Every fall, millions of Americans dust off their crossbows, rifles and fishing nets to hunt wild turkey in Ohio, deer in Texas, pheasant in Montana and spiny lobster in California. It’s the start of hunting season, a pastime so universal that schools still close on opening day in some parts of the country and presidents annually proclaim one Saturday in September National Hunting and Fishing Day. But the enthusiasts who have ventured into the wild this autumn are finding the woods an increasingly lonelier place to be.
For 60 years, Americans pushed steadily into the suburbs. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and teens and adults alike are more likely to pick up a Nintendo Wii handset than a rifle. As a result, hunting is declining. According to the most recent national survey taken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, only 12.5 million Americans age 16 and older hunted in 2006. That’s down from 17 million in 1975.
For states, it’s about more than just a waning tradition. With fewer hunters in the nation’s forests, the conservation efforts of state fish and wildlife departments also are in danger. State game department budgets are almost exclusively dependent on the millions of dollars hunters annually spend on licenses, tags and permits. Since 1934, hunters have paid more than $700 million for duck stamps alone, financing the addition of 5.2 million acres to the National Wildlife Refuge System. Sportsmen contribute more than $250 million annually in excise taxes on guns, ammunition and other equipment, which largely goes back to states to purchase, protect, maintain and restore habitats, improve wildlife populations, conduct research and educate hunters on safety.
As a result, states are actively trying to boost interest in hunting. With money tight and funding being pulled from state parks at record levels, state game departments are more dependent on hunters’ fees to conserve wildlife than ever before. And the easiest way to do that may be to shore up hunters’ ranks. In just the past four years, 30 states have established formal mentoring programs, 29 have waived minimum hunting age requirements and several states have shortened safety courses. Hunters are also moving to preserve their numbers by protecting their sport. Four states -- Arizona, Arkansas, South Carolina and Tennessee -- voted this month on whether to enshrine the right to hunt and fish in their state constitutions (although there aren’t any looming legislative threats against such a right). Ten states have already extended constitutional protection to hunting and sporting.
The efforts may be working. While there’s been no mass run on deer stands, the number of young hunters is ticking up. Since the inception of youth mentoring programs and the lowering of age requirements, the number of new youth hunters has grown by about 388,000 since 2005, says Families Afield, an alliance of hunting organizations that works to reduce regulatory barriers to youth hunting. The group’s latest report found that apprentice hunting licenses increased by 100,000 in 2009.