Hunter numbers have fallen nationally, but the sport remains a popular pastime — and lucrative business — in Montana.
Signs of a busy hunting season are visible inside Kalispell’s Snappy Sports Senter: customers peruse aisles of everything camouflage, socks to stocking caps; guns; ammunition; and, yes, even cow elk urine for that special hunter bath.
Deer and elk season opened for archers Sept. 1, beginning the busiest hunting retail season of the year for local suppliers. The deer and elk season for select backcountry hunting districts begins Sept. 15 and the general season opens Oct. 21.
“We haven’t seen a drop (in hunters) here, in fact, our hunting sports business and license sales are actually growing,” Dave Toelke, Snappy’s general manager, said.
Hunting sales are profitable, both for businesses like Snappy’s and the state: hunting expenditures in 2006 totaled more than $315 million in Montana, according to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. Toelke said shooting sports, including equipment and firearms, account for at least 30 percent of Snappy’s business — a significant part of the revenue that has helped get the local business to its 60th anniversary, which it will celebrate this fall.
According to the latest version of a national survey the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts every five years, the number of hunters 16 and older declined by 10 percent between 1996 and 2006 — from 14 million to about 12.5 million. New England, the Rocky Mountains and Pacific states saw the biggest drop, losing more than 400,000 hunters through the decade.
But hunting numbers in Montana have remained strong: 19 percent of the state’s residents 16 and older hunted last year, the highest percentage of hunters in any state. Experts say the primary reasons for the national decrease revolve around the loss of hunting lands to urbanization and a perception by many that they can’t afford the time or costs that hunting entails.
Rural environments have indeed remained hunting havens: North Dakota follows Montana with 17 percent of residents 16 and older hunting last year and 15 percent hunted in South Dakota and Wisconsin.
Joe Power, sporting goods manager at the Sportsman and Ski Haus, said hunting business picks up in July and remains high through opening day and the subsequent fall months.
“For the past five or six years we have been trending up in those sales,” he said. “We haven’t even had a year that remained steady or a slight drop, it’s just been going up and up.”
Power said the store has already seen a jump in sales this year, after moving into its new location just off of U.S. Highway 93 near Target. The new store has an expanded hunting section and more hands-on sales approach, Power said.
Toelke is not surprised Montana is bucking the national trend, crediting the abundance of outdoor recreation opportunities in the state that attracts hunting-minded individuals.
“I think it’s the result of more and more people moving into the area who are coming here for that type of recreation,” he said. “It’s the type of environment where people want that freedom; they want to be able to go out and shoot a gun, be able to hunt and teach their kids to hunt.”
Children’s programs that encourage young hunters, like free first-year licenses and the opportunity to shoot either sex of elk, helps generate interest in younger generations, Power said.
Toelke said hunting is often a generational sport: several generations of one family make for loyal repeat customers. Toelke himself learned to hunt from his father and his son Tucker, 13, is in his second year of hunting with his father.
Snappy salesman Sean Albrite, who’s grandfather taught him how to handle his first hunting rifle when he was a young teen, said it’s not uncommon to “see two older gentlemen in here, father and son, still BS’ing over what type of rifle to buy.”
“It’s just a very important part of who we are here,” Toelke said. “We’re known as a hunting and fishing state.”
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