Hunting and fishing in America – and by extension the nation’s system of sustaining wildlife and fish – are in trouble, right now.
And unless something changes, even darker days are ahead.
A new, just-released report titled “The Future of Hunting and Fishing” reveals that participation in those sports is declining, especially in relation to the overall population. It was done by Chase and Chase Consulting, a firm specializing in outdoor issues, for the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports.
It looked at license sales trends in 26 states across the country. They account for 56.3 percent of all hunting and fishing licenses sold nationally.
They are representative of the nation as a whole, though, the study authors write.
And the news isn’t good.
In 1991, the report points out, 40 million Americans hunted or fished. In 2017, 39.6 million did.
That decrease of just 400,000 people might seem minimal on the surface.
But the report points out that America’s population grew by 76 million people – a 30 percent increase in total numbers – over that same time.
The result is that, by 2016, only about 1.2 percent of Americans hunted, 8.6 percent fished and 2.4 percent did both.
That has serious implications for wildlife and people, the report says.
First, there’s the money issue.
Fish and wildlife management in the United States is funded by what’s known as the North American Model. It says fish and wildlife belong to all the people.
But only hunters and anglers – through license sales and excise taxes collected on the sale of hunting and fishing equipment – pay for its upkeep.
That user pay system is “the envy of the world,” the report says.
But, “the financial virility, and therefore the effectiveness of the model, will deteriorate should participation in hunting and fishing wane.”
Then there’s societal influence.
According to the report, in 1991 about one in 6.1 Americans hunted or fished. In 2016 it was one in 8.2.
If that trend continues, the report says there will be a “weaker connection between the people of the United States and the land.”
“Unfortunately, this will lead to a loss of the hunting and fishing heritage upon which this country grew,” it says.
State fish and wildlife agencies are aware of those trends in general, the report states. They’ve been working on what’s known as R3 strategies – for recruiting, retaining and re-activating sportsmen and women – for a while.
But they’re losing ground and they don’t have a lot of time left to figure things out.
That’s in large part because of who is hunting and fishing and who isn’t.
One thing the report found, for example, is that neither age nor “life stage” dictate hunting and fishing.
Typically, many believed youngsters hunt and fish in fairly big numbers, then drop out of the sports between ages 18 to 27 as they go to school, got jobs and started families. Many return in their mid-30s and stay through their 70s.
“This conjecture gave rise to the assumption that Gen X and Millennials would eventually replace the Silent and Baby Boomer generations in license purchases,” the report says.
License sales trends show that’s not true.
“Cohort effects” – meaning the generation a person was born in – play a much larger role in whether people hunt or fish, it says.
Individuals born between 1960 and 1980, for example, are much more likely to hunt and fish than succeeding generations.
“Millennials in particular are not adopting hunting and angling into their outdoor recreation repertoire at rates that can sustain conservation,” the report says.
That’s noteworthy because those hunters and anglers born between 1960 and 1980 won’t be around forever. Generally, people quit hunting around age 70, as the physical demands of the sport become too great. They drop out of fishing a half decade later.
That generation – and its money – will be departing sooner rather than later.
“Reductions in conservation revenue may begin as early as 2024, and by 2032 state wildlife agencies and other conservation organizations may face great challenges in revenue shortages, loss of political capital and shrinking social relevancy,” the report says.
That brings up the greatest challenge of all, perhaps.
Traditionally, some hunters and anglers closely guard their control over fish and wildlife management. They pay the freight, they argue, so they get to make the decisions.
Those days are fast coming to an end, the report – labeling itself “a call to action” — predicts.
“Ultimately, funding conservation efforts on the backs of hunters, anglers and shooters is not just or tenable,” it concludes. “The conservation community will need to prepare to broaden their funding base.”
Some of that is already happening. A few states have sought general tax revenue. Legislation like the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act – which would put energy development taxes from federal lands toward fish and wildlife – is in the works.
That must continue, the report warns.
“These efforts to bolster conservation revenue, as well as efforts to understand current primary customers, are intended to safeguard wildlife well into the future,” the report states.
Changing the future of hunting and fishing
If hunting and fishing, and by extensions wildlife and fish management, are to survive, changes must be made, the “Future of Hunting and Fishing” report suggests.
Steps it says fish and wildlife agencies must take include:
- Simplifying regulations. In many states, the rules “are complex and confusing to a newcomer to hunting and angling.” Agencies must make things easier to understand.
- Evaluating R3 activities. Efforts to create hunters and anglers must be rigorously measured to see which work, so that resources can be directed there. Only those that impact long-term behavior should continue.
- Researching demand. Agencies need to figure out not only who is hunting and fishing, but who isn’t. They then need to work to remove barriers and increase motivations.
- Benefiting from seniors. Senior citizens hunt and fish in larger proportions than other age groups. Yet they often pay less to participate courtesy of discounted licenses. States may need to phase out those discounts or at least reduce them. Simultaneously, they must engage seniors to become vocal political advocates for conservation, even after they’re unable to participate due to age.
- Focusing on the next generation. People in their late 30s are prime for recruitment into hunting and angling because they have vacation time, disposable income and still some “latent” interest in the sports. Involving them will also lead to their families participating.
- Creating “scalable” R3 models. Wildlife agency-run recruitment programs are limited by staff time. Agencies need to figure out how to incentivize existing sportsmen and women to recruit and train future hunters and anglers.
- Focusing on small game. Organized, mentored big game hunts are popular. But new hunters have trouble recreating that level of success when then sent out on their own. Small game hunting, by comparison, is easier, able to be done in longer seasons, and allows for more than one opportunity to harvest game.
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