This article was originally published in the 2020 winter edition of Michigan Out-of-Doors — Michigan’s premium outdoor journal.
By: Charlie Booher
Populations of hunters and anglers are, without question, on the decline. Over the last 20 years, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been invested annually to recruit, retain and reactivate hunters and anglers (collectively, R3). However, very little of that money has been spent to critically assess the programs that are being funded or on finding out whether or not these investments are having any success in creating new hunters or anglers. Concurrently, state fish and wildlife agencies are hemorrhaging funds as hunting and fishing license sales continue on a sharp decline.
For better or for worse, the days of small family farms, dispersed population centers, and decoys and shotguns in high school lockers have largely come to a close. The hunters and anglers who grew up under these conditions are getting older, and today’s kids aren’t being raised in these environments. The world is a vastly different place than it was 50, 25 or even 10 years ago. While many blame the rise of video games and cell phones for kids not spending as much time outside, I’ll add urbanization, firearm laws, lack of access to land, increasing commitments to sports, academics and extracurricular activities to that list.
Today’s Michiganders are more likely to grow up in a suburb and less likely to know a farmer than their parents or grandparents.
Public hunting land is notoriously crowded and intimidating to new hunters. And there is a great deal of pressure on kids (our traditional recruiting demographic) to play a sport, join half a dozen clubs, keep their grades up, have a part-time job and vie for a spot at the college, university or trade school of their choice. Arguably, today’s kids are being pulled in more directions by more people than they have been in recent history. For that matter, adults are too. Research suggests that people today feel that they have less free time than people of similar demographics have reported in the past. Regardless of all this, people aren’t hunting and fishing as much as they used to be, but this decline in hunters and anglers underpins a number of more impactful issues.
In lots of courses on public policy and administration, professors wax poetically about a concept called problem framing—essentially, the way we talk about problems in society, government and nearly anywhere else and the impact that the language of a problem has on the solutions that are developed. To a large extent, people have focused their attention and framed this problem as a decline in hunters. Others see the problem as a lack of access to hunting lands or restrictive firearm laws. Regardless, each of these problems merit different solutions. I would argue that a more suitable problem to try to solve is the one that is really making our leaders in conservation sweat: the drop in hunting license sales.
In the United States, state fish and wildlife agencies are charged with the conservation and management of all wildlife in the state, which are held in a public trust. As I’ve discussed in previous issues of this magazine (see the Back to the Basics series in 2019), all of the wildlife in any given state is owned by the citizens of that particular state and is held in a public trust overseen by the government of that state. The execution of this oversight is often what we call wildlife conservation or wildlife management, and it is typically done by the state fish and wildlife agency (our Michigan Department of Natural Resources). All of this work is paid for by hunters and anglers through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and through grants funded by federal excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, archery tackle, fishing equipment and marine fuels. These federal funds are dispersed to the states based on the number of unique individual license buyers in each state. So, our ability to publicly fund wildlife conservation under the current system is directly threatened by a decline in hunters. That is a problem.
Some have suggested that recruiting, retaining and reactivating hunters and anglers is a viable solution to this crisis. To some extent, I would say that these training programs are a valuable enterprise. Creating new hunters and anglers will maintain a part of our heritage that is important to many of us in the conservation community while also giving the next generation an important set of ethics surrounding wildlife and the broader natural world. Teaching people to hunt or fish also tends to spur important conversations about where our food comes from. However, for all of the benefits of these programs, these programs bear significant costs.
It is extraordinarily expensive, in time and resources, to create a hunter. Time and resources that, for many of us, came from our moms or dads, aunts or uncles and grandparents. Birthday gifts of new equipment and hand-me-down clothes, guns and gear made things at least a little bit easier. Without these things and significant amounts of time hunting with my dad, it is extremely unlikely that I would have started hunting on my own. I pride myself on being a waterfowl hunter, which is (arguably) one of the most intimidating species to begin hunting. The regulations are complicated and often require the ability to identify birds on the wing — a skill that is notoriously difficult to learn even with a great deal of time and mentorship. Much like golf, duck and goose hunting is likely the most gear-intensive hunting pursuit. Decoys, waders, boats, dogs, shotguns and more are all very expensive to buy new. Calls are hard to use, even for experienced hunters and waterfowling almost always takes place on the water, adding another level of potential danger. Plus, it is a wet, stinky, messy pursuit. Wet waders, soaked dogs and bloody feathers can rival any high school locker room — a difficult sell for those who are avid hunters already, not to mention those who are entirely new to experiencing the outdoors in these ways.
R3 programs and workshops seek to fill all of these gaps. Many of them provide kids with opportunities to hunt and mentorship networks to answer important questions. They teach classes on hunting that often include a hands-on curriculum for pursuing, harvesting, butchering and cooking game — skills that hunters used to depend on families or close friends to provide. In many states, these are being sponsored by state wildlife agencies and use hunting and fishing license dollars to pay for it. However, in 20 years of significant investment in R3, hunter numbers are still on a steady decline.
R3 is a clear solution to the decline in hunting and fishing participation, but I would argue that it is not a powerful enough tool to overcome the social, economic and demographic factors that underlie the declines in hunting and fishing. It is certainly not a holistic solution to the decline in hunting and fishing license sales and will not alone bolster funds for conservation or management. When we see wildlife conservation funding as the problem, we come up with drastically different solutions than if we merely see a lack of hunters as a problem. In my mind, the question becomes: will the money spent on R3 ever return to the conservation arena?
To be clear, I am in no way advocating against recruiting, reactivating and retaining hunters and anglers. I am, however, advocating that we rethink the investment of public monies in these programs and critically assess whether or not these funds will pay dividends for conservation.
There are plenty of organizations dedicated to this cause. Pheasants Forever has a robust hunting heritage program, the National Wild Turkey Federation has a significant recruitment effort through their “Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt.” initiative, and the Boone & Crockett Club has built a curriculum surrounding hunting for sustainability. MUCC participates in a variety of these programs and supports them through member-clubs. Many are reporting some success in recruiting adult-onset hunters, often citing their care for food as a reason to start hunting later in life. As a hunter, all of this is good.
These programs are excellent, and I suggest that you support them to address the issue of hunter decline. However, they do not and will not adequately address the issue of conservation funding. That is a problem that should be addressed by state fish and wildlife agencies, who will likely find that their investment in creating a new hunter is a very expensive endeavor that is unlikely to show positive returns — especially not $11/year at a time. The recruitment of new hunters, anglers and trappers will likely not be the solution to the conservation funding decline. It is time to analyze that problem through different lenses and to develop more effective, durable solutions. Further, our state fish and wildlife agencies must make wise investments with their ever-declining resources as the system of wildlife conservation in this country continues to splinter.
Regardless of R3’s ability to fund conservation, it is still worthwhile to share the value of hunting, fishing and trapping with others. So please, take a kid hunting or fishing, share some venison with the family next door or talk to your friends about the importance of hunting to you and your family. We know that making new hunters, anglers, and trappers is difficult —and we certainly don’t want to see the sports that we are passionate about go away. If you want to start hunting or fishing, please reach out to any of a number of hunter-conservationist organizations. We are always more than happy to help point you in the right direction.