R3 is hotter than pink camouflage these days. R3, which stands for Recruiting, Retention and Reactivation, is the latest marketing scheme intended to reverse the decline in licensed hunters.
I’m all for R3, though I fear I’m too much of a curmudgeon to be particularly good at recruitment myself, at least in person. I do hold out hope my written words describing often feckless exploits afield don’t turn off too many potential converts.
And maybe a few read this column and think, “If that idiot can do it then it clearly isn’t as hard as I thought.”
But what about the end of hunting? Hunter numbers are down, but it’s important to keep this dip in context. A recent story in The New York Times frets about the declining numbers, pointing out that “only about 5 percent of Americans 16 or older hunt, half of the number who did 50 years ago.”
That’s terrible, right? Five percent. We’re a vanishing breed.
I’m not so sure. The same story reports that according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service national compilation of license holders, the number of hunters peaked in 1982, when 16.7 million Americans purchased a hunting license. The survey dates back to 1958, when there was 14.1 million license holders.
In the last 50 years, however, the percentage of hunters as part of the overall population has been cut in half. The decline must be dramatic.
Not exactly. In 2018 the number was 15.6 million. And it has been ticking up slightly the last few years. If you charted out the numbers all the way back to 1958 you’d have a pretty static data set.
It’s not just the “liberal” Times that has pitched the “dramatic percentage-decline” trope. I hear it all the time from the hunting community. R3 didn’t emerge out of the ether after all. And I don’t mean to understate the importance of hunters declining from 10 to 5 percent of the general population. But that doesn’t mean hunting is withering on the vine.
The tale those license numbers tell is one most of us already know. America is an increasingly urban nation. The growth is either in coastal cities, or in the cities of “fly over” country. It’s not a big secret in Montana, where once flourishing Class C high schools now create co-ops with two or three other schools just to field a six-man football team.
Montana high school growth is in the cities: Glacier, and the new school in Bozeman.
It’s inevitable that hunters will be a smaller percentage of the population as America continues to transform itself from rural to urban. That doesn’t mean hunters are a vanishing breed, however. I wish I had my favorite public land hunting spots all to myself.
Still, R3, and other efforts to maintain or increase the number of hunters, is important.
To be successful future recruiters we may need to recalibrate our approach. Old white guy hunters like me will eventually make the journey to the great hunting grounds in the sky (not soon, hopefully). The next generation of hunters and anglers — millennials — look at hunting and fishing through a different lens.
The same Times story that fixated on the 5 percent figure also told the story of a young couple of thirtysomethings who met while working at a restaurant. They were drawn to hunting as a way to get sustainable, healthy protein to satisfy their gourmet tastes. This new generation is less interested in the pursuit of horns and bag limits and the latest in camo fashion, and instead just wants to eat well. For a new generation of millennial hunters this seems to be the trend. It’s a field-to-table movement.
This, hunters have long understood. A new generation is now finding its own path to that same conclusion.
Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.