By Chris Lamphere
There will never be another generation like the Baby Boomers, whose unparalleled interest in the outdoors sustained a golden age of wildlife management and conservation.
That age is slowly coming to an end as Baby Boomers grow older and become less active in the woods, on lakes and on streams.
Experts don’t think funding will ever return to where it was a decade or two ago, but it could be stabilized before too much damage is done.
The question is how.
Scope of the problem
Conservation is funded in Michigan primarily through license sales and allocations of excise tax revenue by the federal government.
Nick Green, public information officer with the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, said license sales in Michigan have been dropping by 2 to 3 percent per year for years and excise taxes also appear to be following suit or staying static.
The Dingell-Johnson Act apportions money based on an excise tax on fishing gear, and it has remained relatively consistent, typically fluctuating between $10 and $13 million a year in Michigan over the last decade. The Pittman-Robertson Act — which apportions tax money based on firearms and ammunition sales — is another story entirely: the amount of funding provided to Michigan has dropped from $22.2 million per year in 2015 to $16.1 million in 2019, a decrease of 27 percent.
Figuring out how to bring more people into hunting and fishing remains a bit of a mystery, but the cause of the decline is relatively well understood, albeit grim.
“A myriad of social, cultural, and economic changes throughout the 20th century typically earn the brunt of the blame – urbanization, population aging, increasing time demands from work and family, new competing activities, complicated hunting policies, land conversion (development) and the perception of fewer animals have all contributed to patterns of decline,” reads a research paper published a few years ago by the DNR in collaboration with Michigan Technological University. “Given the demographic patterns, even with highly successful recruitment and retention efforts, the number of hunters is likely to decline during the next 20 years.”
“It’s a cultural change in what people do with their recreational time,” said Russ Mason, Wildlife Division chief for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
“This isn’t just Michigan. (Hunting is) tending to decline across the country. After World War II, there was a huge increase in hunters. They had a shared language, values and activities. It wasn’t just a hobby for them.”
Today’s generation doesn’t have those same values, Mason said, which is one of the big reasons he thinks getting people involved in hunting is so tough.
“It’s a cultural phenomenon,” he said. “One event can’t change a culture.”
What are the ramifications?
Mason said explaining the effect this problem could have on a given person’s day-to-day routine is somewhat abstract, but it boils down to a simple question: How do you put a value on quality of life?
“The diversity and richness of wildlife would go away without competent natural resources management,” Mason said. “It’s difficult to convey the urgency of it.”
Mason fears wildlife conservation could become like Michigan’s roads: falling apart from years of inadequate funding, eventually forcing state officials to discuss emergency measures to fix them.
As funds go away, so will the ability to properly manage habitats and wildlife species, including those that are endangered. Water bodies could become overrun with destructive invasive creatures such as lamprey and carp, and ailments like chronic wasting disease and tuberculosis could run rampant in Michigan’s deer population.
“If Michigan is going to be a destination — it has to have these natural resources,” Mason said. “All other industries are an accident of our abundant natural resources.”
DNR Director Daniel Eichinger agrees that conservation funding is essential, but the thing that keeps him up at night is the apparent disappearance of outdoorsmen.
“This is a mission business,” Eichinger said. “It doesn’t really matter how much money you have. It’s always been a partnership between us and (hunters and anglers). They’re the ones who gave rise to the conservation movement in the first place. They’re the keepers of the fire, the ones who put their shoulder to the wheel. We would have no idea how to go about it without them.”
Returning to the woods
Living in San Francisco, California, Alex Schaffer saw firsthand the negative impact people can have on wild areas.
“I never experienced that kind of sprawl before,” said Schaffer, a 32-year-old software engineer who was raised in Pennsylvania. “It takes an hour and a half of driving before you’re not surrounded by buildings (in San Francisco). Once buildings go up, nature’s not coming back.”
Although he grew up in a hunting family, Schaffer lost interest in the activity during high school, preferring instead to spend his time playing video games and sports.
After moving to California, Schaffer started going hiking as a way to escape the tedium of being indoors constantly.
Alex Schaffer, of Dexter, displays his first harvested turkey. Schaffer is an adult-onset hunter who, after moving to Michigan, decided to locally source his protein.
In the San Francisco Bay area where he hiked, Schaffer said the signs of human use were abundant and intrusive, including carvings on trees, makeshift rock cairns and litter.
Schaffer described what he saw as “actively thoughtless,” and one of the reasons he decided to rekindle his interest in hunting.
Today, Schaffer lives in Dexter, Michigan and is active in many different forms of hunting, including deer and small game.
As his interest in hunting progressed, Schaffer said he began to pay more attention to philosophies that espoused a more introspective approach to taking game, along with emphasizing the vital role of hunting in conservation.
Contrary to some opinions, Schaffer said he doesn’t think Millennials such as himself are less interested than previous generations in wildlife conservation.
It’s just that there are so many other interests competing for only so many hours in the day, Schaffer said. Compound that with the ability to find others online with the same interest, and people can quickly become siloed from other endeavors.
Finding a mentor willing to spend significant amounts of time in the field with a new hunter can also be a barrier for many, Schaffer said.
Approaching a solution
Schaffer is an example of someone who was enticed back into the world of hunting after a long hiatus — a success story for those who are trying to figure out how to create more outdoorsmen and women.
Eichinger said as the enormous Baby Boomer cohort ages out, he believes the number of hunters and anglers will “reset to a historical norm.”
Although he doesn’t believe there is one single way to bring more people into the fold, he said it will be important to build connections with people and communities that don’t already have a relationship with the outdoors or the hunting and fishing culture.
“We need to create bridges for those folks,” Eichinger said. “To be present in those areas we haven’t been present.”
Places like the Outdoor Adventure Center in downtown Detroit bring the sights, sounds and smells of Northern Michigan to inner-city residents.
“It introduces folks to this universe,” Eichinger said. “It’s proven to work.”
While successful in some ways, a limitation of immersive experiences is that they are difficult and expensive to scale, Eichinger said.
Visitors to the Outdoor Adventure Center (OAC) in downtown Detroit can learn about Michigan’s natural resources through hands-on activities. The OAC introduces urban and suburban residents to all that Michigan’s natural resources offer without driving long distances to find wild places. Instilling a conservation ethic in those not so closely tied to the outdoor world is vital for the future of conservation.
Shaun McKeon, education director with MUCC, said figuring out a way to expand these types of programs for adults between the ages of 24 and 45 has been one of his primary goals.
McKeon said they know that one-day hunting events don’t seem to lead to meaningful retention; week-long events, on the other hand, have been shown to be much more effective.
“It isn’t harvest success that matters as much as building a sense of community,” McKeon said. “They feel like they’re wanted and engaged. This contributes to participants rating the experience better and builds momentum to join another event.”
To increase the availability of these types of opportunities, McKeon is working with a number of conservation organizations.
They include the DNR, MUCC, Michigan Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, National Wild Turkey Federation, Pheasants Forever, Quality Deer Management Association and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.
The goal is to pool resources in order to equip a fleet of trucks with stockpiles of hunting gear than can be easily transported from one place to another.
“We want to multiply success across the state,” McKeon said. “To create a snowball effect.”
MUCC Executive Director Amy Trotter said getting people to transition from one hunting or fishing event to another is called “stringing the pearls” and is integral to improving participation and cultivating lifelong outdoorsmen and women.
An example of this is the Gourmet Gone Wild program, which paired locally-harvested meals with craft beer and wine, creating a one-of-a-kind experience aimed at marketing to the growing locavore movement. This program dovetailed into hunting events, establishing a connection between the meal and the food source, Trotter said.
Another program that aims to reach out to the “missed generation” is the new Michigan Pheasant Hunting Initiative, which will release pen-raised pheasants on public lands later this year, with the ultimate intention of collecting data on how to improve R3 efforts — which stands for recruitment, retention and reactivation of hunters.
Fully capitalizing on these efforts remains a challenge, however, because funding doesn’t exist at the state level to pay someone to act as an overseer and marketing coordinator, Trotter said.
“The question would be: what would be the return on that investment,” Trotter said.
MUCC members have suggested ideas to bring in more revenue, including offering youth hunt discounts, although Trotter points out that this would have to be covered by some other source of funding in the meantime.
A potentially large source of new funding could come from the federal Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which proposes to allocate money to states to cover the costs of managing species in greatest need of assistance, although this is still being considered by the Legislature at this time.
If conservation funding continues to decline, Trotter said cuts inevitably will have to be made somewhere, and MUCC wants to have conversations with its members regarding where those cuts would do the least amount of damage.
Of course, they also want to continue discussing how to turn the tide and stabilize hunting and fishing numbers.
To provide feedback on this issue, Trotter said to contact McKeon at email@example.com.