The future of our hunting heritage depends on keeping and growing the ranks of hunters.
There are fewer hunters today than there were 20 years ago. If the trend continues, there will be even less two decades into the future – and beyond. Just by looking at the statistics, it appears as if we’re losing a grip on our hunting heritage. You may be asking yourself how that’s possible. As a hunter, with likely most of your inner circle who are sportsmen, it may seem like hunting is as strong as ever. But the facts don’t lie.
According to the most recent data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Fishing, Hunting, Wildlife and Recreation survey, between 1991 and 2011 the ratio of participating hunters in the United States declined from seven percent to about five percent of the entire population. Even more telling, the survey, which is completed approximately every five years, shows there were 17,094,000 hunters in the U.S. in 1975, while those numbers fell drastically to 13,674,000 in 2011. All the while, the country’s total population jumped from 216 million in 1975 to almost 312 million only 36 years later. At a Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) Whitetail Summit in 2014, the consensus among participants was that hunter recruitment and retention is the biggest threat to the future of deer hunting.
So what’s this all mean? For starters, the decline in hunters translates to fewer license sales. That’s less money for state wildlife agencies, and those funds are their main source of revenue. Fewer waterfowl hunters mean less federal duck stamps are being purchased. Funds from those sales go directly to acquiring and protecting wetland habitat and purchasing conservation easements for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Hunting remains the most important wildlife conservation tool we have to limit the spread of disease among game and keep populations stable. Deer and hog populations show no signs of declining with fewer hunters to keep them in check.
However, there are some positives to be noted. Firearm sales in 2015 smashed all previous records, when background checks for gun purchases topped 23.1 million, the largest number since the background check system began operating in 1998. That’s good news for wildlife conservation due to the Pittman-Robertson Excise Tax, which imposes a tax on all firearm sales. Those tax dollars go directly to wildlife conservation. The most recent survey by Responsive Management shows that 79 percent of Americans 18 and older approve of hunting, up five percentage points from 74 percent in 2011. That’s the highest level since 1995.
The support is there and the dollars are in place to continue conserving game for us to hunt. So what can we do to increase hunter recruitment? The answer is pretty simple: Take someone hunting. Take your son’s or daughter’s friend whose dad doesn’t hunt. Take the guy at work that is always asking you for another pack of venison jerky or a millennial who has an interest in eating local food and reducing his carbon footprint. After you find someone who really wants to give hunting a try, it takes some mentorship and time to generate a new hunter.
Lower the Cost of Entry
You’ve likely spent thousands as you accumulated gear over the years that includes firearms, clothes and equipment. It’s safe to say that hunting isn’t cheap. That sort of monetary investment, before someone even begins hunting, can seem daunting and is a barrier to entry. That’s where you come in. If you or a friend’s gun or bow fits the person you’re ushering into the sport, let them use it before they buy their own. Chances are, after a few successful outings with borrowed equipment, they’ll be hooked enough to rationalize gradually spending some extra cash on gear of their own. Help them look at classifieds for good, used gear at a fair price.
Safety, firearm operation and wildlife ethics are some of the most important factors of hunting to instill in a burgeoning sportsman. Most of these practices are taught in hunter education classes, which is required to obtain a license. But you can do your part to continue drilling home these values.
Take a few trips to the range before the season starts to go over safety rules and get an idea of the new hunter’s marksmanship. He or she will need to be proficient before ever heading afield, because wounding an animal on their first hunt is a sure way to turn them away from the sport. Stress the importance of accuracy and shot placement so they’re confident in their newfound abilities.
The time spent driving to the range or grabbing a bite to eat before or after is a great time for discussion. Explain the value of hunters, how we all contribute so much to keeping the air and water clean, and wildlife plentiful, by contributing millions of dollars each year to wildlife agencies through license sales and excise taxes. Describe the details of ethics in the sport, and how hunters have the responsibility to respect the game we pursue. It’s not all about the kill, but the entire process that allows us to do so – ensure they understand that.
Highlight the Positives
Spending time in the outdoors melts stress away. It presents us with the opportunity to harvest free-range meat and the excitement of pursuing an animal is hard to beat. Share your love and passion for hunting with your apprentice. Tout the ecological and physiological benefits of spending time outdoors and eating wild game.
Their first outing should be small game hunting, which is a perfect introduction to much of the fundamentals they’ll need to pursue other game like turkeys and big game. From there, you can quiz them on what you’ve taught them so far, seeing it in practice in the field. You’ll be able to gauge if hunting is something they’ll want to continue pursuing.
If they’re in it for healthier meat or simply the time spent outside, don’t try to turn them into a trophy hunter. Kids, in particular, may not have much interest in antlers. They want action. This may clash with your management goals, so explain why a young buck may not be a shooter. Brief them on QDMA practices and how you’re trying to grow the healthiest deer herd possible. That said, a prime opportunity to harvest their first deer is if there are excess does or cull bucks you need out of the herd.
Use a Hunting Blind
When a new hunter is taking a shot, verbal and visual contact is a must. They may find it hard to stay still and quiet for long. Communicating with one another as a hunt unfolds is an opportunity to further teach safety, woodsmanship and the game you’re pursuing. Banks blinds offer concealment that a treestand cannot. They feature carbon window curtains to hide movement and acoustic dampening materials to lessen noise.
If every hunter takes someone under their wing for a season or two and only 25 percent of them becomes a lifelong hunter, the impact on our tradition would be huge. It would result in about 3.75 million more hunters. That would certainly change the economic, societal and future landscape of hunting for the better.