We as hunters are actively hurting ourselves in trying to preserve the pastime.
It is no secret that hunting is slowly dying as an American tradition. Hunter numbers have dropped almost every year except 2020 when we saw a brief resurgence in interest due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Other than that anomaly, hunting has been bleeding hunters for a long time and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.
As far as excuses as to who is to blame for this, I have heard them all. Politicians, anti-hunters, video games and technology just to name a few.
However, I believe this is flawed thinking. In my opinion, the biggest reason hunting is dying is because we have done it to ourselves. Before you get angry and tell me I'm wrong, at least hear me out. Because we have all likely been guilty of something that has contributed to scaring away prospective new hunters, even if we did not realize it at the time.
I constantly see people posting about how things like smart phones, video games, and Netflix are responsible for killing interest in hunting and fishing. I don't buy it. If you start diving into the numbers, it does not make sense either. For example, in 2020 the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported outdoor recreation created a staggering $788 billion in economic impact here in the United States.
In their stats, hunting, trapping, shooting, and fishing were ranked among the top five areas of recreational interest. Looking into the numbers and studies of the impacts of outdoor recreation, you will see the same thing dating back years. The USDA had a similar report showing the economy for outdoor recreation grew five percent every year between 2005 and 2011. Arguably, this is the same time social media and smart phones were really starting to take off.
So, why do hunter numbers continue to fall? I suspect it is because things like camping, hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, etc., are all taking a larger piece of that $788 billion pie. If you look at things like traffic to National Parks, you will see them breaking all sorts of records for attendance that are not related to hunting.
Simply put, I don't think technology is hurting anything to do with the outdoors, we are simply experiencing a massive shift in interests that does not include hunting. I sincerely believe that this outright hatred of technology by so many older hunters is upsetting and off-putting to some of the younger prospective hunters. Maybe a little less "When I was your age..." and a little more, "Hey, here's something cool about hunting I bet you didn't know."
Just as an example, I'm an avid video game player who also hunts, fishes, and writes full-time for Wide Open Spaces. I spent plenty of time in the outdoors each year. I'm in the middle of planning a pheasant hunting trip and my strategies for Michigan's deer season right now. It IS possible to enjoy two things at once and we need to acknowledge that. Technology is going to be part of everyone's lives moving forward and you cannot change that. By being close-minded, and telling young people they should only be interested in what interests you, they probably end up alienating these key demographics completely. I truly believe you cannot force an interest in hunting. Instead, we must find creative ways to first kindle an interest and then build it into a burning passion.
The constant infighting.
Just hop on any Facebook feed or YouTube hunting channel to see what I mean. You simply cannot visit any hunting or fishing site without seeing someone making disparaging comments about another hunter that may be featured in a photo, video, or news story. I see it most often with anything having to do with crossbows, which are now legal in the regular archery season in most states.
Rather than congratulating someone on shooting a nice buck with their crossbow, I'll see fellow hunters bashing men, women, and even young children who dared to use one instead of a compound, even if the hunt was completely legal. The only way some of these crossbow haters will give a pass to the weapon is if the hunter is disabled, and even then, you'll see some people demanding personal medical information in public forums before they'll accept a harvest with one. How did we get to this point?
In a similar fashion, you had better watch out if you dare to use bait legally, or if you use dogs to run deer. Heck, even if you do an old-fashioned deer drive. Because there is someone out there waiting to judge you and tell you how you are not a real hunter if you use these techniques.
I see this behavior most often when it comes to trophy deer. No one can harvest a big buck anymore without being accused of being a poacher or having paid to kill it behind a high fence. Even if your harvest was a completely wild animal, then you'll get accused of only caring about antlers and not the meat. On the flip side of the coin, some hunters who love big antlers will bash anyone who dares to shoot a buck that does not meet their strict age and antler size requirements.
Honestly, I do not remember this much infighting about techniques and weapons in the hunting community when I was growing up. When did hunters become so mean-spirited and nasty? It's just sad to see, and I'm almost certain it scares away people who were interested in possibly trying the tradition. I know one thing, if I wanted to get into hunting today, I would go online for more information. And I would probably be turned away by how some hunters act online.
Making the outdoors too political.
Before we go any further, I'm not taking sides with any political party here. I think both Republicans and Democrats have been incredibly stupid and childish the last ten to fifteen years. Frankly, I'm exhausted by both. No, I'm not libertarian, or any one of the other countless failed third parties either if that's what you think. I find myself in a weird, isolated place in America. Because there is literally no political party that I feel I can relate with these days.
As someone who feels he is on a desert island politically, it's rather off-putting to see an "us vs them" mentality dragged into every single miniscule aspect of the greater hunting community. I do not believe for one second that every single hunting regulation change is politically driven. Nor do I believe that one party wants "to end hunting" or "make everyone vegetarian." Those are just a few examples of the silly things I've seen written on Facebook. People forget there are people on all sides of the political spectrum who own guns and enjoy hunting.
Frankly, I always used to see the outdoors as a uniting force. Where people of different backgrounds and political beliefs could come together to enjoy the majesty of the great outdoors. No more. Social media seems to have been the end of that. It is especially disappointing in the YouTube era, where people put up incredibly helpful videos full of hunting tips, and then completely alienate a whole segment of potential viewers with a political rant at the end. Can we all agree to just leave that stuff out of a video or article on rut hunting tips?
And I'm not saying politics never come into play with hunting matters. They do, although in my experience writing outdoor news for the last six years, it is extremely rare. If you really start breaking it down and examining recent hunting issues in the news, you will find they usually have nothing to do with politics. Just as an example, deer baiting bans often pop up due to sudden disease outbreaks like chronic wasting disease, not because one side wants you to be less successful hunting. And wolf hunts are usually started based on studies by biologists indicating some form of population control needs to be put in place, not because one side just wants to kill wolves as trophies.
This part of hunters being our own worst enemy could be an entire article itself. To keep things short, can we just start enjoying the outdoors without political strings attached again? I miss the days when hunting shows and videos didn't throw a political slant into their content. When hunters didn't discuss current events while sitting around the camp fire in the evening. I sincerely feel it would go a long way towards healing the wounds of this nation in other areas if we could all take a break from the political stuff this hunting season.
Not acknowledging the demographics problem.
Hunting's demographics problem is the ugly truth most hunters don't want to or will not admit. There is not much diversity in hunting, and it is going to come back to bite us in the long run. We can break this down all sorts of ways, but we really are failing in almost all aspects, and I don't see many hunters trying to do anything about it.
The first problem is age. The average age of hunters in the U.S. hovers around 42-43 years of age and it continues to go up indicating we are not bringing in new people to replace the older ones who are hanging up their guns and bows for good. In 2016, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey estimate found that only around three percent of the population between the ages of 16 and 17 hunts. The 18 to 24 and 24-34 demographics were not much better at only four percent each. Ages 45 to 54 and 55 to 64 made up the largest percentage. Around age 65? That is when hunters start retiring for good.
Simply put, just the age groups alone are not sustainable for hunting. If this trend continues, eventually there is going to be none of us left. Most of us alive today will probably not live to see it, but that is bad news when it comes to conservation and funding through license sales. It gets uglier when we start bringing in other factors. Males make up 90 percent of the hunters in the U.S. I think most of us already knew we are not doing enough outreach to women. I will at least give credit to many state and federal organizations and outdoor brands, they are trying. But it feels like it may be too little too late. We probably should have started the current women in the outdoors movement more than 50 years ago.
When you start breaking down the demographics of hunting by race and ethnicity, the problems are even more apparent. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates hunters are 97 percent white. I thought one of the most interesting examples from the USFW survey indicates only one percent of Hispanics hunt. Meanwhile, the Hispanic population is growing much faster than almost every other one here in the U.S. Which leads me to wonder why we are not reaching out more to the Hispanic community in our hunter recruitment efforts?
Perhaps the saddest part of that U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey was the fact they could not even estimate the percentage of African Americans and Asian Americans who hunt because they did not receive a large enough sample size. Just another area we are completely failing in our recruitment efforts.
The more you dive into the data collected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other state and federal agencies, the more depressing it becomes. It seems we need to find a way to make hunting much more inclusive and welcoming across the spectrum. Perhaps our focus is much too narrow. Maybe we need to find ways for better representation for those groups who are clearly being underserved. One thing seems certain, what we are doing in our efforts now is clearly not working. The national participation rate for hunting is at only around four percent. For all hunters that should be unacceptable if you are concerned about the tradition surviving.
You should be worried.
If it sounds like I'm being too doom and gloom with this, well, that's the point. You should be worried. I am too. Not just for hunting as a tradition either. I worry about the beautiful, wild places of our country. I worry about endangered species in peril that will suffer as conservation dollars fail to come in because those license sales just are not generating funds anymore. Sure, there are other revenue streams to support conservation, but they may not be enough in the long run.
There are probably no easy solutions, and I am not claiming I have any either. However, I do believe the problems I've outlined above are very real and should be acknowledged by all hunters. Only by knowing the problems can we come up with the solutions together. And we can all contribute, even if it is in the smallest of ways. Whether that be by introducing someone brand new to the tradition or simply by thinking twice before hitting send on a nasty message in your local hunting Facebook group. We must start a shift in how we approach hunting and recruitment at some point. Why not start right now?
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For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis YouTube channels.
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