by Bill Redeker
The shots ring out. A pheasant spirals to earth. Suddenly "Whoo Hoo!!" echoes across the field. Another woman hunter has bagged a bird.
It's pheasant season in the intermountain West, and now more than ever, it's kids and women who are behind the shotguns.
"It's just way better than going to the mall!" says Julie Swezey, after downing her first pheasant. "When you pull that trigger, there's nothing better."
"It's really fun! I want to do this more!" says teenager Joshua Kamrass, who gets his limit of three birds in less than two hours.
The young people and women have enrolled in the Hunter Outreach Program, which is sponsored by Colorado's Division of Wildlife.
Several times during the autumn and winter, state wildlife officials train the next generation of hunters in hopes of replenishing the dwindling ranks of archery and rifle hunters. Colorado, like other hunting states, has faced a decade of decline, which has threatened the state's budget for wildlife-management programs.
In 2001, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that 13 million Americans held hunting licenses, a 22.2 percent drop from the high of 16.72 million recorded in 1982. The agency says the downward trend would continue unless states become more active in encouraging the sport.
"The bottom line is we need a pipeline of hunters to continue to be able to do wildlife management," says Jim Bulger, a former Army colonel who heads the Colorado program. "We need those hunting licenses purchased and those fishing licenses purchased to sustain an economic base for us to do our job."
There is another reason the state spends a quarter of a million dollars a year on the outreach program.
"Without hunters, deer and elk become too abundant," says Tyler Baskfield, a spokesman for the state Division of Wildlife. "Hunting is a wildlife management tool. It's vital that we have future generations of hunters."
The program seems to pay off. The number of women hunters has soared 72 percent in the last five years. First-time hunter Kristin Burns says she knows why.
"Women are now starting to become more independent and trying things that men are doing," she says. "And you know what? We're actually learning that we enjoy it."
Instructors say women prefer to hunt with other women, and they say they pick up the sport quickly.
"Women tend to be a little easier to teach," says Baskfield. "There's not that need to show the bravado that men have, and we've had great success with teaching some of these women to be wonderful shots."
That's good news for the economy here. Colorado earns more than $2 billion a year on hunting. Nationally, the sport brings in $21 billion a year. The revenue comes not only from hunting licenses but also from hotel and food services -- and, of course, from hunting equipment and ammunition.
As a result, manufacturers now cater to women and young people. One sporting goods outfitter in Denver showed ABC News women's camouflage outfits, shorter gun stocks and barrels, and less-powerful ammunition that has a gentler kick.
"Anything that has to do with the outdoors in Colorado, it seems like more and more women are participating," says sales manager Jason Perez.
Parents who accompanied their children on a recent Hunter Outreach Program weekend say there's another benefit -- family bonding.
"Oh, my gosh, it's great!" says Dave Kamrass. "I'm not a hunter myself, but I've been coming on some of these with my son, Joshua, and it's just fantastic."
Colorado is trying hard to ensure that hunters don't become an endangered species.