There’s mostly good news in the just-released U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Hunting, Fishing and Wildlife-Associated Recreation Survey for 2016.
The numbers are impressive. More than 35.8 million Americans went fishing last year, and 11.5 million hunted. Another 86 million watched wildlife. Those fishing numbers represent 14 percent of Americans 16 years of age or older. Thirty-five percent in all enjoyed watching wildlife.
The one bit of bad news is that hunting numbers are down since the last report, at just 5 percent.
Antis see that as a good thing. For the rest of us — both hunters as well as the vast majority of Americans who don’t hunt, but are otherwise neutral so long as hunting is conducted in an ethical, sustainable fashion — this news should be troubling. Hunting remains one of the primary tools of wildlife management in the North American Model, also known as the best wildlife management system ever devised.
The numbers continue to be depressed, in part by the ongoing urbanization of America. It’s just harder to hunt when you live in a city, or even the suburbs. More than fishing or wildlife watching, hunting requires a major commitment of time, resources and money. Wildlife watching and fishing, on the other hand, are activities you can sometimes enjoy without even leaving the city. Urban lakes draw birds and other wildlife, and are often stocked or sustain wild populations of fish like bass or bluegill.
Hunters, however, need access to vast tracts of land. In Montana, public land is never too far away, but that’s not the case in non-Western states. It can be difficult to find a place to hunt, or expensive if you have to lease ground. And it is harder to properly scout before opening day or find enough time to hunt once the season begins if your hunting grounds are far from home.
Then there’s the cost. Guns, gear, gas — it all adds up. Which brings up another problem with the waning number of hunters: We pay excise taxes on all those firearms and ammo we purchase, and that money is one of the primary sources of revenue for state game and fish operations.
What happens to funding for wildlife management if hunters stop hunting? It could lead to funding shortfalls in the states. Another potential threat to wildlife management funding is the election of Republicans to the White House. When Democrat Barack Obama was elected it led to a run on gun and ammo sales as many feared firearm restrictions would soon follow.
Whether those sales were fueled by paranoia or not matters little as far as wildlife funding is concerned. What does matter is that all those sales resulted in a spike in revenue for wildlife. When Republicans get elected, it just doesn’t seem to generate the same kind of firearm stockpiling.
Since the excise tax was established in the 1930s, it and similar taxes on fishing equipment that came later have generated $19 billion for the Wildlife & Sport Fish Restoration Fund. That’s money we can’t afford to lose.
Efforts to create similar excise taxes on other outdoor equipment have been opposed by manufacturers. It’s an oversimplification to say that wildlife watchers are getting a free ride, but the appearance of inequity fuels some of the conflict between hook-and-bullet outdoor types and so-called non-consumptive users.
I consider myself a card-carrying member of all three outdoor groups, which combined may constitute a majority of Americans. Our strength is in our common interests, not the things we disagree on. In these polarizing times, that’s something wildlife lovers ought not forget.