Oh, shoot. I messed that one up, didn’t I?”
Siepker is part of a group of about 15 women who gave up half their day to attend a Ladies Cast and Blast event at the Pikes Peak Gun Club. The free, women-only training is offered by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“I've had a lot of male friends that go hunting and do archery hunting and stuff like that and I've always found it fascinating, but they don't always have the patience to take a girl out,” said Siepker, a Fort Collins bartender who’s been interested in hunting for a while.
That’s where CPW’s programs come in. Over the course of a year, different regions within the agency offer at least a dozen events aimed at teaching women to shoot guns, bows, and to fish. Many of the programs are free. The goal? Diversifying the state’s hunting population, and training the next generation of hunters.
At the Pikes Peak Gun Club, Warren Cummings, an instructor with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, goes over safety procedures and the parts of a shotgun.
“All right, so again, we'll mount the gun, we'll pull the gun back into our shoulder,” said Cummings. “Point your toe towards the trap house, keep both eyes open, that's a lot of stuff already, isn't it?”
Siepker misses her first couple shots. But she keeps asking questions, learning to follow the clay pigeon with her gun and her eye. After a while, she starts to get the hang of it.
“It’s just neat because I've never done it and I also never thought at I could, but I hit two, so that was pretty stellar,” Siepker said.
Programs like these started about a decade ago, when wildlife officials realized they had a problem: Most of the state's hunters were 60-year-old men.
Without expanding the population of people who hunt, “what we were going to do is we were basically going to run out of hunters,” said Jim Bulger, CPW’s outreach and education director.
Running out of hunters means the agency would also run out of cash, said Bulger. The money spent on hunting and fishing licenses and wildlife fees goes toward managing state wildlife areas and populations of the animals Colorado is known for: deer, elk, fish, and many other game species. In 2014, the division brought in $80 million this way, nearly half its budget.
Families are also a part of the recruitment effort. Cathy Berta enrolled herself and her adolescent children in the division’s new Rookie Sportsman Program. With her blond ponytail tucked under a white baseball cap, the Colorado Springs resident looks like your typical active mom, only she’s holding a shotgun. Berta said her family likes to hike and be outdoors, but had never hunted.
“My daughter, one of the officers helped her, and now she’s amazing. I mean she just gets up there with her giant 270 and POW. Six months ago she trembled trying to even load a gun.”
Berta said learning to hunt also helps her children connect with where their food comes from. She isn’t a fan of grocery store meat, with hormones and an uncertain provenance.
The Rookie Sportsman Program started in March 2015. Less than half a year later, Berta’s family has gone from hunting newbies to budding sportsmen -- and sportswomen, and sports-teenagers. They’re having a party to eat dove they killed, and plan to go big game hunting in upcoming weekends.
Transforming a family of hikers into a family of hunters is exactly what programs like this are designed to do. Over the past decade, Jim Bulger said the number of hunters has stopped going down. In fact, one of the fastest growing populations of hunters in Colorado is women.
Other women at the training say they are learning, and also bringing friends. Magda Contos’ family, including her husband and two daughters, are also in the rookie program. She’s from Elizabeth, and said her family has been interested in hunting, but had no one to teach them basic skills. Now, they’re planning to go hunt their Thanksgiving turkey.
More importantly, at least from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife perspective, Contos is sharing her experience. She’s already told several friends about the program and they may join next year.
There have been many successes with Parks and Wildlfe’s outreach. There are still challenges, though, said Bulger. A big one is reaching urban youth. Despite running programs to attract and teach those children outdoor skills, Bulger concedes that the population of urban outdoorsmen “is pretty much stagnant.”
While such outreach efforts will continue, Bulger said he thinks the future of hunting lies in families. Getting women involved is a big part of that.
“When the mother becomes involved in something, generally the family follows.”