Hunting is for the Girls

Women are outpacing men as new hunters, and a male-dominated industry is beginning to pay attention

As an avid hunter, Jessica Brewer has only to think back to her youth, growing up on a ranch in the Potomac Valley northeast of Missoula, to conjure the woman who taught her to run afield and chase wild game.

And come hunting season, Brewer, of Whitefish, has only to glance over at her aunt, Anna Marie Harrison, the ultimate materfamilias with whom she still trudges through dense country to track elk and deer, mindfully harvesting the big animals, filling freezers and feeding the family.

“I still hunt with her every year. I look up to her. She’s amazing,” Brewer said on a recent morning, just as the climes in Northwest Montana began to cool and the allure of big bucks and bull elk began to beckon. “The women in my family are really capable, and my aunt taught me so much by running the ranch.”

So when the image of a camo-clad model with flowing brunette hair and suggestive, skin-tight field pants appeared on a prominent hunting-oriented Instagram feed, she felt a rant coming on.

“There’s something I can’t stand about hunting season. This photo sums it up right here,” she posted beneath a screen shot of the image. “The objectification of women and the use of models that don’t hunt to create ‘sex’ appeal. It literally makes me angry on so many levels.”

Dozens of comments followed, from both men and women in the hunting community, all of them in defense of Brewer’s hypothesis — hunting, as well as its role in conservation and promoting stewardship of public lands, shouldn’t be conflated with sex appeal.

“Hunting is not sexy, and glorifying that by objectifying women is a disservice to the harvest,” Brewer said. “There needs to be an authentic portrait of what it really looks like and there needs to be space for everyone. It doesn’t matter how you look. It’s your public land.”

Brewer, who embraced her aunt’s pragmatic reverence for hunting at an early age, is not worried about how such social media campaigns will affect her outdoor experience; rather, her concern centers on how it will impact other women interested in pursuing hunting, particularly as the percentage of women who hunt has increased more than any other demographic, and has rapidly outpaced men becoming new hunters.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, women made up close to 11 percent of all hunters in 2011. In just two years that number jumped to 19 percent, according to a report by the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA).

According to the NSGA, between 2001 and 2005, the number of women who hunted with firearms increased 72 percent, while women bowhunters went up 176 percent.

In Northwest Montana, the number of women enrolling in hunter education courses outweighs the number of men, while women who purchase hunting and fishing licenses has also risen dramatically.

Jessica Brewer. Courtesy photo

At Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Sara Smith works to coordinate the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman program, an initiative now in its 25th year in Montana, aimed at teaching adult women a range of outdoor skills, from fly fishing to archery, handling firearms to hunting. Workshops are scheduled year-round across the state as more women cast an eye toward improving their outdoor skillset.

“The program has become very popular, and the hunting courses in particular are always full,” Smith said.

Other organizations are following suit, offering a suite of clinics designed specifically for women.

Rachel Vandevoort, a fourth-generation Montanan who runs the state’s Office of Outdoor Recreation, and prior to that worked as trade relations manager for Kimber America, a Kalispell-based rifle manufacturer, said women’s purchase in the outdoor recreation industry is gaining ground.

Recently, the Montana Wildlife Federation offered a clinic to help women select, size and fit their hunting packs, and earlier this month the Last Best Outdoors Fest highlighted the economic contributions of Montana women in business. The panel discussion was moderated by former Interior Secretary and CEO of REI Sally Jewell, as well as U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and mountaineering phenom Conrad Anker.

In western Montana, Brewer is back embracing the normal rhythms of fall, readying her two horses and imagining the places she’ll go, the critters she’ll encounter.