Remember all those times sitting around the evening fire in hunting camp when someone says, "It sure would be good if there were more hunters out here." And everyone agrees and suggests ways to bring more hunters to the field.
Yeah, me neither. That conversation never happens.
In 1955 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) began administering the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. The surveys, conducted every five years, gauge hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing participation throughout the United States. USFWS also tracks hunting license sales across the nation annually.
The 2016 survey confirms an ongoing trend: hunter participation is falling. The outdoor industry, conservation organizations, wildlife managers and land managers are, it seems, in a panic over this. The revenue generated by the hunting community is a main source of funding for conservation programs that benefit all wildlife. Hunters don't foot the entire bill for wildlife conservation, but they contribute a high percentage of the funding.
The result has been a significant effort to figure out why hunter numbers are dropping and how they can be reversed. A variety of reasons have surfaced to explain the drop. Among them: too much competition for accessible land (in other words, too many hunters), lack of access to hunting ground, lack of game, confusing regulations and a decline in rural lifestyles.
To put the issue in perspective, in 1967, approximately 14.6 million hunting licenses were sold in the United States. Alaska hunters comprised roughly 42,000 of those. By 1982, the number had grown to 16.7 million, including 84,000 in Alaska. Since 1982, the nationwide numbers have been in general decline while Alaska has seen steady growth. In 2015, 14.8 million hunting licenses were sold in the United States, and 107,000 of them in Alaska.
Considering the population of both the U.S. and Alaska have nearly doubled since 1967, hunter participation nationwide is down nearly 50 percent but the numbers and percentages have grown in Alaska.
The trend is similar, although not as dramatic, in other western states that enjoy ready access to hunting ground via public lands. Hunters in states with little public land must pay fees to hunt on private land or fight for a spot to hunt on public land.
It seems rather obvious that hunting is an activity that must seek its own level. There is only so much land that supports wildlife, and as the population grows the land once available for hunting is being developed and either is not suitable for hunting or demands fees many cannot afford.
A growing number of people have discovered the joys of simply being outdoors and thus, public land managers may take some restrictive stances when conflict may occur. Even in Alaska, the days when hunters had a free-for-all access to public land are over.
It's a bit like having a bag that will hold 10 pounds of potatoes, but you want 20 pounds so you just mash them up and make them fit.
One of the "cures" to this hunter demise is the creation of youth-mentored hunts and special early seasons to entice youngsters to join the fold. It's one of those feel-good things that is expanding, even though it seems to have little real success.
Hunting is not a sport, it's a lifestyle. Oh, it may be a sport for those who keep score with bag numbers or antler measurements. But it isn't like taking a kid to Little League or summer hockey camp, where the youngster returns home and has ready opportunities to continue the activity.
Christine and I became involved in these mentored hunts a while back. We thought it was the right thing to do. It left us feeling a bit sad. Taking kids, sent to us by well-meaning parents but who had no relationship to us and no real relationship with the outdoors, out to kill something in the name of a better market share left us a bit empty inside.
It seems that when you ask a question in the name of problem solving, you would pay attention to the answers. When folks say they stopped hunting because there is too much competition for available hunting land and the abundance of game is lacking, it doesn't make sense that the solution is to get more people to hunt. Perhaps I am simple-minded and can't see the forest for the trees. I don't know.
I wonder if consideration is given to the technological advancements in the last 20 years. Game cameras, electronic calls, GPS and satellite phones, Google Earth and ATVs are game-changers in terms of hunter success.
Advancements in archery and muzzleloader technology make those opportunities less daunting than ever, and the special seasons that go with them keep a broad spectrum of hunters in the field for extended periods.
With technology comes expense. Do folks who cannot afford such things believe they cannot compete in the arena? A rather sad aspect to the USFWS study shows that people on the lower end of the income scale, those who could benefit most from game meat on the table, represent a very small percent of hunters.
Being a realist, I understand the economic drive behind all of this, but it is still disheartening to think what was once a lifestyle for many has become just another bottom line.
In the old days, wildlife managers used the term "carrying capacity" to speak of a given chunk of habitat's ability to support predator and prey species. In a lifetime of hunting I've never seen the term "carrying capacity" used to reference hunters. Maybe it's time we did. Maybe we've already exceeded our carrying capacity. But it seems reasonable to think we should before we launch a recruitment campaign.
Hunter dollars are important, and hunters have never been bashful about contributing. But money alone cannot ensure the quality of the experience and the relationships with nature that seems critical to the future of hunting.
Steve Meyer is a lifelong Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and hunting. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org