Award winning country music star Gary Morris is a man on a mission.
The founder and chief executive officer of the Conservation Buck Society, Morris is currently touring Tennessee and Mississippi promoting the first annual Conservation Buck Challenge, which will be held in the two states during the 2005-2006 deer hunting seasons.
Morris, an avid outdoorsman as well as a noted entertainer, founded the organization this year to increase youth participation in hunting and to raise awareness of the role hunting plays in conservation and wildlife management.
"Only about one in 10 hunters is under the age of 40. The hunting community hasn't been mindful of replenishing itself," he said last week following a stop at Mike's Gun Shop in Tazewell. "Mississippi and Tennessee offer some of the best deer hunting opportunities in the nation and are noted for having high quality state wildlife conservation and management programs. We are confident we can lay the groundwork in these two states for a program that expands to several other states in future years."
He said the Conservation Buck Challenge is a unique program that uses incentives, education and aggressive marketing to attract more hunters and to increase license sales.
Morris, who produced and hosted the The North American Sportsman network television series, said his primary goal in starting the Conservation Buck Society was to "bring hunting and conservation together as one consciousness."
"The money that funds wildlife management comes entirely from the hunting and fishing community through licensing fees and federal funds that are apportioned to states based on the number of licenses sold. That money is a pooled resource, and without hunters, there is no pool of funds to manage wildlife," Morris said.
Noting a downward trend in the number of hunters nationally and the aging of the hunting population, Morris said, "Unless we take bold steps today, we will face the collapse of the conservation model that has served us so well since the 1930s. Fewer hunters mean less interest, lower participation, fewer standing guard over our natural resources, less support from government decision-makers and less funding for wildlife management and enforcement."
The Conservation Buck Society has a four-fold mission:
"The Conservation Buck Challenge was designed to engage and mobilize the hunting community to preserve the outdoor experience for future generations. Our members will be ambassadors for ethical hunting, respect for private property rights, support for conservation funding and programs that give our children the chance to learn the valuable lessons of nature," Morris said. "Our members will be encouraged to get children away from their computer screens and video games and out into the woods. The youth [today] still understands competition."
The Challenge will recognize adult hunters who harvest the top three trophy bucks in each state in several divisions. Youth hunters will receive awards for the largest doe in each county. In addition, outdoor enthusiasts can compete in a photography contest.
The Challenge will follow the regulations and laws of the respective states and will include five divisions:
Morris stressed that this event will run for the duration of the hunting seasons.
"This is not a weekend hunt, but rather a season long challenge," he said.
Participants must join the Conservation Buck Society, hold a valid state hunting license and agree to abide by "fair chase" rules. Awards of cash and other prizes will be presented in each category.
In addition, just for participating members will automatically be entered for a chance to win some great prizes such as a new Dodge pick up, a Bad Boy 4-wheeler, an Elk Hunt in Colorado at Mountain Spirit Lodge and others. No purchase is required for the sweepstakes as consumers can receive a free entry by sending a letter and self-addressed, stamped envelop to Conservation Buck Society.
Proceeds from the Challenge and Sweepstakes will benefit state wildlife foundations or other conservation organizations in the two states.
Rules for the Challenge in each state, as well as membership applications, will be available online at www.conservationbucksociety.com or by writing to the Conservation Buck Society, P.O. Box 259, Culleoka, TN 38451.
The Conservation Buck Society is working closely with the state wildlife foundations, government agencies and various other organizations to promote and coordinate the Challenge. In addition, Morris plans to conduct a six-week bus tour including appearances and concerts in each state during September and October.
An artist that has been honored to perform at the White House a dozen times, Morris was the first American to play Jean Val Jean in Les Miserables on Broadway. He won ACM and CMA Song of the Year in 1983 with "Wind Beneath My Wings."
He is currently working his way across Tennessee, stopping in small towns to promote the challenge, primarily on country radio stations and local newspapers. His goal is to not reach out to those that read the sports page first, Morris added his aim is to reach out to the editorial audience - to the people that might not be hunters right now.
"We're at a crossroads with our conservation model," he said.
In Tennessee, the organization has partnered with Tennessee Co-ops and the Tennessee Farm Bureau.