Partnership Pays Off for Wyoming Youth
By Cole and Elaine Benton, Grizzly Outfitters, LLC
Thirty years ago, you’d have been hard pressed to find an elk in north-central Wyoming and just over the border in south-central Montana. Today, hundreds of elk now roam this area. Hunters love the abundance of elk, but some private landowners aren’t such huge fans after dealing with wandering, hungry elk that tend to mow down fences and raid haystacks.
As the elk herd grew, so did opportunities to hunt cow elk. After talking to a few local landowners, we decided that guided cow hunts had to become one of our priorities. One way to do that was to donate hunts to kids. We spread the word, and it wasn’t long until different wildlife organizations in Wyoming—along with a Montana game warden from just over the state line—started sending young hunters our way. Jeff Shelley, the owner of Big Horn Meat in Buffalo, processes the meat for the youths free of charge. This fall will be our eighth year working with our many partners to help give more than 60 kids the chance to take their first elk.
RMEF’s Buffalo Chapter has been involved in our program for several years. They reach out to their local community (schools, companies, youth organizations, etc.) asking them to recommend in writing a youth 12 to 17 years old who would be a great candidate for an elk hunt, but doesn’t have the means to do it on their own. The chapter reads through the submissions and selects one boy and one girl for a hunt. Then, the chapter signs them up as RMEF members, enlists them in a hunter safety course, purchases their hunting licenses, and invites them and one parent or guardian to be special guests at their big game banquet. The chapter’s goal is to introduce these youths not only to hunting, but to the importance of ethics and conservation as well.
We follow those same ideals while guiding them on hunts. Our hunts typically involve very long stalks on elk. Not only do the kids get an opportunity to experience what hunting is all about, but their adult guest also gets the chance to learn about and enjoy the thrill of the hunt and the beauty and solitude of the outdoors. Are all of these long stalks successful? Not hardly, but we’re teaching these kids that hunting is about more than the kill.
The excitement felt by these kids as we crawl up on a herd of elk is unbelievable. The stories we could tell and the experiences we have had would fill a book. One young boy, as a herd of elk stood up in front of him, laid his gun down on the ground and exclaimed, “Look at all those elk!” Needless to say, they all got away. Another time we got a 13-year-old girl close to several elk that were about to move out of range. I asked her if she thought she could still make the shot. “I can,” she said, “but I don’t think this gun can!” I assured her it could, and one shot and she had her elk!
We never ask questions about the background of any of the youths that hunt with us. Many of these kids come from troubled families or broken homes. Our goal is to offer a young person who may never have had an opportunity to hunt the chance to do something he or she will remember for the rest of their lives.
So far about 25 percent of the young hunters we’ve taken into the field have been girls, which is something we’ve really focused on in the program. Another very important part of the hunts is our Border collie Cody. This fall will be his 12th season accompanying us on hunts. He is never in the way, makes no mistakes, and keeps the kids entertained when hunting is slow. We run into kids years later who always ask, “How’s Cody doing?”
All of our youth hunts would not have been possible without the cooperation of two very generous ranchers: the Scott family, owner of the Padlock Ranch Co. in Wyoming, and Jim Guercio, owner of the OW Ranch in Montana. Thanks to these folks and many partners, the tradition of introducing youth to hunting in Wyoming and Montana will continue for many years to come.