In Their Words: Industry Experts on Why Hunting Is In Decline

George Cooper, President and Chief Executive Officer
Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

Hunting is dying a death of a thousand cuts. Our increasing population means declining habitat for wildlife, as suburban sprawl and expanding production agriculture claim more of the lands that used to be hunting grounds. Other pervasive forces, like booming oil and gas development on public lands in the Intermountain West, now dot landscapes that used to be dotted by blaze orange. And the dawn of the digital generation comes with a downside: more kids than ever before prefer recreating on carpet than on dirt.

The long-term implications of these trends are downright scary. Declines in hunter numbers compound themselves, as fewer mentors lead to fewer young hunters. This means fewer people practicing our craft. It means fewer people connected to the land in the ways that hunters are, which could signify bad times ahead for species conservation. We need to be ever-mindful that the roots of conservation in this country were planted by sportsmen such as Marsh, Grinnell, Audubon and Roosevelt, just to name a few.

If the hunting population continues to decline we will become a people increasingly out of touch with our lands. And when we lose touch with our lands, we lose not only the sense of how they function, but the sense of why they need to function in those ways.

A people without this sense is a people with no real sense at all.

** Doug Painter
President, National Shooting Sports Foundation**

Urbanization, not a loss of interest, has been the key factor impacting hunter participation in recent decades. Nationally, over the past 20 years, hunting license sales have declined by some eight percent.

This decrease, however, has varied considerably from state to state. Not surprisingly, the sharpest declines have occurred in those states that have experienced the most urban growth. Conversely, a third of the states have seen license sales increases over the past two decades.

What’s the outlook down the road? While it is difficult to overcome the negative impact of continuing development, especially in our most populous states, hunter recruitment and retention efforts of state wildlife agencies and many organizations in the hunting community are having positive results. While there isn’t room here to describe all the efforts that are making a difference, a great example can be seen in the number of new young hunters coming in as a result of the “mentor license” created by the Families Afield program now active in 29 states.

As we look to the future of hunting we must keep in mind that there is no “them,” only “us.” So, the next time you plan to head out, be sure to ask a newcomer to “Step Outside.”

** Nick Wiley
Director, Division of Hunting and Game Management
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission**

Today's youth have many more recreational opportunities that are more convenient, more available, less expensive, and more culturally acceptable than hunting. Small game hunting has almost disappeared as the preferred entry level hunting activity. Urban/suburban communities have increased and rural communities have declined - resulting in less cultural/family connection to hunting and a widespread breakdown in hunting traditions. Reduced access to hunting land through changing land use, restrictions, liability issues, and leasing has compounded the difficulty associated with hunter recruitment.

In 50 years, it will become more expensive to hunt, particularly on private land. The typical hunter will likely come from a higher socio-economic status. Hunting on public lands will be more restricted with regard to seasons and quotas. Types of hunting that require large acreage or have negative impacts on neighboring lands or wildlife habitat will likely be heavily restricted or phased out.

There is hope to maintain a good capacity for hunting in the future, but hunters need to take action now. It will be important for hunters to get involved in growth management planning, push for strong public land acquisition programs, and support incentives for private landowners including conservation easements, tax breaks, and cost share programs that will maintain quality wildlife habitat and hunting opportunities.

** Jim Posewitz
Executive Director, Orion The Hunters' Institute**

The most ignored reasons for a decline in hunting recruitment are those endemic to the hunting community itself. We have been sacrificing the hunt for a glut of gear, a high-tech chase, catered killing for pay, and the de facto domestication of wildlife. In the process we have been choking the joy and truth out of a primal association with nature that holds a powerful appeal for a broad spectrum of people. We then pursued recruitment by lowering the entry-bar, when hunting’s noble purpose, and society’s expectation, demanded that we raise it.

If we continue to compromise the democracy and substance of American hunting, we will come to resemble places like England. There, six large mammals went extinct and hunting became reviled as a residual of a hated aristocracy. Hunting, as a cultural amenity available to everyone, gave birth to the American Conservation ethic. Should we loose that ethic - the future could replace us with animal damage control agents – and they might call them hunters.

** Mike Checkett, Media Relations Biologist
Ducks Unlimited**

Hunter numbers continue to decline for several reasons. Among the most significant are; rapidly changing population centers, loss of hunting land to urbanization, and more competing demands for time. In short, it comes down to habitat and time. We don’t have as much habitat or time to hunt these days. Conservation programs like CRP and WRP are being cut back leaving less land available for hunting. Parents are working longer hours and kids have more activity choices. Ultimately, today’s youth have little contact with the outdoors and even less exposure to hunting. There are two keys to getting future generations to hunt. First we must provide them a place to hunt. Secondly we must foster participation among today’s youth. Research indicates that if an individual has not been introduced to hunting by the age of 20, there is a very low likelihood of hunting participation as an adult. Hunters are the most willing to give their own dollar for wildlife conservation. If we do not engage today’s youth in our hunting heritage and traditions, the future of both hunting and conservation looks grim.

** Jeffrey Reh
Vice President and General Counsel
Beretta U.S.A. Corporation**

The largest threat to hunting comes from a separation of the population from rural traditions. As urban areas increase in size and population, a growing number of people lose access to hunting areas and those who do hunt
(because they live in rural areas or make the effort to find hunting opportunities) have fewer places in which to enjoy their sport. 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.

This trend will continue unless hunting access is increased, by preserving hunting areas, increasing information about where to hunt and the excitement of hunting, and by reducing barriers to hunting such as onerous and unnecessary licensing requirements. If hunting remains significantly more difficult to enjoy than other recreational pursuits, separation of the population from hunting will continue.

** Mark Holsten, Commissioner
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources**

On a national level, factors affecting hunter recruitment include some of the usual suspects: demographic shifts, habitat changes, natural resource degradation, high barriers for those new to the sport, and a lack of mentoring programs for youth.

However, while other states have seen a decline in hunter numbers, Minnesota has had a seven percent increase since 1996. We believe this reflects the foresight of our citizens, lawmakers and DNR leaders. Together, they have worked to preserve habitat, enhance game populations, maintain millions of acres of public hunting land, and reduce barriers to participation. Minnesota’s commitment to hunting has even been affirmed by a state constitutional amendment that forever recognizes and preserves the state’s hunting tradition. Our hunting recruitment and retention approach will continue to focus on increasing access to quality hunting, creating new hunting opportunities, expanding mentoring programs and taking other actions that move us toward higher hunter participation.

One only needs to look at England and Europe to see what the future of hunting in the United States might look like in 50 years. Without a strong effort by committed agencies, organizations and individuals, hunting will likely become much more of a privatized activity available only to the wealthy. With the loss of the average hunter, we will see greatly reduced funding for wildlife and conservation projects. We will lose our loudest voices for conservation advocacy. The North American Conservation Model that has hunters at its foundation, which has worked so effectively for decades, will collapse.
But we believe that this trend can be slowed or reversed if states partner with non-governmental organizations, conservation groups and individuals to maintain support for and availability of hunting opportunities. Governments must make investments in the science, culture and tradition of hunting to insure that this great activity remains an option for future generations. We must maintain strong scientific wildlife management and the principle of wildlife as a public trust resource – not as an individual property right. Agencies must continue to provide open and equitable access to hunting areas and opportunities and make sure that programs are in place to allow new hunters to easily learn about and participate in those opportunities.

** Matt Frank
Secretary, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources**

Wisconsin is a great place to hunt, and the hunting tradition remains strong here. We’re working to keep it that way:

A commitment to providing a place to hunt is critical. Hunters who have no place to hunt, don’t. Wisconsin hunters have access to seven million acres of public land and managed forest private land for hunting. Under Gov. Jim Doyle’s leadership, we recently renewed the Stewardship Fund, which will provide $86 million per year for 10 years for public acquisition of recreational land. So far the Stewardship Fund has provided a half-million acres of recreational land, almost all of it open to hunting.

It takes a hunter to make a hunter. Commitments to mentoring and outreach to our nation’s increasingly diverse population are musts. In Wisconsin, we designed the Learn to Hunt Program to introduce people to their hunting heritage. We work with local clubs and on our state properties to sponsor youth hunts for deer, turkey and other species to spark interest and build skills. Becoming and Outdoorswoman (BOW) was born here. We’re very actively participating in “Take Me Fishing.” And to assure hunters are as diverse as our population, we’re reaching out to new constituencies like Hmong.

To preserve our heritage and manage wildlife populations, we must grow a new nature-connected generation of hunter conservationists, ready to take our places as stewards of our precious natural resources. We are working with families to make it easy to get kids into traditional outdoor pursuits and quality family time. Once the connection to nature is made, it lasts a lifetime.

Wisconsin is committed to hunting and its future for all the reasons it’s important – heritage, wildlife management, and involving people in conservation. It’s going to take all of us to keep it strong.

** Wes Seegars
Chairman, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission**

The answer to your question is attributable to many factors. I believe the urbanization of virtually every state and the sprawl that has consumed farmland, (destroying habitat and traditional hunting opportunities) is one of two leading factors. The other is simple, competition. Our culture is evolving as fast as our technology and it is coming at the expense of hunting, fishing, and what the fifty-and-over crowd call tradition. Computer games, ipods and an endless list of equipment that is growing weekly has captured the full attention of this and the previous generation’s effortless enjoyment. It is not only technology, we are told constantly guns are weapons of destruction and gun owners are constantly portrayed with negative connotations. Correct society, whatever that is, believes if you own a gun you are capable of doing great harm. No longer is a child excited when he or she turns ten and gets his or her first shotgun for Christmas. Today, we are not sure if we are even supposed to have Christmas. How did this happen? No great philosophical or insightful answer, it just did. It is, however, another lesson to the silent majority of our great country to wake up before the traditions that made our country great are gone.

There will be hunting fifty years from now. Private and public hunting preserves along the Atlantic coast with very limited public lands will be able to accommodate the hunters that are left. Along the Pacific coast there will be a few private preserves but no public lands available. From the Mississippi to the Rockies there will continue to be the greatest opportunity for hunters. Both public and private land will be available for the sportsmen and women of our country because it will be the only place left our "society" has not consumed in every imaginable way.
**
Mike Hayden
Secretary, Kansas Department of Wildlife & Parks**

Hunting has been a focal point of my life for 54 years and will continue to be, until I die. Hunters are vanishing because hunting is not relevant to most people’s lives! As a white male whose parents are still living and have never been divorced I am among a cohort that represents only 1% of the world’s population. This is relevant, because as hard has we might try to diversify, hunting is still a white male dominated avocation passed on through, mostly rural, family traditions. The decline in hunters reflects the decline in rural populations. It also reflects the change in family structure that has occurred over the last half century. Until we make hunting relevant to a diverse and ever changing populace our numbers will continue to decline.

** Barnett Lawley
Commissioner, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources**

I believe part of the reason for a decline in hunter recruitment is the difficulty in hunter education certification. We need a way for hunter education certification to be more convenient.
The mentor license passed by the Alabama Legislature has helped by allowing a person who hasn't had hunter-ed to hunt under the supervision of a licensed adult.

But we are competing with so many other activities that kids have available these days. We need to promote outdoors activities as vigorously as they promote soccer, football, and baseball. We can’t just take for granted that kids are interested in hunting any more. We must promote the enjoyment aspect and the necessity of hunting in wildlife management.

I think hunting in our country in 50 years will be highly commercialized and privatized. I think public lands are the key to hunting in the future. If we don’t maintain our revenue through our hunter base, we won’t have the funds to maintain public hunting lands and our treasured natural resources.

** John Hoskins
Director, Missouri Department of Conservation**

In Missouri, hunting is steeped in our state’s traditions. Over one-half million hunters enjoy their sport each year. We have not seen dramatic declines in deer and turkey hunting participation and the numbers of hunters have been relatively stable for two decades. We’ve also learned that many people develop their outdoor interests because someone else shares the outdoors with them.

Because we do anticipate a decline in participation, the Department of Conservation is exploring ways to engage more citizens into a lifetime love of hunting and to help them establish a connection with the outdoors. These methods include an apprentice permit for adults, youth-only seasons, education and publications for young people and adults, and easy to find information about where to go and what to do on Web pages, including videos on YouTube. Statewide, nearly one million acres of conservation areas will continue to offer hunting opportunities well into the future.

** Rich Landers
Outdoor columnist
The Spokane Spokesman-Review**

A hunter needs three things to keep a foot in the sport: Money, access, and time.

Money isn’t a major issue. Determined sportsmen will get a second job and cancel cable TV service to make hunts happen. With money, you can buy a lease, book a guide, or get to wherever you need to go for hunting opportunities. Time, however, is something that seems to be slipping away from all Americans. Even landowners who live on wildlife gold mines rarely get away from hectic schedules and distractions to enjoy their wealth of hunting access.

Having less competition isn’t all bad for those of us who relish an uninterrupted stalk on opening day. But if the public continues to be more detached from the woods, the support for land and wildlife conservation will erode, and soon there won’t be enough voices to say “What the hell?” when wetlands are drained. It’s just a matter of time.

** Johnny Morris, President
Bass Pro Shops**

Hunting and fishing have been a very big part of my life for as long as I can remember. My Dad introduced me to the outdoors by sharing with me his love for nature that he acquired like so many others, through hunting and fishing. I feel very blessed to have made my living and spent my life involved in the outdoor sports industry.

I would like to underscore some of the positive trends that don’t always get reported. There are far more hunters in this country than the 12. 5 million reported in the 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife Recreation. That total doesn’t include hunters younger than 16 years old. Nor does it take into account those people who don’t buy a hunting license every year. Rob Southwick, a noted economist in this industry, has examined the survey in detail and found that for every person who hunted in 2005, there was another 54 percent who hunted in the five years prior. While that 54 percent may not have hunted in 2005, the year the survey was conducted, they are still hunters. When you add up those numbers, you’ll find there were 20.84 million people who hunted at least once between 2000 and 2005. If you believe that once a hunter, always a hunter, this will come as good news: a total of 42 million people have hunted in the United States.

There are, however, several key factors that explain why a smaller percentage of the American public hunts today. Probably the biggest reason experts cite for a decline in the percentage of hunters is urbanization. A rural upbringing in a family of hunters is the biggest factor in creating a hunter. Today’s society, however, is dominated by people living in cities and suburbs with little knowledge about hunting. Add to that urban sprawl and the problem worsens as development converts areas once open to hunting. However, these issues have not gone unnoticed. There’s an army of people out there, volunteers and professionals, who are working hard to ensure we’ll be sharing our hunting traditions for many years to come.

One of the best examples of a bright future for hunting is right here in my home state of Missouri. Our Director of Conservation, John Hoskins, and his staff lead the nation in the recruitment of young people into the sport. For every 100 hunters who lose interest, 116 new hunters take their place. Missouri has opened the door to young hunters through special hunts for youth. While 19 states have laws that prevent parents from deciding when their sons and daughters are mature enough to try hunting, Missouri’s regulations work to encourage families to hunt together!

Other states are following this success and removing barriers to youth and adult novice hunters. Leaders like John Hoskins, and Rob Keck at the National Wild Turkey Federation, and groups such as the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance are working with sportsmen, elected officials and wildlife agency personnel to lift restrictions that prevent young people and adults from learning to hunt. The Families Afield founding partners, with help from the NRA, have seen great results. To date, 25 states have passed some type of pro-recruitment legislation. Data from those states who have tracked license sales show very positive trends.

Hopefully it will become more apparent to all Americans that hunters are the ones who have shouldered the costs for virtually all wildlife management efforts. Hunters support conservation for the benefit of all citizens through their license fees and specially earmarked taxes from the sale of firearms and making ammunition.

Hunting equipment sales have been the fastest growing merchandise sales category at Bass Pro Shops for the past 12 years in a row. Whether it’s Bass Pro shops or other companies, agencies and organizations, we’re all proud to play a part in sharing the hunting heritage.

Everything from the Wonders of Wildlife Museum in Springfield, Missouri to the many outreach efforts such as the NWTF’S JAKES program, show this industry is moving full speed ahead to make sure that 50 years from now, opportunities to hunt, fish and enjoy the outdoors are as good or better than they are today.

We hope every reader of this magazine will join in encouraging laws in their home state that give young people the right and opportunity to hunt. This is one of the single most important things we can do for the future of hunting.