I’ll never forget the culture shock that I experienced during my first few weeks of college. As you would expect, moving from a small rural town of 1,200 people to the largest university in the state came with more than a few adjustments. I just never thought that casual conversation during the fall would be one of the most glaring differences. I quickly realized that I was the only one out everyone that lived with who hunted regularly. Sure, there were one or two of them who had been out hunting before, or still made it out one weekend each fall, but it was clear that their interests were elsewhere. My first few conversations about hunting ended with the other party asking some variation of, “Is there anything else to do in your hometown?” It didn’t take long to notice that I was the outlier in this pseudo-random sample of my peers.
The fact is that hunter numbers are on the decline, plain and simple. A survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicates that only 5% of Americans 16 and older hunt. Half of what it was 50 years ago, and the decline is only expected to accelerate. Now if you’re a hunter reading this, it’s easy to think, “That’s good for me, right? More space and game for me to hunt,” which may be true, but at what cost? Sportsmen dollars make up most of the funding for our state wildlife agencies and our country’s conservation system. Most are surprised to learn that roughly 60% of the funding for state wildlife agencies comes from license fees and taxes on guns, ammunition, and fishing equipment. The equation is a simple one, less sportsmen equals less conservation dollars. While we haven’t quite reached the tipping point, the projections based of the recent decline in hunters say that it’s not far off.
What does this mean for the future of the sport then? It doesn’t mean that state conservation agencies are going anywhere anytime soon, but they may have to look for funding elsewhere if the trend continues. Though hunter numbers have been on the decline, the number of individuals participating in non-revenue generating activities such as bird-watching, hiking, and paddling have been on the rise. As much as state agencies would like to keep these activities free, they may need to tack on fees or licenses to these or other forms of recreation in order to continue managing our state’s natural resources.
As hunters, it’s our job to lead by example. Fall is a great time to introduce someone new to the sport. Mild temperatures and small game seasons make it easy and fun to take someone out for their first hunt. With programs like the Hunter Access Program (HAP), youth hunts, and the apprentice hunter options, it is easier than ever to get someone started. Growing up hunting taught me how to respect nature. It opened my eyes to just how complex this mechanism we refer to as the great outdoors really is. Aldo Leopold said it best when he said, “I am glad I will not be young in a future without wilderness.”