Hunter Numbers: Who can stop the decline?
On Saturday, February 29th, I was asked to speak at an outdoors sportsmen event at a local church. My wife and I spent the night, in great company, talking with like minded people about the mission of Conserve the Wild. The night was filled with great food and great conversation!
The follow words are the basis for my talk.
We've all heard that there are less hunters in the field these days. It's all Doom and Gloom, right...or is it?
Please, indulge me for a second. Close your eyes and think about all the hunters you know. Chances are, the people you are picturing are: Male, 45 or older, and white.
Statistically speaking, 55% of the hunting population fits this description. Often referred to (sometimes self identifying) as "Hicks" or" Rednecks," This monoculture is just as bad for the state of hunting as it would be for wildlife.
The future of hunting is not bright. The hunting community has been under attack for 38 years and under direct siege for the past decade! No, I’m not talking about anti-hunters...I’m talking about an attack from within. Based on license purchases, the heyday of hunting was in 1982 when hunting peaked in popularity. Back then, 17 million hunters purchased over 28 million licenses. This was driven by Baby Boomers, of which the oldest are already starting to age out of hunting. In the past decade, hunter numbers have dropped by 2.2 million.
An even more stark number reveals itself when you look solely at small game hunting. While there has been a 14% drop in big game hunters, small game hunter numbers have dipped 54%. Over half the hunters that pursued small game in 1991 have decided that the game is not worth pursuing anymore. Yikes!
I know what you're thinking, GOOD! Less people in the field is good for me! Doing quick math, only 4% of the US population actively hunts. Within a country where public legislation affects hunting, this puts hunters on the short end of power. More than ever before, a greater percentage of the population is living in urban areas. This shift has resulted in a disconnect between people and the source of their food. Both of these factors working together has the potential to become a perfect storm.
To paraphrase Underdog’s catchphrase: There's no need to fear, state agencies are here!
The R3 movement has begun and is used widely. R3 stands for Recruit, Retain, and Reactivate. The goal of these programs is to increase hunter numbers by introducing new people to hunting, keep the people who currently hunt, and get former hunters back out into the field. Sounds like a great plan, but the problem is that these efforts rarely work.
Of the nearly 500 R3 programs nationwide, only 10% had exit surveys to see if their program was effective. With license sales continuing to decline, why haven’t these programs stemmed the tide? I’ll be blunt: They preach to the choir...they are feel good programs. Roughly 80% of the people (mostly kids) who attend either already hunt, or come from a hunting family.
This is the problem with the “youth hunt.” The idea is good, but the fundamentals don’t make sense. When a youth hunt is planned, the most likely attendee has a father, grandfather, or uncle who hunts. If there was ever a kid who was destined to hunt, it’s one of those kids...like me. The other issue with gearing R3 efforts toward kids is the post “youth hunt” period. If you do have a child from a non-hunting family attend, how will that child continue to hunt? Kids who are 12, 13, 14, 15 can’t drive to a hunting spot, nor do they have disposable income to buy the gear they need. How in the world can we expect that kid to continue hunting?
I know, I know...Doom and Gloom wasn’t the reason you came here. You want to hear good news and believe it or not, there is a solution. YOU!
Yes, you read that right. YOU are the best defense for the hunting tradition in our country. How? By asking an ADULT to go hunting with you. This could be anyone, but the best way to find them is to start with people you know: neighbors, friends of friends, coworkers. To truly help hunter numbers, that person you ask shouldn’t be your mini-me. The fastest growing portion of the hunting community is women, followed closely by...Hipsters. Yes, it’s true...people of different backgrounds want to hunt. But they don’t know where to start. That’s where YOU come in. That simple question, “Would you like to go on a hunt with me?”, is how they start.
The “why” for them varies, but most often cited is food. They want a local, sustainable, and ethically sourced form of meat. As all hunters know, venison is the most abundant source. Some of the best organizational based R3 efforts are focusing on this. The best, in my opinion, is the Quality Deer Management Association’s Field to Fork program.
When I interviewed Hank Forester, QDMA’s Hunting Heritage Programs Sr. Manager, about the Field to Fork program on my podcast, the type of people enticed by the idea of eating venison surprised me. The people interested in learning to hunt weren’t the stereotypical hunter. They were nutritionists, college students, urbanites, organic farmers, vegetarians, and VEGANS. See, when people realize how hunting supports conservation efforts and then become the provider of their own food, the concept can’t be beat.
I wholeheartedly agree with this type of R3 effort and I passionately support and advertise Field to Fork. My only issue with this program is that it is limited in reach. There are only 60,000 QDMA members and just a fraction of them have the ability to commit the time necessary for the process to succeed. It’s a complex program that requires a lot of planning and is rigid in the day selected to hunt. Not to mention, it only focuses on deer hunting. What about small game? What about migratory birds? Those are food sources and their seasons could give more people the chance to try hunting.
Again, it comes down to YOU. What will you do to continue the hunting tradition? Will you ask your neighbor or coworker, or friend of a friend to join you? Are you willing to sacrifice a day or two in the field each year to ensure the future of hunting? I hope so. Even if that person doesn’t continue to hunt, if nothing else, you helped to create an ally for yourself and other hunters.
I’ll start...I’ll walk the walk. This year, I asked a coworker (one that I never expected to say yes), if he was interested in hunting. Now, we are working together to get him started as a hunter. It’s given me a renewed focus on hunting. It’s helped to bring back some joy I didn’t know I was missing.
I’ll keep you updated on our progress as the year progresses!