A Closer Look At The Decline In Hunter Participation

by Chris Larsen

The future of huntingMy son Jack is going to turkey camp this spring. At just three years old, he knows the difference between a flock of geese and a flock of ducks. He can point out an elk compared to a whitetail. From his backseat roost, he yells, “there’s turkeys!” when his dad is obliviously watching the highway. He watches turkey calling videos and can mouth a pretty solid three note yelp without the use of a diaphragm call. Calls are for wussies. He doesn’t realize it, but Jack is a three year old hunting machine. I probably won’t take him into the woods with me while hunting, but he is going to camp. He’ll hang out with Dad, Grandpa, and Uncle Oz. He will wear camouflage and enjoy the fruits of a successful hunt. He will be drenched in tradition… a shrinking tradition. A tradition many of his peers won’t enjoy.

Just about every mainstream media source that takes the time to write an article on hunting seems to delve into this topic, the demise of hunting. Yes, the number of hunters in the United States is declining. In 1970, over 40 million Americans purchased hunting licenses. Today, the number is 12.6 million. This trend is likely to continue. Almost 50% of hunters are over age 47. The steep decline can be attributed to a number of causes including habitat loss, rising costs, complicated regulations, other forms of entertainment, societal changes, demographic changes, and the mass media.

One of the major factors is habitat loss. If you compare a satellite map of the United States from 1970 to one from today, the photos are astonishing. There are one hundred million more people living in the US today than 40 years ago. That’s an increase of over 50%. That’s more homes, more roads, more stores, more offices, you name it. With less habitat, there are fewer places to hunt. Hunters pursue more than just wild game. They are often looking for privacy and solitude. Being crowded into shrinking amounts of public land isn’t what most of us have in mind when envisioning the perfect hunt.

The cost to hunt is rising as well. The price of ammunition and guns are at all time highs. As hunter numbers continue to decline, state wildlife agencies can’t keep up with the loss in revenue. License fees are going up. Minnesota is currently proposing hefty fee increases. Gas prices are back over $3.50 per gallon in most places, higher in some. The trucks required to carry equipment and drive muddy roads aren’t cheap to fill with gas.

Hunting regulations are also getting more and more complicated. The darkest day of my hunting career was the day I was cited for a violation. There are just a handful of days every year that I get to duck hunt all day. This was one of them. The ducks were not flying furiously but we decided to stick it out until closing time. The weather was comfortable, the dog was behaving, and there was a chance at a goose or two. I pulled out my small game regulations and calculated shooting time with the zone map. The last hour we hunted was duckless. We never called and never grabbed our guns. We enjoyed some great conversation and watched the doves fly over head. At the appointed time, we unloaded our guns and waded out to pick up the decoys. At that moment, we heard a voice. It was a conservation officer and he appeared to be agitated. He asked us why we were hunting late. I pulled out the regulations and showed him that we were in fact right on time. It was then I was informed that waterfowl hours end 20 minutes before small game hours. I was devastated. I explained to him how I made the mistake. He had been watching us for about an hour and knew that we had not shot anything or really even hunted. Had I known then what I know now, I would have lied to him and told him we were simply hunting doves for the last twenty minutes of daylight. Instead, I told him the truth. I showed him my blind bag which was filled with trash and old shell casings we picked up. We were not slob hunters. We simply looked at the wrong book. It didn’t matter. We were cited.

At the time, I probably had well over 100 days of waterfowl hunting under my belt. My waterfowl regulations were sitting on the coffee table at the cabin. I made a mistake. Think about how daunting waterfowl regulations can be to a new hunter. Your gun must be plugged so that only two shells fit in the magazine. You must have the right shells. If you shoot one hen mallard in Wisconsin, you must be very careful not to shoot another. The same goes for a black duck or pintail. You can only shoot one scaup… but on some days it’s two. You can shoot two redheads, but no canvasbacks. There are almost ten zones and subzones for Canada goose, all with their own unique season dates. The waterfowl regulation pamphlet is 32 pages. As veteran waterfowlers, we know how to pick out different species of ducks. It’s part of what makes duck hunting so enjoyable. The annual evening of studying the regulations is like a holiday at my house. But imagine taking this on as a first time hunter without any help. I personally believe no one could start duck hunting without a mentor. Those who were not scared off by the complexity of the regulations probably would be cited. Waterfowl hunting could be the most challenging hunting pursuit to learn.

Back in 1970, there were metal bunny ears on top of television sets. If one of the three stations didn’t come in, a kid was required to stand in just the right position to keep the picture clear. If his body swayed the wrong way, he would be peppered with popcorn by those trying to enjoy the show. Later on, those clicking box things helped out a lot. I’m not sure what they did but the TV would come in better if you turned the dial. If you were born after 1980, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. In the 1970s, most houses had three television channels and that was it. Color TV was still advertised on motel signs. Pacman wasn’t yet invented, but you could play pinball at the bowling alley. Some cities even had something called “arcades”.

In 2011, most homes have hundreds of high definition television to choose from. Arm chair hunters can choose from a dozen or so outdoor programming channels. Big brothers are no longer required to get up to change the channel and hold the antenna. They can sit right next to dad. Of course, big brother probably has no interest in hanging out with dad in many American households. He is playing video games, or on the internet, or texting. He’s probably doing this in the comfort of his own room. In the 1970’s most Americans had one television. If you wanted to watch television you would have to do it with the folks. Now we have three televisions per household. Those arcades are long gone. I have more games on my phone than the arcade ever had. There is a lot more for people to do these days. You have to make a concerted effort to go hunting. For most people, American Idol is more important than whitetails.

Society is a lot different than it was forty years ago. Americans are living a sedentary lifestyle. It takes work to chase gobblers over oak ridges. People are in to instant gratification. We want it all and we want it now. It may take several days to finally get a shot at a whitetail. It may take years for an opportunity at an antlered buck. Those monster bucks the people on channel 278 are shooting? Forget about it. Tell most 16 year old kids you’re going to leave them alone in the woods in freezing temperatures and your likely to have the police called on you. But that’s just what we are asking our youth to do... all in the name of a tradition that means nothing to them if they are not introduced early. They have X-Box to play. Patience, sacrifice, respect, and woodsmanship are no longer virtues in today’s society. They are requirements in the hunting world.

The demographics of this country are also changing rapidly. Hunting is a predominately white, middle-class sport. The white, middle-class is a shrinking demographic. Nationally, 98% of hunters are white. In the South, that number dips down into the 80s and low 90s. But there is not a lot of diversity in our ranks. This is mainly due to young minorities not being given the opportunity to experience hunting for a myriad of reasons.

Despite the vast majority of American’s support of hunting for food, hunting continues to take hits in the media. The movie, “Bambi,” is generally cited by pro-hunting groups as the first shot over the bow. Bambi’s mom wasn’t killed by wolves or hit by a car. She didn’t starve to death during winter or succumb to tuberculosis. She was killed by an evil hunter. We don’t hear stories on the news about hunters who play by the rules. Those stories don’t sell newspapers. It’s poaching busts that get people to watch the ten o’clock news. The miniscule amount people who are bad examples are those under the spotlight. It’s not the reporter’s fault. No one buys commercials for 30 minutes of fluff.

For most hunters, guns are our instruments. They are our means of putting food on the table. Guns are under constant assault. Every time some whack job decides to make a statement, it paints the 99.9% of law abiding gun owners in a corner. A bad apple ruins every bushel. But in our case, a bad apple can taint the entire crop.

The picture isn’t pretty for hunting. Hunters have a lot working against us. Still, the news isn’t all bad. Despite the constant barrage of attacks, the decline of licensed hunters is beginning to slow. In Wisconsin, many detractors compare the 2010 licensed deer hunters to the number of 2000 licensed deer hunters. The comparison is chilling. 726,000 to 621,000. However, the CWD scare removed over 100,000 hunters from the landscape in 2002. Since then, license sales have fluctuated very little. Most studies use a ten year comparison that may look like a nice, round number. But in this case, comparing 2000 to 2010 is apples and oranges. In the past 20 years, licensed hunters have increased or remained constant in 17 states. In 2010, Ohio sold a state record 450,000 deer licenses.

Small game & waterfowl hunting participation is really dropping. Small game hunting participation is down 12% and waterfowl hunters decreased 22% in the past 20 years. However, other hunting sports are flourishing. Turkey hunters have increased at twice the rate of the US population since 1990. Bow hunting is also growing at a rapid pace. There are now 5.5 million archery hunters in this country. The biggest growth is among females. From 2008 to 2009, licensed female hunters increased by 5%. Hunters are starting to get the picture. 77% of adult hunters say they are mentoring a young hunter.

State wildlife agencies and the hunting industry are also working to reverse trends. Many states now have hunter mentor programs and are lowering the legal hunting age. Getting kids involved in hunting at an early age is a must. Gander Mountain is remodeling many of their stores with The Gander Mountain Academy. The idea is to educate new gun owners on proper handling of firearms. Gun sales are increasing steadily and in 2009 a record 34 million Americans went target shooting. As new gun owners become more proficient shooters, expect them to test their skills in a hunting setting.

The internet is also helping recruit new hunters. Prospective hunters needed to buy one of a handful of hunting magazines, go talk to a warden, and drive to a hunting area to scout thirty years ago. Now they can get great information at sites like foremosthunting.com free of charge. Back then most magazines covered hunting in general with very little specific nuts and bolts information. With the internet, niche sites are growing. Foremostcoyotehunting.com is the internet’s best place for information on coyote hunting, a sport that was nearly unheard of not too long ago. State wildlife agencies have websites loaded with state specific information. Google Maps provides hunters with free satellite maps of their favorite hunting spot.

The state of the economy is also helping introduce new hunters. Many people see hunting, especially deer hunting, as a way to economically put food on the table. A trip to Colorado may be out of the budget. However, a visit to a local public hunting area can put 50 or 60 pounds of meat in the freezer with little expense.

Another interesting trend is the green food movement. People who would typically never think of themselves as hunters are looking for ways to get hormone free, antibiotic free, 100% free range meat. We’re not talking about the pickup truck set here. These are folks who probably would carry signs against hunting 20 years ago. As more information is known about how mass meat processors do business, the more popular hunting becomes among people looking for healthy meat.

The statistics hunters are constantly bombarded with can be disheartening. But the decline in hunter participation is slowing and in some cases being reversed. We can continue our great tradition… one Jack The Hunting Machine at a time.

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