Why Johnny Won't Hunt

Rampant urbanization, changed cultural values, and the new American religions of organized sports and electronic entertainment are keeping kids out of the woods. But our eroding commitment could be the fatal blow.

The lines on the graphs are grim, reading like an epitaph on a tombstone. One shows the adult population growing older; the other reveals that arrivals from the next generation are falling.

Sportsmen know these are the signs of species fighting for survival. Similar equations have clouded the future of canvasbacks and steelhead, grizzlies and bull trout.

But this report is even more troubling. This one is about us.

Hunting's vital signs continue the steady decline that began in the 1970s, according to a wave of research released this year. A new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey shows that our total numbers are down: just 12.5 million, dropping half a million in the last five years alone. Our average age is up: 24 percent of us are over 55, whereas only 12 percent of us are under 25. Recruitment is failing: 38 percent fewer newcomers joined our ranks in the last 15 years. And the proportion of Americans who hunt has dropped to 3 percent, a figure guaranteed to shrink as the general population continues to expand.

The decline persists despite an ever expanding menu of private and government programs designed to spur interest in the sport. States and industry groups rightfully trumpet their occasional successes, yet a few strokes on a calculator bring reality crashing back: If the sport continues to shed about 100,000 members a year, there will be very few of us left by 2050.

Why don't our sons and daughters hunt? Studies provide many compelling statistics, and statistical analysts offer further insight. But science often misses nuances available only to the participants in a story. So we also solicited answers from some of the most respected thinkers in the hunting communityÂ--wildlife agency managers, heads of conservation groups, journalists who have covered the issue for decades. Their remarks cut to a cold, hard bottom line: It's all about urbanization, timeÂ--and us.

The first two elements of the equation are easy to understand, because they track the loss of quick and easy access to hunting lands driven by the shift in Amer­ica's population from rural areas to urban centers, and the increased demands of today's society.

But that third piece is painful, because it requires a long look in the mirrorÂ--where one of our sport's greatest problems will be staring back.

Less Land, Less Opportunity
It was no coincidence the number of hunters started dropping at about the same time America's population began shifting in earnest from rural landscapes to the metropolises that now dominate our demographics. But the impact was far greater than meets the eye.

Most obviously, the redistribution pulled hunters away from their traditional hunting grounds. Sportsmen who once lived next to wildlife habitat now face logistical challenges just to get to huntable terrain. The associated changes in land-use practices added to the problem. Expanding cities colonized wildlife habitat for suburbs. Farms and forests were gobbled up by industry or private clubs. In the space of a single decade, going hunting became a complicated process.

This was the "lack of access" issue that surfaced when state fish and wildlife agencies first began studying the decline in hunting license sales. Sportsmen complained that hunting now took more time and money. Many had to cut back on their hunting frequency. Others dropped out.

To professional wildlife managers studying the changes, the complaints of disgruntled adult sportsmen signaled that a far more serious problem was being set in motion: The wave of veteran hunters leaving the sport would set off a ripple effect guaranteeing ever fewer new hunters in the future.

In wildlife biology, this problemÂ--called recruitment failureÂ--irecognized as a sure symptom of species demise. Today it has a growing number of people agonizing over the future of hunting.

It all goes back to that shift from farms to cities.

"The largest threat to hunting is the separation of the population from rural traditions," explains Jeffrey Reh, vice president of Beretta U.S.A. "Because the hunting tradition is often passed down through generations or is shared with friends, as more people become separated from hunting, fewer people are available to share the sport."

George Cooper, president and CEO of the Theo­dore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, says the sport is "dying the death of a thousand cuts" but points to recruitment failure as the potentially lethal slice.

"Declines in hunter numbers perpetuate themselves, as fewer mentors mean fewer young hunters," Cooper says. "The long-term implications of these trends are downright scary."

A Fatal Time Share
There is another factor at work, as both our respondents and the researchers point out: Hunting today faces much stiffer competition for the attention and loyalty of young people than it did 30 years ago.

The typical family living in today's metroplexes comprises working parents who run their children's lives on tightly scheduled circuits, moving them quickly between school and extracurricular activities: soccer and Little League, martial arts and music. Many of these activities feature weekend competitions, consuming days once set aside for hunting.

Rich Landers, award-winning outdoors columnist for the Spokane Spokesman-Review (and an F&S contributing editor), says that of the three things hunters need to stay in the gameÂ--money, access, and timeÂ--the first two seldom stop a determined sportsman. But the third can be a killer. "Time is something that seems to be slipping away from all Americans," he writes.

Indeed, results from a survey released this year, The Future of Hunting and the Shooting Sports, conducted by Responsive Management for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, point to a lack of time as the leading cause for the loss of hunters.

When inactive hunters were asked why they had reduced or stopped hunting, 40 percent of them listed a lack of time as the main reason. The second most cited reasonÂ--35 percentÂ--was family obligations. What's more, this was a significant increase over the responses given 12 years earlier in those same categories.

Families today are presented with menus of leisure-time activities unparalleled in American history, from traditional playground sports to the new world of digital entertainment. Adults as well as their children are choosing those pursuits over hunting.

And that wordÂ--choosingÂ--brings us to the uncomfortable part of the equation: us.

A Conscious Decision Not to Hunt
For three decades, researchers tasked with explaining hunting's decline have asked sportsmen a stream of questions that center on two general themes: What prevents you from hunting? What would make it easier? The implication in this line of inquiry is that hunters are being blocked from participation in the sport by factors beyond their control: lack of access, costs, and regulations.

Some experts, however, are beginning to think the more honest question would be: Why is something else more important to you than hunting? Why do you prefer playing soccer dad to hunting? Or buying NFL season tickets; tailgating at State U.; a trip to Disney World; joining Junior at the video-game controls; a skiing vacation in Vail?

This query addresses the point that, in most cases, the reason a hunter leaves the sportÂ--and takes potential future generations with himÂ--is that he's made a choice not to hunt.

Many of the activities ex-hunters now participate in take as much time and money as a hunt. So what's behind their decision?

It would be easy to call these lapsed hunters deserters. But the answer is more complicated, says Richard Louv, whose bestselling book Last Child in the Woods is recognized as a groundbreaking work on this issue. In Louv's view, the last two generations of American children have experienced little contact with the natural world and thus have no understanding or appreciation of it.

Hunting's decline is just part of the overall withdrawal of kids from all things outdoors, Louv notes. Other outdoor pursuits are suffering similar recruitment failure.

Why is that happening?

"The simple, knee-jerk reaction is to blame electronicsÂ--television, video gamesÂ--or the time constraints in suburban life that have us overscheduling our children's free time, carpooling them to myriad after-school activities," Louv says. "But it eventually comes down to a matter of choices.

"And parents are making those choices, I believe, because society has decided, in general, not to value being outdoors with kids. It places a higher value on these other activities."

So are parents the culprits? Are they making these decisions because it's easier to plop a kid in front of a computer or shuttle him to soccer practice than to invest the personal time required to take him to the woods or marsh and teach him the traditions of hunting?

Yes, and no, Louv says. ParentsÂ--including many who have hunted since they were childrenÂ--are caving in to a changing world, giving in to messages of good parenting sent out by the society in which they live.

"If society values these other activities more, then they must be the right choice for raising healthy, happy individuals," Louv explains. And of course, "Any responsible parents want that for their children.

"But guess what?" he continues. "The cognitive studies show that getting your kids outdoors on a regular basis makes them healthier, happier, and even smarter. That is the message that needs to get out to parents. Then they'll have support for making other choices."

Which means that when the weekend for hunter-safety training rolls around, Johnny will miss soccer practice, or even a match. It means that when deer season opens, Johnny may not be at the hockey rink. It means your vacation at Walt Disney World may have to be canceled this year, because you can't afford both the trip and a deer or elk hunt. Taking this step, Louv warns, can be challenging.

"It still isn't easy to buck the trend, go against the dominant wave when you're acting alone. That's w with himÂ--is that he's made a choice not to hunt.

Many of the activities ex-hunters now participate in take as much time and money as a hunt. So what's behind their decision?

It would be easy to call these lapsed hunters deserters. But the answer is more complicated, says Richard Louv, whose bestselling book Last Child in the Woods is recognized as a groundbreaking work on this issue. In Louv's view, the last two generations of American children have experienced little contact with the natural world and thus have no understanding or appreciation of it.

Hunting's decline is just part of the overall withdrawal of kids from all things outdoors, Louv notes. Other outdoor pursuits are suffering similar recruitment failure.

Why is that happening?

"The simple, knee-jerk reaction is to blame electronicsÂ--television, video gamesÂ--or the time constraints in suburban life that have us overscheduling our children's free time, carpooling them to myriad after-school activities," Louv says. "But it eventually comes down to a matter of choices.

"And parents are making those choices, I believe, because society has decided, in general, not to value being outdoors with kids. It places a higher value on these other activities."

So are parents the culprits? Are they making these decisions because it's easier to plop a kid in front of a computer or shuttle him to soccer practice than to invest the personal time required to take him to the woods or marsh and teach him the traditions of hunting?

Yes, and no, Louv says. ParentsÂ--including many who have hunted since they were childrenÂ--are caving in to a changing world, giving in to messages of good parenting sent out by the society in which they live.

"If society values these other activities more, then they must be the right choice for raising healthy, happy individuals," Louv explains. And of course, "Any responsible parents want that for their children.

"But guess what?" he continues. "The cognitive studies show that getting your kids outdoors on a regular basis makes them healthier, happier, and even smarter. That is the message that needs to get out to parents. Then they'll have support for making other choices."

Which means that when the weekend for hunter-safety training rolls around, Johnny will miss soccer practice, or even a match. It means that when deer season opens, Johnny may not be at the hockey rink. It means your vacation at Walt Disney World may have to be canceled this year, because you can't afford both the trip and a deer or elk hunt. Taking this step, Louv warns, can be challenging.

"It still isn't easy to buck the trend, go against the dominant wave when you're acting alone. That's w