Survey: Fishing, Wildlife-Watching Participation Up Across the U.S., Hunting Numbers Down

New report sheds light on changing habits of Americans’ outdoor recreation pursuits

By Dillon Tabish
An angler plays a fish on a fly rod. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Americans have more options than ever before when it comes to exploring and experiencing wild places and wildlife. National parks across the country have attracted record crowds in recent years, and the ever-evolving opportunities of outdoor recreation, from mountain biking to paddleboarding, are expanding beyond the traditional norms, such as hunting and fishing.

A new study shows that 101.6 million Americans — 40 percent of the U.S. population 16 years and older — participated in wildlife-related outdoors activities last year. That number is slightly below historical figures; in 1991, an estimated 108.7 million people participated in some form of wildlife-related activity, according to previous studies.

Compared to recent years, more people are participating in wildlife watching and fishing, according to the report, which was released by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Yet one glaring point stands out in the latest data — hunter participation is declining. Hunting participation across the U.S. dropped by about 2 million participants between 2011 and 2016, according to the report. There were 11.5 million hunters in 2016.

The information is part of a survey conducted every five years dating back to 1955. A final report analyzing the data will be released this winter and could shed light on how participation is changing across the country. Outdoor recreation has expanded beyond the traditional fields of hunting and fishing, and technology has been cited as another barrier to youth participation.

“The outdoor recreation economy is booming, especially in the West,” Jim Williams, regional supervisor with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said. “And it’s becoming one of the most significant local contributors to the economy. That’s a big deal. There’s now mountain running, mountain biking, climbing, kayaking, all sorts of sports, you name it.”

More than 35.8 million Americans went fishing in 2016 and 86 million watched wildlife. The latest USFWS survey shows that total expenditures by hunters declined 29 percent between 2011 and 2016, from $36.3 billion to $25.6 billion. However, expenditures for related items such as taxidermy and camping equipment experienced a 27 percent uptick, and hunting trip-related expenses increased 15 percent, according to the report.

The decrease in hunter participation is raising red flags for the conservation and management of wildlife, which are largely supported by sportsmen through excise taxes.

“No one does more for our wildlife and or wild places than hunters,” stated David Allen, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation president and CEO. “Any decline in hunting numbers, real or perceived, is of great concern since hunting provides the lion’s share of funding for nationwide conservation work thanks to excise taxes on firearms, ammunition and archery equipment that garner more than $1.6 billion annually.”

Williams said public access and habitat conservation drive a lot of the success of outdoor recreation and participation.

“People want to enjoy places where habitat is conserved and access is provided,” he said. “Montana has been very big on providing access.”

Williams said the popularity of fishing access sites is a prime example. During summer, it can be hard to find a quiet place to fish across Northwest Montana due to the popularity of angling.

“We can’t meet all the demand in the summer,” he said.

State parks are similarly brimming with campers, hikers and wildlife watchers, or mountain bikers, hikers and paddlers, according to Williams.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, a Whitefish native, said in a statement that the latest data reaffirms the importance of increasing public access to public lands across the U.S.

“Hunting and fishing are a part of the American heritage. As a kid who grew up hunting and fishing on public lands who later took my own kids out on the same land, I know how important it is to expand access for future generations,” he stated. “Many folks east of the Mississippi River rely on friends with large acreages or pay high rates for hunting and fishing clubs. This makes access to wildlife refuges and other public lands more important.”