It’s long been known by businesses that hunting can be a stimulator for the economy. When the big summer tourism season winds down, motel owners, restaurants and retailers look forward to the influx of people dressed in camouflage and orange to keep those dollars flowing.
A study by Southwick Associates estimates the annual economic impact of hunting to be $848 million in Nebraska, with $562 million in retail sales and 8,856 jobs supported. Those are big numbers and, considering what the average person spends on a hunting trip, they’re tough to argue.
Sometimes, the economic impact of an activity is less tangible than what can be seen in dollars crossing the counter, though. Such is the case with the Pine Ridge Wild Turkey Hunt, an annual October outing organized by the Nebraska Northwest Development Corporation. Why an economic development organization, charged with attracting business and industry to a community, would be playing host to a turkey hunt, you ask?
The NNDC first organized the hunt in 1996 as a way to expose the Pine Ridge region to influential people in business and politics in a laid-back manner. It serves as a way to make the Pine Ridge, sometimes referred to as one of the nation’s best-kept secrets, a little less secret.
Deb Cottier, executive director of the NNDC, said the goal is to build relationships and trust with elected and appointed officials and business leaders and ultimately result in locating new or expanded business to northwest Nebraska.
“As advocates for business location and expansion, NNDC sees this event as a soft-sell approach to recruitment,” she said. “We also value the opportunity to develop and improve relationships with state and federal elected officials and agency heads.”
Kevin Wilkins, who was director of the NNDC in the hunt’s infancy, went for big names from the start – Gov. Ben Nelson was among the successful hunters and the event was initially named the Governor’s Pine Ridge Wild Turkey Hunt in his honor. The event took a 10-year hiatus, from 2000-2010, after Wilkins left Chadron for a position in eastern Nebraska. It wasn’t until Cottier was hired to the post that the event was revived.
“Years later, people were still telling stories in the Legislature about those early hunts and the great times they had in northwestern Nebraska,” Cottier said. “That’s when we really realized that it helped some influential people become familiar with our area and that it should be revived.”
About 30 hunters participate, including the invitees and corporate sponsors who fund the hunt. Hunters are paired with area landowners, most of whom are happy to support the cause by opening up their property, showing the hunters around and joining them for meals.
The agenda hasn’t changed much from the beginning. Wilkins said he followed the mantra of “more things in less time at a leisurely place” while drawing it up. The hunt is limited to one day, and it’s no coincidence that socials and dinners are scheduled at two of the region’s primary tourist attractions – the Museum of the Fur Trade and Chadron State Park. One nice thing about wild turkeys is that they hang out in some of the most scenic places, and the hunters always get to view some pretty country — a resource that abounds in northwestern Nebraska.
With the plentiful turkey population, almost everyone who wants one is successful – even if some unintentional comedy and missed attempts take place along the way. When the hunt is over, hoots and chuckles fill the room as each hunting party shares its story of the day after a steak dinner.
“It’s my favorite part,” said Carl Larsen, a former mayor of Chadron who has served on the event’s 12-member organizing committee from the beginning. “That’s when we see what this hunt is all about. When hunters and landowners tell of their experiences, newfound friendships and the fun they had along the way.”
Down the road, perhaps those hunters have taken enough of a liking to the region to share even more. Regardless, the Pine Ridge will get plenty of exposure in years to come as attendees share memories far and wide.