Steve Sharp has the booming voice of someone who has talked over a lot of noise in his life. He needs it in his role recruiting hunters with the National Wild Turkey Federation — a job that entails going to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) shooting ranges throughout the state to do hunter education and shooting classes.
Range time is important for the people he works with. For turkey hunting, he says people typically have to go out and practice on the shooting range, probably four or five times a year and shoot 50 rounds each time they go out to hone and maintain their skills.
Steven Sharp at Rose Lake Shooting Range, Bath Twp, MI
The moving-target nature of “wing-shooting” or hunting turkey and other game birds requires a bit of skill and practice, with clay pigeon shooting of various kinds. Deer hunters use the ranges as well for practice, but also crucially to “sight in” rifles or shotguns at the beginning of the season to make sure they’re on target for a specific range.
Sharp sees hunting, target shooting, and conservation as part of a virtuous cycle that raises money for purchasing and maintaining wildlife habitat.
“We have a saying here,” he explains, “If you don't have shooting, you don't have hunting; if you don't have hunting, you don't have conservation, and if you don't have conservation, you don't have wildlife.”
Much of the money raised for gun ranges and conservation efforts comes from hunters themselves, either through hunting licenses or an 11% excise tax on guns, ammunition, and archery equipment as part of Pittman Robertson Act. These ‘PR dollars’ – as Sharp and others call them – go to state wildlife agencies. Some of this money also goes into shooting ranges through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Michigan’s Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF) has provided $1,325,000 in matching funds for securing these federal dollars, which in turn has helped develop a number of ranges across the state, including 7 staffed ranges in southeast Michigan that provide education and other services.
Recent improvements to these facilities funded by the MNRTF have included upgrading restrooms and installing concrete pathways to make ranges handicap accessible.
Rose Lake Shooting Range, Bath Twp, MI
But for non-hunters and shooters, the way this infrastructure drives conservation efforts across the state may be more significant.
“Those firearms owners and archery aficionados, they are putting money into a system that has helped the department and our partners be able to purchase property that is important from a conservation standpoint and to do habitat management,” says Lori Burfort, a shooting range specialist with the DNR. PR dollars and money from the MNRTF have been used to purchase lands like the Dansville State Game Area in Ingham County, the Shiawassee River State Game Area in Saginaw County and the Wigwam Bay Wildlife Area in Arenac County.
However, Dennis Fox, recruitment and retention manager at the DNR says that hunters do more for the state than just funneling tax revenue into open space.
“I would say that hunters are hunters, but they're all conservationists first,” he says. “They don't just go to the woods for a day. They spend the entire year thinking, reading, learning, watching, and being involved with the outdoors.”
He points out that Michigan hunters serve as eyes and ears for the DNR and other agencies, monitoring forests for oak wilt, emerald ash borer, and other threats that could influence management decisions like allowing logging or doing prescribed burns.
And hunting itself can affect ecosystem health directly by limiting pressure on young trees, wildflowers, and understory plants that deer can browse heavily. Although far from the only strategy for improving plant and animal biodiversity in forests–landscape managers also have to contend with invasive species and insect pests among other things–hunting is one of the more widespread potential methods for conserving forests and native plants.
Fox says that Michigan’s deer population is relatively stable now, but other areas have had problems with expanding numbers of animals on account of the deer habitat created by suburbanization. That’s right, the savannah-like landscape of urban sprawl, filled with edible hostas and other plants, may actually be growing deer.
Rose Lake Shooting Range, Bath Twp, MI
However, the average age of the Michigan hunter has been declining, which could pose problems for conservation funding and wildlife management. Improved ranges, funded through the MNRTF and hunter education classes like those Steve Sharp teaches could reverse this trend.
Burford says that the DNR is also working to get more people involved in archery through existing recreation centers in the state. Yet many older hunters and others seem to be spending more time at the range for target shooting or “plinking” as it’s called, something that’s easier to work into their schedule and perhaps gentler on one’s body than climbing into a deer stand before daybreak. Burford says that this accessibility is a big part of the appeal of shooting.
“Whatever your physical ability is, it doesn't matter,” she says. “If you're six and a half feet tall or four foot ten like me, you can participate in a competitive activity.”
With ranges opening up in Barry, Marquette and Roscommon counties as well as renovations and upgrades planned for several other ranges, all of them funded by the Pittman Roberston money and the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, Michigan hunters and shooters will have more opportunity than ever to get out, practice their sport and potentially drive more money into conservation efforts across the state.
“Preserving Michigan” is an ongoing series exploring the history and impact of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund on the people and communities of Michigan. The series is underwritten by the Michigan Environmental Council. Issue Media Group maintains editorial independence for all of our underwritten content. Please review our editorial underwriting policy for more information.