Are Hunters a Dying Breed?

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I was recently asked to serve on a development committee for the Council to Advance Hunting and Shooting Sports.  The Council was formed as a partnership between the 50 state fish and wildlife agencies, numerous non-governmental conservation organizations, and industries that manufacture or sell firearms, ammunition, archery equipment, and other items with which we pursue our hunting and shooting passions. The specific mission of the development committee is to direct the creation of a national plan to recruit, retain, and re-engage hunters and sport shooters.  

This is not a new concept to our outdoor community.  We all realize that the lack of recruitment of new participants could ultimately lead to the political irrelevance or even elimination, in some cases, of our chosen pursuits.  In the biological world, a population of northern bobwhite quail must reproduce at a rate that exceeds their mortality, otherwise the population is destined to long-term declines and possible extinction.  Hunters and shooters (or any group, for that matter) are obliged to obey that same biological imperative.  Two questions remain: 1) Are recent trends truly showing a reversal in the long-term declines, specifically as they relate to hunting, and 2) What are we doing about our recruitment failures?

There are two recent datasets indicating that downward trends in hunting and sport shooting have reversed in recent years.  The most compelling evidence comes from data on the sales of firearms and ammunition during the past four years.  Since the 2008 election, the Obama administration’s stance on private firearms ownership has been one of “less is better, and none is best”.  Events such as the  “Fast and Furious” scandal and the shootings at Aurora, IL and Newtown, CT have been used unsuccessfully to attempt to control or eliminate the lawful private ownership of firearms, as protected by the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution.  The gun control push that resulted ultimately backfired, and sales of firearms and ammunition have skyrocketed.  Since there is a federal excise tax collected on the sale of firearms and ammunition under the Pittman-Robertson Act (which provides states critical funding for wildlife conservation), we have a fairly accurate measure of those sales.  Pittman-Robertson Act funding has reached new highs in the last four years consecutively.  These data, while partially attributable to the stockpiling of firearms and ammunition due to threats of gun control, can also be loosely correlated with an increase in sport shooting, either to simply improve firearms handling skills by participants, or to new purchasers taking up sport shooting once they acquire the tools to do so.  

Archery has taken a similar track with increases in sales, specifically to young women, after the release of the movie, “The Hunger Games”, featuring a young heroine in a game of survival who possesses some rather skilled archery techniques that she learned from hunting to feed her family.  Several other movies have prominently featured archery, and have contributed substantially to the increase in product sales.  It is likely, however, given the nature of the complexity of the cumulative skills required for hunting (not just marksmanship, but woodcraft, reading tracks and signs, animal behavior, game preparation, etc.), that this documented increase in firearms and archery sport shooting does not necessarily translate into more hunters.

The data that we have on the recent (2006-2011) increase in hunting participation is less clear.  States use a portion of their federal funding through Pittman-Robertson (hunting & shooting) and Dingell-Johnson (fishing & boating) Acts to periodically partner with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a 5-year survey on Hunting, Angling, and Outdoor Associated Recreation.  The most recent survey indicated that, as a whole, hunting has increased approximately nine percent over those 5 years for the first time in decades.  However, the license data collected by states doesn’t reflect this trend in all cases.  So either there is a flaw in the survey data, which is possible since we sample from a relative small portion of the population, or we are giving away more privileges for free than ever before.  I suspect we will eventually find that it is a combination of both.

This brings us back to the committee work of the Council to Advance Hunting and Shooting Sports.  We are charged with developing the plan the will ultimately result in a net increase of hunters and sport shooters.  During our first meeting, we discussed high level factors that may be causing a net loss of participants.  Interestingly, these factors were developed by a group (not us) that specializes in strategic thinking about participant motivation in general.  While they reviewed the available data on hunting recruitment, they were not from the hunting and shooting research community.  This means that they were likely free of the biases that we as participants typically bring to the table.  In short, they provided an alternative way of looking at the problem, and what they developed will become the basis of our plan.  This group identified four primary factors as the high level barriers to recruitment and retention, specifically as they relate to hunting:

1) Lack of Skills – Potential recruits lack the myriad of skills required to begin hunting, and more importantly, to become a successful hunter.  Potential mentors of recruits may also lack the skills necessary to help someone become a hunter.  Hunting is a continuum of skill sets that must be accumulated in order for the participant to become successful.  But there is a base level of skills required to get started, and these are frequently taught by mentors.

2) Lack of Awareness – Potential recruits are unaware that the opportunity exists to become a hunter.  The parents, guardians, friends, or mentors of potential recruits are lacking in awareness or knowledge of the skills and knowledge that hunting requires.  Interestingly, when awareness is raised, in a productive, non-confrontational manner, social acceptance and even the desire to try hunting increases.

3) Lack of Motivation – Potential recruits aren’t sufficiently motivated to try hunting.  This could be due to lack of time because of other commitments, lack of time on a parent’s or mentor’s part, or the desire by current hunters to minimize competition in the field.  Competition for time and resources is likely the most pervasive obstacle that we face in the recruitment of new hunters.

4) Lack of Access – Potential recruits don’t have places to go hunting, access to mentors that may teach them, or access to the support system that it takes to develop and mold a new hunter into a lifelong participant.  New hunters require time, space, and support in order to become successful, long-term participants. 

So these are factors we will collectively focus on as we begin the development of a plan to recruit, retain, and re-engage our new crop of hunters and sport shooters.  The challenge is significant, but it is one that we must take on in order to ensure that our hunting and shooting heritage is perpetuated through the coming generations.  The planning process will be unprecedented in scope, with the goal of developing a blueprint that state agencies, conservation organizations, and industry can use to bring more participants within our ranks and sustain our heritage and the model of conservation for our country.  The long-term survival of our outdoor heritage is at stake, so failure is not an option.