All photographs by Aj Williams.

On a star-filled, late-October morning, Ada Smith and three fellow hunters zipped up their top layers of hand-me-down camouflage. The small group gathered that day on Smith’s family land in rural Montana for an outdoor sport none of them were brought up with and an event that research had lead them to create: Burnt Fork Ladies Hunting Weekend. 

The Research 

Smith, a Ph.D. student at the University of Montana, recently published a study that examines the role of confidence in introducing and retaining hunters from historically underrepresented backgrounds to the sport. The study concluded that social support, meaning camaraderie, connection, and a sense of belonging, foster confidence and lowers barriers through forming connection with fellow hunters.

Smith shot and harvested an animal for the first time in 2019- a small buck from roughly 150 yards away. She said that foundational, successful hunting experience  reinforced that she belonged in that space and gave her the confidence to try another season.

Now, in year three of hosting fellow female hunters on her family’s land in the Burnt Fork of Montana’s Nine Mile Valley, Smith hopes to fast-track what many hunters gain through the years: a group of ‘buddies’ that can share hunting tips with each other, share resources such as gear, and help each other through the process of learning to hunt and harvest. According to her research, the more supported individuals feel within, the more likely they are to have confidence in the field, a key component to initial and ongoing participation in hunting.

The study, recently published in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, was based on research gathered by the co-author, Dr. Libby Metcalf, principal investigator of the University of Montana’s Human Dimensions lab, who started this work as her own Ph.D. dissertation. 

Both Metcalf and Smith were deeply interested in how social science could provide research and potential tools for diversifying hunting, and they teamed up using a dataset Metcalf compiled from female hunters in Oregon from 2010. 

“I feel equally excited about it [the research] because it resonates with things I’ve been dealing with as a beginner hunter, myself. So to look at the data then is pretty interesting,” said Smith. 

The survey data shows that for female hunters across all skill sets, self-efficacy is derived from more than just skill development: it is inextricably tied to social measures such as a feeling of belonging and confidence gained through one’s support networks of family and friends. Smith notes that despite an overall increase in hunting licenses purchased since the start of the pandemic, female hunters and hunters of other racial and ethnic groups remain starkly underrepresented. Presently, women make up only 10 to 11% of all licensed hunters in the U.S. 

The majority of federal funding for conservation efforts comes from taxes on guns and ammo. With a long-term trend of decreased hunting across the country, that money is dwindling as well. For Smith and Metcalf, this is why advocacy and outreach efforts have the potential to be impactful even beyond the sport, but to more people who have a stake in sustaining the environments in which they hunt. 

A Team Effort

The group paired off by twos for the first light hunt. After several hours spent among frosted grass, snow-kissed peaks, and quiet voices, they gathered back at the picnic table in front of the family’s historic homestead cabin. The sunlight streamed through peaks as they talked about what worked, what didn’t, the ethics of hunting, and what brought them to the gathering.

Smith has a master’s in food sovereignty and food literacy and the opportunity to be a more ethical meat consumer was intriguing to her. “If I can’t fold the trigger, then maybe I need to rethink if I’m going to keep eating meat, or you know, where it’s coming from.” As they walked the land, the group of new friends wore borrowed gear from the local gear library run and created by one of the hunters, DeAnna Bublitz. 

Back in 2019, Smith and Bublitz met in the very same valley, hunting just miles apart. “[My friend] Leah and I were out hunting and [mentioned], my friend Laurel is out with Ada, her friend, like at her grandpa’s shooting guns,” Smith said. “They swang on by, and according to Smith, that was just the beginning of their deep friendship. “I was just so stoked. I was like, more women!” 

Bublitz was introduced to the sport as an adult by her kind, older landlord just after she moved to the state. “He asked me to go out trap shooting with him one weekend, knowing I didn’t have friends, plans, or an excuse to say no.” She considers herself lucky to have grown hunting friends over time, several of whom are women, but it lead her to realize just how high the barriers can be to this sport. 

Smith’s research highlights camaraderie, mentorship, and a sense of belonging as pillars of social support. “Typically, hunter recruitment and retention programs have been focused on skill building, but our study shows that it is just as critical for efforts aimed at female hunters to also be geared toward fostering meaningful connections and community.”

As she was wading through research, Smith, and Bublitz continued to hunt together. Around that time, Bublitz decided to address the need for diversity in hunting through a similar lens and started DEER Camp: a Missoula, Montana-based hunter gear library and mentorship program.

DEER Camp, in the eyes of Smith, is a straightforward example of a program that is trying to make minority hunter groups or minority constituents of the hunting population feel welcome and that they have people at their side who are going to support them. 

Smith connected with the University of Montana’s chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA), which was Smith’s first hunting experience. Even though Smith didn’t have her hunter’s education done, she attended and that’s where Smith saw the power of fostering confidence. During the course’s demo day, participants got to go into the field and shoot guns. Demo days are not required in all hunters’ education courses, some of which are taught online, or to obtain a license. 

“Taking a Rifle for a Walk”

With the sun high in the sky and all animals deeper within the woods, the four hunters regrouped to do what they may not be able to do in hunters’ ed: shooting practice. The women talked through the process of using a rangefinder to know how far an animal is, and the ethics of fair kill. The two participants who were newer to the sport shot at targets set at 160 feet away. 

For participant Natalie Berkman, the gun came back hard on her forehead on the first shot. “You got scoped,” chuckled Bublitz. Berkman works as a landscape manager for a Montana cattle company and has spent her adult life living in spaces filled with hunting culture. She came to the event as a friend of Smith and Bublitz, and to get a sense if she wanted to pursue learning to hunt as well.  The day brought important revelations. For Berkman, spending her days around wonderfully raised meat is a privilege. “I don’t feel like I need to spend my free time also doing it…hearing you guys that was like maybe confirmed what I’ve always thought, like I think it’s okay that I don’t hunt,” she said.

Smith said that her grandpa used to “take his rifle for a walk” — a phrase used when people just want to be out in the landscape. Berkman chimed in, saying that one of the hunters that comes annually to the ranch hasn’t brought their gun with them in the past seven years. 

For the group this morning, the event was more than just learning the ropes of hunting. As the world woke up that day, four women walked through a storied valley with rifles. Smith believes that though the event is expanding the narrative of who a hunter can be, it is also about building connections to landscapes we can help protect. “It’s a way for me to understand, to engage with this land in a way that will hopefully help me and my family steward it better.” 

Aj Williams is a writer and social-environmental documentarian based out of Missoula, Montana. Her work focuses on stories from our planet, its communities, and what is changing collective understandings of them both for the better. They are a disabled kidney transplant recipient who lives with chronic illness and is currently working on several projects at the nexus of disability, access, health and environment.

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