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The Future of Hunting

The good news is that we have plenty of game animals. The bad news: We're running out of places to hunt them.
Photo by Field & Stream Online Editors

Jim Posewitz gives a short, dry laugh, as if he thinks "What is the state of hunting in America?" might be a trick question.

"The state of hunting?" repeats Posewitz, director-at-large for Orion, The Hunter's Institute, a think tank on the sport.

"Well, I guess you could say the state of hunting is great-and terrible."

It isn't a trick answer.

At first glance, hunting in America has never been in better shape, especially if you're in the business of hunting. The most recent survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, conducted in 2001, shows that America's hunters are wealthier and spending more on their sport now than ever before, an astounding $20.6 billion per year-including a 29 percent increase in the last 10 years alone.

And hunters have no shortage of game. What is often cited as the greatest wildlife conservation movement in history-funded largely by hunters-has produced overflowing abundance among North America's game animals, including many species that hovered near extinction at the beginning of the last century. The successful revitalization of whitetail deer, turkeys, elk, and more is the envy of the industrialized world, and the pleasant reality in which American hunters live in the 21st century.

So, the times are good. The problem is that the times may be running out.

"I don't think anybody involved in hunting has the idea that hunting as we know it is going to remain intact," says Steve Wagner, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. "I think that is a certainty." Hunting in America, experts say, faces a mountain of challenges that could grow to insurmountable heights due to problems revolving largely around two issues: Fewer people are becoming hunters, and access to hunting lands is increasingly limited.

Not as Many of Us
The number of American hunters has been in a slow but steady decline for the last 20 years, and in the last five years alone fell from 14 million to 13 million, one of the steepest drops since the USFWS began keeping records in 1955. And as the general population has swollen to 290 million, hunting has become important to an ever shrinking minority. Today, only 6 percent of Americans 16 and older hunt.

More unsettling, the average age of hunters is increasing. Sixty-seven percent of all hunters are now over the age of 35. Only 14 percent are between 16 and 24-and just 4 percent are 16 and 17 years old. In the language of wildlife biology, the sport of hunting is having "recruitment failure"-a condition that, in the wild, ultimately leads to extinction.

The prospects for a quick turnaround are dim. Surveys by state game and fish agencies in recent years revealed that children who are not exposed to hunting by the age of 14 never become involved. That could mean hunting is facing a serious collapse over the next 25 years as the bubble in its population begins moving into its 60s. Currently, only 3 percent of people who hunt are over 65.


Not as Much Land Hunting advocates say the cause behind recruitment failure is tied directly to one trend: loss of hunting opportunity due to loss of wildlife habitat.

"In survey after survey, people who don't hunt say they want to, but the main reason they don't is because they lack access," says Paul Hansen, executive director of the Izaak Walton League of America. "And they're right. We're losing 1.5 million acres of wildlife habitat every year to development and sprawl-and 1 million acres of that is farmland and ranchland. These lands are being taken out of hunting because they are being replaced by suburbs and shopping centers and industrial parks. And, for the first time in its history, the USFWS has so little money for operations that it can't purchase lands that are being offered to it for wildlife habitat.

"There's a $5 billion backlog in priority acquisitio. Refuges have been authorized, but there's no money [BRACKET "to close the deals"]. This is especially damaging to hunting's future, because of the urbanization of society. People no longer live on the land. They live in cities, so they need places-public places-they know they can go out to hunt on."

The Not-So-Wild West
Since the 1980s the most dramatic losses have taken place in western states, where huge parcels of public lands once were complemented by ranches and farms. Now that reservoir of private wildlife lands is drying up.

"Since 1982 we've lost 3.2 million ranch acres," says the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's Wagner. "That's a very troubling trend, but one a lot of people don't notice."

Appearances can be deceiving, in fact. "From a standpoint of game populations and license sales, it appears big-game hunting is in pretty good shape," Wagner notes. "[BRACKET "Game"] populations are up, and license sales are stable and even rising in many western states. But the human population in the West is growing twice as fast as the national rate; at the same time we're losing access to once-open habitat. Eventually that will catch up with us. And as opportunity falls, so will the number of hunters."

Private Dangers
That loss of opportunity is nothing new to the eastern half of the country. With fewer acres of federal lands than in the West, urban sprawl began forcing eastern hunters onto private leases and clubs in the 1970s. The pace quickened over the last 10 years as timber companies began pulling lands out of state programs and putting them into private leases. By the mid-1990s, as much as 70 percent of deer hunting in most eastern states took place largely on private lands, driving up the cost of participation-which meant fewer chances to hunt, especially for many younger people.

The trend now applies to the entire nation. The 2001 USFWS survey showed hunters spent 73 percent of their time on private lands, with 57 percent hunting exclusively on private lands.

It's an alarming development, say authorities on the sport, because it means hunters are becoming even more isolated from the general public. It also contributes to the decline in the number of hunters: People are being priced out of the game.

"It already costs big bucks to hunt private lands," says Posewitz. "Now some states are giving outfitters exclusive access to nonresident licenses, which is driving up the cost to hunt on public lands as well. If you have the money, you're not complaining. But this is tearing at the foundations of public hunting in North America-the tradition that is responsible for rebuilding our wildlife populations."

Solutions
The hunting establishment has noticed the decrease in participation, although they don't like to dwell on it. It's not surprising that Doug Painter, executive director of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, says, "I'm optimistic about hunting's future"-or that he'll enthusiastically cite current spending habits, noting that "where 20 years ago hunters used just a single shotgun or rifle, today they have numerous guns for different types of hunting." After all, the NSSF is the promotion and lobbying arm of the hunting industry. But Painter says his upbeat approach isn't just a matter of salesmanship. "My optimism is rooted in the fact that I see signs the industry has recognized the problems and is moving to do something about them. Of course we're concerned about the next generation-and we're doing things about it."

Painter points to efforts such as the NSSF's own Step Outside Program, which encourages hunters to recruit new members. "It sounds simplistic, but if every one of us who hunts introduced the sport to just one other person, we'd double our numbers overnight. That's the approach, and we're making headway.

"Even more promising is that the agencies that serve hunting on the state and federal levels are also getting involved with youth programs to actively recruit the next generation. For example, Alabama had 150 youth dove hunts last year. And then there are programs like the one in Kansas, which opened up a million acres of private lands to hunting."

That program, called Walk-In Hunting, was developed in 1995 by Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks director Steve Williams, who has since become the head of the USFWS. It was aimed squarely at stemming the loss of hunters due to lack of access to public or affordable hunting property. Most of the state's population was centered around the major urban areas of Wichita and Kansas City, yet the closest public lands were several hours away.

"We went out and talked to the farmers closer to the urban areas and asked them if they would allow their lands to be used for youth hunting," says Williams. "We provided a little money in terms of payments, about $1.25 per acre. The state also provides a waiver of liability for any land used for public recreation, so there was no insurance issue. The program is free to hunters.

"Basically, we were just recognizing the problem-that there was little land available to hunt where most people lived."

In less than 10 years, the program has opened about 1 million acres of land to hunters. During that time nonresident license sales have increased by about 10,000 per year, but resident sales haven't shown much of a spike. To Williams, that wasn't necessarily a bad sign. "They didn't drop," he says. "Some people would consider that significant."

Williams, however, realizes managers can't be satisfied with the status quo if the future of the sport is to be secured.

"We need a focused effort at not only recruiting the youngsters but also reintroducing people to the sport who have left," he says. "Hunting is important not just to hunters but to the nation's ability to maintain a strong conservation ethic. There are a lot of organizations out there who are starting to pitch in and help out. I think people involved in hunting recognize the challenges."

Painter agrees. "We need to first continue to be very aggressive in our community efforts to maintain and preserve habitat because without that, obviously, hunting opportunity cannot exist. We need to work very creatively in ensuring that huntable land is accessible.

"And we can no longer rely on automatic growth, on dad getting his children involved. Now we have to step in and prime the pump. We need to help families that want to continue hunting traditions to create the kinds of opportunities they need to do it.

"I see our community responding to those challenges. That's why I'm optimistic."

Many in the hunting community don't share Painter's positive outlook. They don't see theagencies that serve hunting on the state and federal levels are also getting involved with youth programs to actively recruit the next generation. For example, Alabama had 150 youth dove hunts last year. And then there are programs like the one in Kansas, which opened up a million acres of private lands to hunting."

That program, called Walk-In Hunting, was developed in 1995 by Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks director Steve Williams, who has since become the head of the USFWS. It was aimed squarely at stemming the loss of hunters due to lack of access to public or affordable hunting property. Most of the state's population was centered around the major urban areas of Wichita and Kansas City, yet the closest public lands were several hours away.

"We went out and talked to the farmers closer to the urban areas and asked them if they would allow their lands to be used for youth hunting," says Williams. "We provided a little money in terms of payments, about $1.25 per acre. The state also provides a waiver of liability for any land used for public recreation, so there was no insurance issue. The program is free to hunters.

"Basically, we were just recognizing the problem-that there was little land available to hunt where most people lived."

In less than 10 years, the program has opened about 1 million acres of land to hunters. During that time nonresident license sales have increased by about 10,000 per year, but resident sales haven't shown much of a spike. To Williams, that wasn't necessarily a bad sign. "They didn't drop," he says. "Some people would consider that significant."

Williams, however, realizes managers can't be satisfied with the status quo if the future of the sport is to be secured.

"We need a focused effort at not only recruiting the youngsters but also reintroducing people to the sport who have left," he says. "Hunting is important not just to hunters but to the nation's ability to maintain a strong conservation ethic. There are a lot of organizations out there who are starting to pitch in and help out. I think people involved in hunting recognize the challenges."

Painter agrees. "We need to first continue to be very aggressive in our community efforts to maintain and preserve habitat because without that, obviously, hunting opportunity cannot exist. We need to work very creatively in ensuring that huntable land is accessible.

"And we can no longer rely on automatic growth, on dad getting his children involved. Now we have to step in and prime the pump. We need to help families that want to continue hunting traditions to create the kinds of opportunities they need to do it.

"I see our community responding to those challenges. That's why I'm optimistic."

Many in the hunting community don't share Painter's positive outlook. They don't see the

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from long range shoooter wrote 1 year 23 weeks ago

Add in a new generation of abusive, aggressive Game WArden that is out to fine your for any infraction they can make up and if you argue ; they say your are under arrest as they are now "police" . IN public lands in WA state you can run into 3 road blocks by wardens in just one GMU ; they will search your vehicle for anything to fine you. I have heard of families camping on state land during hunting season and get $2000 plus fines for burning wood as it is "stealing lumber from the state" ; I know guys who fished and were fined for " too early " fishing as the warden had clocks that had different times. This is also prevalant in Alaska , per people there. It is strange why the "free press" is fearful of even exposing this ugly fact of life in hunting in America now; the warden is not to help you but someone to fear and it really makes people I know just flush hunting down the drain. Who wants to take legal jeopardy while sleep deprived , starving and out in cold weather? The older generation wardens were nicer and friendly; the new ones act like some cop and you are the drug dealer .

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from long range shoooter wrote 1 year 23 weeks ago

Add in a new generation of abusive, aggressive Game WArden that is out to fine your for any infraction they can make up and if you argue ; they say your are under arrest as they are now "police" . IN public lands in WA state you can run into 3 road blocks by wardens in just one GMU ; they will search your vehicle for anything to fine you. I have heard of families camping on state land during hunting season and get $2000 plus fines for burning wood as it is "stealing lumber from the state" ; I know guys who fished and were fined for " too early " fishing as the warden had clocks that had different times. This is also prevalant in Alaska , per people there. It is strange why the "free press" is fearful of even exposing this ugly fact of life in hunting in America now; the warden is not to help you but someone to fear and it really makes people I know just flush hunting down the drain. Who wants to take legal jeopardy while sleep deprived , starving and out in cold weather? The older generation wardens were nicer and friendly; the new ones act like some cop and you are the drug dealer .

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