With over 15 million people buying some sort of license in a given year, hunting is one of North America’s most popular outdoors pursuits. Billions of dollars are spent on hunting annually, helping to support a great number of communities and households.
Recreational hunting also is a key wildlife management tool used to maintain healthy, balanced wildlife populations.
But there are valid concerns about the future. What can we do to ensure hunting remains as popular going forward as it has been in the past? This isn’t just a question for the hunting community.
You’ll hear similar questions in regard to golf, surfing, tennis and skateboarding, among other leisure activities conducted outdoors.
At 19 years of age, I’m part of the new generation of hunters. I started at the age of five in my home state of Illinois, and in the 14 years since then I’ve developed a deep appreciation for hunting and the many lessons it’s taught me.
So I share many older hunters’ concerns about the future of hunting. We should want to involve as many people as possible: family, friends, neighbors and coworkers, whether men, women or children.
Of course, to get more people hunting, we need to know what’s kept them from becoming hunters already. But first, let’s examine statistics to see the extent of the problem facing us.
IDENTIFYING THE PROBLEM
The overall human population keeps growing rapidly, but hunter numbers haven’t kept pace with that surge. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, 50 years ago there were 14,506,790 certified paid hunting license holders in the nation.
That number represented 7.3 percent of the total U.S. population. Thirty years later, participation had fallen to 5.6 percent; a decade after that, it was at 4.9 percent. Today, only 4.6 percent of Americans are paid license holders.
“The most recent (2014) certified hunting license sales data from USFWS shows 15.4 million hunting licenses sold,” notes Jim Curcuruto, director of research and analysis for the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF). “Although this is up 3.7 percent over 2013, hunting license sales have remained flat over the past 20 years and are not keeping up with population growth.”
While it’s hard to find a collective database of hunting licenses sold in Canada, it’s widely believed this problem exists there, too. And, as in the U.S., there are groups working on it. Alberta-based Hunting for Tomorrow is one of them.
Its mission statement is straightforward: “to increase the level of public understanding, involvement and support of hunting. We will increase opportunities for every Albertan to hunt within a management system that conserves the wildlife resource.”
As an avid hunter, I feel our personal mission statement should be similar to this. We must strive to keep what we love going and growing in our own parts of North America.
BEHIND THE NUMBERS
So why haven’t hunter numbers increased in step with the overall population? There’s no single reason, but a few are often cited.
“Several factors, including the population shift from rural to urban living and loss of habitat, are some reasons for the long-term trends in lower hunter numbers,” Curcuruto states. “Also, it is hard to get started if you have never been before or do not have an experienced hunter to show you the ropes. And once someone goes hunting the first time without proper guidance, they may not have the best experience. This may discourage them from going again. This is why it is so important to help other hunters get started the right way.”
Nick Pinizzotto, president and CEO of the National Deer Alliance, feels complacency also is an issue.
“Perhaps we took it for granted that we’d always have hunting and hunters,” he explains. “To me, when the sport was peaking we should have been marketing the hardest. The world’s iconic brands — Apple, Coke, Pepsi, McDonald’s, etc. — never stop marketing. We need to start marketing hunting to everyone, and not just people we’re hoping to recruit as a new hunter. Because we’ve been lax, we now find ourselves in a position of defending our sport, and that’s a tough spot to recruit from.”
A PLACE TO HUNT
Access to suitable land is a problem for would-be hunters, just as it is for some longtime participants. As a growing human population carves up more wildlife habitat, landless would-be hunters find themselves with fewer options than once existed.
As a member of the new generation of hunters, I appreciate being able to use my smartphone as a tool in the woods. One of the best ways is via a handy, free app from Powderhook (powderhook.com). It lets hunters help each other out by sharing information about public land.
The app’s features include detailed maps. You also can communicate anonymously with other hunters near you and tag posts as questions to receive answers from other members.
According to Powderhook co-founder and CEO Eric Dinger, “You’re going to find up to 700,000 places to hunt and fish nationwide in all 50 states. What’s cool about that is no matter where you live in the U.S., you’re going to be within 50 to 75 miles of a place you can hunt and you can find via the app.”
THE R3 PLAN
To increase the number of hunters will take work in three areas. First, we need to recruit people who’ve never participated. Second, we need to retain current participants. And finally, we need to re-engage those who once hunted but no longer do.
Collectively, these groups of people are the focus of what the hunting and shooting industries call the “R3” plan. Developed in 2010 by a 32-member council of experts, this initiative is aimed at increasing participation on a long-term basis.
“I think we need to stay the course,” says Pinizzotto. “Groups are working hard through the R3 plan to solve the problem, and that’s encouraging. We have to keep pushing in that direction and not get frustrated when we don’t see immediate results.
What can an individual do to help?
“For the hunter not working in the outdoors industry, it’s as simple as inviting a friend or neighbor hunting. Great programs like Families Afield (familesafield.org) have led to apprentice hunting, in which someone can try it before deciding to take a hunter education course and buy a license,” Pinizzotto notes.
“Also, there’s no substitute for mentoring, whether it’s to a child or adult,” he stresses. “It’s a lot harder to start from scratch without help. So the more we (hunters) make ourselves available to potential new hunters, the better off the sport will be.”
Curcuruto has a similar view. “One of the better ways to get more hunters involved is through mentoring,” he notes. “More than 35 states have some form of mentor license through Families Afield.”
Dinger offers another angle on this issue, and it’s one that plays into the motivation many non-hunters have to get involved in various outdoor activities: social interaction.
“We’ve long focused on getting kids outdoors, and that’s meaningful, important work,” he says. “But research is telling us we need to focus on getting groups of people out together, whether that’s a group of friends or a family unit. I believe strongly our industry needs to become more open, more diverse and more willing to adapt to the world as it changes around us, from a cultural, technological and political perspective.”
It’s easy to be down about the broad trends in hunting participation. But not everyone is pessimistic.
“I’m not as discouraged by the number of hunters as some are,” Curcuruto says, “because I think we’re in a time of transition. We just didn’t do a good job as a hunting industry of marketing our sport, and I think we’ve learned from it. No doubt we’ve lost hunters based on percent of the total population over the last 50 years, but I think we’re starting to reconnect with people who maybe left the sport, while also getting in front of potential new hunters.
“It’s frustrating, because it takes time to see the fruits of your labor,” Pinizzotto points out. “But with the growing number of women hunters and interest in collecting one’s own food by young people, I’m optimistic about the future.”