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Business Spotlight: Big Hunt, No Harm

Southwest Missourian introduces ‘hunt and release’ concept to safari hunters

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The concept of H.A.R.T. hunting is structured just like regular hunting, with one key difference: It doesn’t result in a dead animal.

The concept arose when brothers-in-law Michael Croston and David Telle of Ava were on a bear hunt in Yaak, Montana, talking about how “hunt and release” may one day replace full-harvest hunting. Croston, an avid hunter, guide and cattle rancher, had enjoyed hunting from a young age – but had no need for the resulting surplus of meat and couldn’t continue to justify killing large animals.

“I just got burned out on it,” he recalls. “But the hunt has always been in me.”

Croston pitched the concept of a hunt and release business to Telle, and Telle said, “I think you should do it.” Starting in 2020, Croston spent a year researching ways to simulate a full-harvest hunting experience outdoors.

After extensive trial and error, he developed the H.A.R.T. system. H.A.R.T. stands for Hunt and Release Technique, a patented method of hunting that shoots blanks and uses cameras mounted on traditional weapon systems to gauge the accuracy of each shot.

“If you’re skilled enough to get close to the animal and the crosshairs are on the vitals, when you make the shot, that’s a successful H.A.R.T. hunt,” says Croston.

The U.S. hunting and trapping industry, at $923.9 million in annual revenue, has decreased over the past five years due to negative stigma and consumer disinterest, according to IBISWorld data.

“The hunting community is declining,” says Telle, who believes H.A.R.T. hunting is one way to keep the tradition and industry alive.

Hunters have played a major role in conservation efforts in the United States. It’s especially true in regard to the deer population, which, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, often grows too quickly for the habitat to support it.

However, the practice of hunting large, often endangered animals, is counterproductive to conservation – and that’s where a business like H.A.R.T. hopes to make a difference.

By giving hunters access to big game hunting experiences without harming animals, H.A.R.T. empowers seasoned pros and a new generation of hunters to enjoy the hobby in a new way.

Africa’s influence
Croston originally launched Big H.A.R.T. Adventures as an informative website where people could learn about the H.A.R.T. technique and buy merchandise. Meanwhile, a separate site, HartHunts.com, was designed to enable hunters to connect with landowners where they could conduct hunts.

“Then I went to Africa, and everything changed,” says Croston.

With its massive biodiversity and high number of animal species, Africa is a hunter’s paradise – but traditional full-harvest hunting presents conservation issues. Further, photo tourism is good for the economy in these countries, but the environmental impact of transporting, guiding and feeding photo tourists presents challenges as well.

“H.A.R.T. bridges that gap by bringing in a new demographic at a higher price point than photo tourism and lower than full harvest. It utilizes more private land than public land, which is getting hit hard by photo tourism,” says Croston.

Croston currently is sustaining the business with revenue generated by the guided hunting tourism side of the business, i.e. Big H.A.R.T. Hunts in Africa, while developing a H.A.R.T. Hunts app that will connect landowners to hunters all over the world and will gamify the experience of H.A.R.T. hunting.

Customers can find and book experiences on the Big H.A.R.T. Adventures website using a range of search filters: animal, location, fee, date range, fitness level and hunting method. Hunts range from $5,000 for five days in South Africa to $45,000 for 21 days, and others depending on the duration and type of hunt, including hippopotamus, leopard and cape buffalo.

H.A.R.T. gives customers access to global hunting locations and experiences, often in South Africa. H.A.R.T. hunts reduce effort, time and cost to hunters as well. According to Telle, the typical startup costs for a new hunter can be $1,000 or more, which includes a rifle, scope, ammunition, license, hunter safety program, and the fuel and food needed on the hunt.

“You get the entire hunt but don’t have to gut the animal, quarter it up, pack it out, and carry it for miles,” he says of the H.A.R.T. experiences.

Digital gaming
Since its launch in 2021, Big H.A.R.T. Adventures has run relatively smoothly, Croston says, with revenue tallying $300,000 last year. H.A.R.T. acts as a tool to connect hosts and hunters with experiences and the H.A.R.T. hunting technology.

One challenge for Croston was getting the website up and running. As a rancher, he quips, “I’m more comfortable around cattle than computers,” so hiring and working with the right development team was critical. They settled on Springfield-based Moonbeam Development.

Croston’s plan for the H.A.R.T. mobile app includes virtual trophy rooms for hunters to share their successes with others.

“It’s going to be a game-changer, where hunters can have a record of their trips that they’ll remember forever,” says Croston.

But despite the business potential for these ventures, Croston is primarily focused on simply providing access to more opportunities for outdoor recreation for people who don’t have the luxury of owning land or being near public land.

“We are at a turning point concerning wildlife management,” he says, referencing human population growth, habitat loss and increasing public acceptance of sport hunting.

Croston believes H.A.R.T. is the future of wildlife-related recreation.

“This business is about providing opportunity – to readily find a place to escape modern-day life and be within oneself,” he says. “Testing your physical and mental strength, decompressing from the week, and enjoying and appreciating nature and the natural world are all benefits.”

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