I’m not a doom and gloom kind of person – the glass is most definitely half-full, however, in order to fix this issue at hand we are going to have to be very proactive. So, what’s the big deal if hunter numbers decline? In short, fewer hunters means less funding. The wildlife conservation system in the United States, and the state wildlife agencies that are responsible for managing land and wildlife across the country, are largely dependent upon outdoorsmen and women for funding of their programs. The money we as outdoorsmen and women spend when purchasing licenses, tags, gear, as well as the taxes from guns and ammunition and fishing equipment, make up a hefty 60% of state wildlife agency funding. So, with decreases in hunting and fishing participation there will most certainly be a decline in funding for wildlife management agencies, as well, that are already strapped for cash.
The decline in hunter participation is multifaceted, so let’s unpack this problem a bit. The biggest aggravating factor is the loss of baby boomers. Nearly 1/3 of all hunters in the U.S. are baby boomers but many of them are leaving the field due to health or physical limitations. Without youth or new hunters to replace every baby boomer we lose, hunter participation takes a big hit. There are other factors in play like people leaving rural areas for the cities, accessibility to huntable land, a 24/7 work cycle with limited down time and the rise of television and electronics. In addition, very verbose anti-hunters are always at the forefront painting hunters as savage, murderous monsters which doesn't help with our image or hunter recruitment. Furthermore, hunters themselves have been responsible for some of the decline by making hunting appear as if it’s just for the elites. And yet another cause is the absence of kids and youth in the outdoors. Let’s take a closer look at a couple of these.
In a time where all hunters should be rallying together to support one another in our individual pursuits, instead we are often times divided. This creates an environment of intense scrutiny and the feeling, among some, that hunting is just for the elites. If you don’t own or have access to 100+ acres with pristine food plots you must not be a real hunter. If you can’t run 16 miles, bench press 150 pounds, do 82 squats and follow that all up with 200 burpees – then you must not be in good enough shape to even walk through the woods. If you say that you’re a meat hunter, then you must be a closet trophy hunter, because there is no way that could be true. If you are happy with a doe, cow, small buck, spike elk, etc – then you must be one of those hunters willing to shoot anything they see instead of placing value on hunting just the largest and most mature animals. On the other hand, if you do shoot an amazing buck, then you must have hunted a high fence ranch. The examples could go on and on. We are our own worst enemy. Instead of cheering other hunters on, we have arrived at a place where instead we pass judgement on anyone and everyone. That creates a hostile environment that isn’t welcoming and, in many cases, sets unrealistic standards, especially for beginners. That’s not the kind of environment that feels welcoming, supporting and inspires others to get out and try. That’s not the kind of environment that is good for hunter recruitment and retention. I am an advocate of everyone getting outdoors and recreating the way they want to, as long as it is legal. Fill your tag(s) with the animal you choose and be proud of it, regardless of size. Place value on the hunt itself, being outdoors, the memories made, the companionship with your hunting partners and the meals you get to enjoy as a result of your labor. In short, make hunting fun again!
The other big aspect to the hunter decline issue is kids. Getting today's youth involved in the outdoors could be the key to curbing and reversing this problem we're facing. I am a tireless advocate of getting kids off the couch, taking away their devices, getting them outdoors, taking them hunting, bringing them along when you go fishing - whatever it is that you're doing outdoors, just include them. At no time in history have kids spent less time outdoors than they do today. Statistics tell us that kids spend an average of 7 hours each day in front of the computer, TV and other devices – but less than 4 minutes, each day, in unstructured outdoor play. What! That's crazy, y'all! With 7 hours per day in front of a screen, they might as well be sitting in a cubicle at work, at least then they'd be earning a pay check for their 40+ hours of sedentary time in front of their device. So, how do we go about bolstering the number of youth hunters in the outdoors in order to start filling the void that the baby boomers are leaving? The first, and maybe most important step, is just getting kids outside at all. Go for a bike ride, a walk, take them to the park, let them play in the sandbox, etc. If they never grow to enjoy being outside, it's going to be awfully difficult to convince them that hunting and fishing are fun. The more they are outdoors, the better they will be able to handle and appreciate the elements: the heat, cold, wind, rain, bugs, humidity, etc. Next, you need to give them opportunities. Kids are hands on learners and can pick up skills quicker than you'd expect or give them credit for. Take them along on your next hunting or fishing trip but go into it with the understanding that this is a learning experience for them and not all about you. They don’t want to just sit and watch you, they want to actively take part, and they need to be given the opportunity if you want them to take an interest. While you can’t force your kids to like something, the more they are exposed to the outdoor lifestyle, the more likely they are to adopt it and make it part of their lives as they grow into adults. I have four kids and I'm not just passionate about getting them outdoors because I think it's a much healthier lifestyle, but also because I know that my kids are part of that crucial next generation of carrying the torch for this lifestyle. (Pictured above and to the side here is my crew.)
While saving the environment seems like a popular and noble cause that celebrities, politicians, activists and more all preach – the truth is that we as hunters, anglers and outdoorsmen and women are picking up a disproportionate amount of the tab for real and meaningful conservation efforts and funding. With that responsibility sitting on our shoulders, it is important that we find ways to retain older hunters, recruit new hunters of every age, expose kids to the outdoor lifestyle at an early age, be better mentors, use every opportunity we have to positively change the way non-hunters or anti-hunters view our lifestyle, and put an emphasis on the importance of conservation. In short, we’re all in this together and we need to work in sync to actively come up with a solution and reverse this incoming crisis.
As I said before, I’m not a doom and gloom kind of person. Even with all the troubling statistics, I know that we as outdoorsmen and women can rally together to do amazing things for a lifestyle we love and cherish. We can come together for the benefit of habitat and wildlife across this incredible country. If we don’t, who will?
What are your thoughts on this subject? Let me know.
Hugs, Handshakes, and Hunter Participation