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Shooting for Knowledge

Teenagers learn about everything from wildlife management to firearm safety at Youth Shooting Sports Events.

By Steve Hall

A wiry teenager steps up to the shooting station, loads the shotgun, confidently hollers, “Pull!” and swings on the target. The clay shatters into smoke, and the other youths, who were whispering and giggling, suddenly stop, their mouths agape. She says, “My daddy taught me to shoot when I was 10.” She exits the shooting cage and walks back to the group of boys with a smug look on her face.

Most of the participants at “Youth Shooting Sports Events” hosted by the Chaparral, M. O. Neasloney, Matador and other Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Wildlife Management Areas are a little less experienced. In fact, many of them have never fired a gun.

Begun in 1994, the events introduce high school students from nearby towns and cities to the outdoors and to conservation. Area staff, game wardens, biologists, local law enforcement officers and volunteer hunter education instructors conduct the activities. The department’s regional hunter education staff and Texas Cooperative Extension specialists also assist with many of the events.

David Synatzske, area manager of James Daughtrey and Chaparral Wildlife Management Areas says, “We started the program to introduce youngsters to the outdoors and to help them understand the important role hunters and shooters play in conservation. Once we get them to our areas, we stress firearm safety and the positive side of the shooting sports. We give kids a chance to see what we do here at Texas Parks and Wildlife, such as wildlife research and habitat management practices.”

The true passion in Synatzske’s voice as he describes his many years of working with kids is unmistakable. “In the first year we held the program, we found that nearly half of the students had never fired a sporting arm — and this from a region of the state where hunting plays a primary role in the economics of local communities and in the management of wildlife.” Synatzske sends pre- and post questionnaires to the teachers to learn all he can about the students, and, more importantly, what they can gain from the experience.

At Youth Shooting Sports Events, teenagers learn how to shoot shotgun under the watchful eye of Charlie Wilson, hunter education specialist for the department. Known as the “Pied Piper of Shooting Sports” in Texas, Wilson introduces thousands of new enthusiasts each year to the thrill of busting sporting clays — targets that simulate rabbit and a variety of birds while hunting. Wilson travels statewide with a mobile hunter education trailer and sets up a sporting clays range at events such as 4-H Shooting Sports, Becoming An Outdoors-Woman and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Expo. In ten years, Wilson has introduced more than 100,000 people to shooting on behalf of the department’s hunter education and youth hunting programs.

Wilson echoes Synatzske’s remarks, “Many kids, whether they grow up in a rural or urban environment, don’t get the chance to get outdoors and experience what I grew up with. I see their faces after they shoot a bull’s-eye or break a clay bird. It’s a priceless expression, and it is why I do what I do.” He adds, “Particularly, when I work with special needs students, it is extremely satisfying to look into their eyes after they shoot a shotgun for the first time — they glow with pride and accomplishment, whether they hit the target or not.”

Last October, the Chaparral WMA held its 22nd Youth Shooting Sports Event, which it hosts every fall and spring school semester. Approximately 250 students per year participate in the activities. High school agriculture science teachers from Laredo, Carrizo Springs, Cotulla and other small South Texas towns bring their students to the event to satisfy part of the curriculum requirements, specifically the Agriculture Science 381 course entitled, “Wildlife and Recreation Management.” As a result of the course, students receive their hunter education certifications by learning firearm, hunting and outdoors safety, wildlife management and hunting and outdoor responsibilities.

During a typical event, students complete their live firing and wildlife management requirements by safely handling and shooting bows and arrows, air guns, small bore and large bore rifles, muzzleloaders, handguns and shotguns. Biologists and other experts also introduce them to habitat management practices, research techniques, plant and wildlife identification and wildlife habits and behaviors.

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