New survey indicates hunter numbers on the decline

While most hunters often complain about too many people afield, a recent national survey indicates the number of hunters is on the decline. (Photo: Richard Simms)

The latest national survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicates a downward trend in the number of hunters in the United States.

According to the survey, in 2016 11.5 million people (16 years old and older) went hunting. That is a 16 percent decrease since the 2011 survey.

That concerns Ed Carter, the Executive Director of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

"Of course it's a concern," he said. "Actually whether they hunt or not, I'm afraid people will forget the importance of wildlife. But of course fewer hunters mean fewer license dollars that we [the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency] depend on for our funding."

Carter is attending the annual meeting of the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies in Utah. AFWA is the professional association that serves as the collective voice of North America's state fish and wildlife agencies.

Carter said there has been much talk at the meeting about the latest survey and R3 programs. R3 stands for "Recruit, Retain, and Reactivate." Several national advocacy groups promoting hunting, shooting and fishing are strongly promoting R3 programs to inspire new participants, keep those who already exist or re-inspire those who may have once participated but stopped for various reasons.

There have been up and down fluctuations in the number of hunters for decades. The same survey from 1991 indicated 14.1 million people hunted in 1991 and the number has routinely bounced up and down.

Relative to the increase in the U.S. population, however, it's clear that a smaller and smaller percentage of people head afield to hunt every fall and winter. According to one report by federal researchers, in 1991 7.5 percent of the national population (16 years of age or older) went hunting. In 2006 that had dropped to 5.5 percent. That's only two percent, but relative to the corresponding increase in population it is actually a 20 percent decrease in participation.

We posed the question of why the number of hunters may be declining on Facebook. Almost across the board the numerous people who responded said the decline is likely due to the lack of available access to hunting land.

Chris Sanders wrote, "It's become a rich man's sport unfortunately. People don't share land with hunters like they used to."

Rebekah Bezio agreed, “I do think that access is difficult and people are not sharing their lands like they used to due to one bad apple spoiling the pot. I know that is the case with us. We used to allow certain people on our 40 acres but one year had a really bad group. Now if you aren't a close family friend that we know and trust it's a 'no go."

"This report absolutely underscores the need to increase public access to public lands across the United States," said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. "Hunting and fishing are a part of the American heritage. 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."

Secretary Zinke has reversed a previous order under the Obama administration that would have banned lead ammo and tackle on National Wildlife Refuge lands. In August, he announced a proposal to expand of hunting and fishing opportunities at 10 national wildlife refuges.

Second to concerns about access to land was probably the high cost of hunting and what David Aborn called, "Nature Deficit Disorder."

"As the world becomes more urbanized and there are more electronic distractions, people are not spending as much time experiencing nature," said Aborn. "The problem will only get worse with each generation, as the deficit feeds on itself."

In spite of the decline in hunter numbers, however, the most recent USFWS survey indicates an increase in the number of fishermen and avid wildlife-watchers.

As one of the most popular outdoor recreational activities in the United States, fishing attracted 35.8 million people (16 years old and older) in 2016. Comparing the 2006 and 2016 survey estimates reveals an increase of 19 percent in the number of anglers from 2011. However there have also been fluctuations over the years. The 1991 survey indicated there were 35.6 million fishermen - still an increase in overall numbers, but a decline relative to the corresponding increase in population.

The greatest gains in outdoor recreation came from "wildlife watching." More than 86 million people (16 years old and older) fed, photographed, and observed wildlife in 2016. The survey defines wildlife watching as participants either taking a “special interest” in wildlife around their homes or taking a trip for the "primary purpose” of wildlife watching. Comparing the 2016 Survey with the two previous surveys shows significant increases from 2006 and 2011, 21% and 20% respectively, in overall wildlife-watching participation.

However since they don't buy hunting & fishing licenses, those users provide very little, if anything, for wildlife conservation efforts.

"No one does more for our wildlife and or wild places than hunters. 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 licenses, excise taxes on firearms, ammunition and archery equipment that garner more than $1.6 every year," said David Allen, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation president and CEO.

John Frampton, President and CEO of the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports said, "Although the numbers of hunters have declined, we are optimistic they will rebound as a result of Secretary Zinke's leadership, state wildlife agencies, non-government organizations, and industries working together. Hunting in this country is not only part of our national heritage, it is an important to our country's economy, as indicated by the expenditures in the survey."

This survey has become one of the most important sources of information on fish and wildlife recreation in the United States. Federal, state, and private organizations use this detailed information to manage wildlife, market products, and look for trends. Conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the survey is based on a 22,416-household sample surveyed through computer-assisted telephone and in-person interviews.

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