Reversing the Decline

With hunter numbers down, I’m concerned about funding for wildlife conservation

By Rob Breeding

The number of hunters is in decline. That’s a fact we all can agree on.

What this means for the future of hunting and wildlife conservation in the United States, however, is more complicated.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service studies put the number of hunters at about 11.5 million. That number declined by 2 million from 2011 to 2016. Hunters in the U.S. peaked at 17 million in 1982, according to a short video called “How to Save Hunting,” produced by Outdoor Life magazine. The video is available on Outdoor Life’s Facebook page.

Since this decline coincided with an increase in the overall U.S. population, the percentage of hunters in the country has declined even faster. Hunters now represent 4 percent of the U.S. population.

This matters in a couple of ways. Obviously, as your group shrinks, your political clout will decline as well. That’s important, but I don’t think it’s the most urgent aspect of the decline. While anti-hunting groups continue to provide a noisy presence on the political fringe, I think the vast middle — hunters and non-hunters alike — supports ethical, ecologically sustainable hunting. So long as we continue to follow the North American Model of Wildlife Management, I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Still, I’m concerned about funding for wildlife conservation. State agencies, such as Fish, Wildlife and Parks here in Montana, are responsible for much of our on-the-ground wildlife conservation work. And those state agencies rely on a couple of funding sources: hunting and fishing license sales and excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment.

The excise taxes seem pretty stable for now. The number of anglers is steady, and while there may be fewer hunters, guns sales remain strong. The good news for conservation is that the 11 percent excise tax on firearms and ammunition — which goes to the Interior Secretary for dispersal back to the states rather than the U.S. Treasury, where it would likely be wasted on something other than wildlife conservation — is collected even if those sales are for firearms such as the popular AR-15, an unlikely choice for hunting.

But if folks stop buying hunting licenses, it will have a big impact on the state agencies managing our wildlife resources.

We have a pretty good idea why fewer people are hunting. The U.S. is becoming more urban, even here in Montana. Consider Treasure State high school sports. In Class AA, Kalispell added a high school in the last decade, and Bozeman is about to do the same. But in the Class C ranks, high schools are increasingly forced to create co-ops with other schools to form football teams, and many still have to drop from eight-man to six-man to remain viable.

Urban folk don’t hunt as much as rural folk do. That’s true even in rural-urban cities such as Kalispell and Bozeman.

The growing U.S. population is also getting more diverse. Hunters, however, are about 90 percent white and 70 percent male. Now, I’m a proud member of the white male hunters club, but I also think increasing our diversity will help sustain hunting.

We need to be come better recruiters, and we should not underestimate what a tough job this will be. The Outdoor Life video suggests proper recruitment of a new hunter requires a two to four-year mentorship. That means introducing someone to the sport, teaching them hunting/firearms safety, teaching them about wildlife conservation, and, finally, showing them how to find and kill game.

By comparison, teaching someone to fly fish is about as difficult as helping them learn to enjoy ice cream.

Mentorship is a big obligation, but becoming an ethical conservationist hunter isn’t a commitment one takes lightly. Expanding our ranks is an obligation to the future of hunting.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com, which covers outdoor news in Montana.