By CHRISTINE PETERSON | Casper Star-Tribune
UPTON, Wyo. (AP) — A group of bright green T-shirts wove through trees, popping out only to aim their bows. The shooters fired at a course of 15 targets resembling Wyoming's wild animals.
Eli Jones, a 12-year old hunter from Upton, drew back his bow and shot at a stationary fox tucked away in the sage brush. He hit.
“You know what's making me shoot good? I have the Rocky theme song in my head,” Eli told the group's scorekeeper, Mark Mitchell.
Eli has also been practicing for years as a member of the Upton Young Guns, a group of students from the small, northeast Wyoming town. Like characters from their namesake movie, the group takes shooting seriously. Last year, 17 of them went to the international competition in New Mexico, about one-eighth of Upton's middle and high school population.
On Saturday, they competed with more than 40 other shooters ages 8 to 18 in the Youth Hunter Education Challenge hosted by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Upton Gun Club. Event organizers say the championship is a way to encourage students to practice their shooting, and, like many other school sports, develop a lifelong skill. Given enough promotion, they hope it could one day become a sanctioned school activity.
The story of the Upton Young Guns begins with the hunter education challenge.
Until about eight years ago, Game and Fish ran the hunting contest as part of the department's annual Wyoming Hunting and Fishing Expo in Casper.
“We weren't doing it justice,” said Jim Dawson, Game and Fish's hunter education coordinator who ran the event. “It needed to be a stand alone. We were getting the same kids every year, and it wasn't a qualifier for the national event.”
Dawson and a few others, including Rick Rothleutner from the Upton Gun Club, decided to start a separate event. Rothleutner offered the shooting range outside of Upton. The event challenges participants in sporting clays, .22, muzzleloader and archery shooting, wildlife identification, orienteering and hunter safety.
The first year they had six shooters. On Saturday, the competition brought teens from as far west as Star Valley and as far east as Brookings, South Dakota.
“We want kids to have fun and continue in shooting sports,” Rothleutner said.
When Rothleutner joined the Upton Gun Club in his 20s, he was the youngest active member. He and others wanted that to change. Over the years, they encouraged students to join the adult shooting club and participate in the youth championship.
Then in 2011, Scott and Ladena Buckley took their son, Colton, and a teen from Gillette to the international shoot where they saw teams from across the country compete. Shooting sports should be more popular, they thought. They wanted to form a team of their own.
“Our group of teenagers didn't think anything of going upstairs and playing PlayStation for hours,” Ladena Buckley said. “And now they don't think twice about going outside.”
“This also gets our town kids more involved in the outdoors,” said Scott Buckley.
Shortly after the international shoot, the Young Guns were born.
The couple recruited from the schools, shooters brought their friends, and the club grew to nearly 30 members. They hope to incorporate it into the Upton school district, and help other towns start youth shooting clubs of their own.
The Young Guns themselves said joining the group encourages them to practice more. Most of them hunt – though not all with bows or muzzleloaders.
Kaylee Arthur, 17, learned to shoot from her grandpa, dad and uncle. The group gave her an excuse to spend more time outside.
She's not sure if she'll make it to the international shoot, but some of her fellow Young Guns plan to attend this summer in Pennsylvania and maybe place a little higher than last year.
“The same team won a lot last year,” Eli said.
“But it was some of our first times there,” said Body Schultz, 16. “Now we practice every weekend.”
However the team finishes, its members will be a force of nearly 20 representing Wyoming.
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, www.trib.com