Access Without Opportunity

Pittman-Robertson excise taxes have been declining the past few years along with hunting license sales.

If you’ve been following the Recruit, Retain, Reactivate (R3) movement it’s all about increasing the dwindling number of hunters in the country. Why is this effort getting so much attention and press? With hunter numbers down so are license revenues and excise tax (Pittman-Robertson) funding for state game agencies. This is not a made up crisis. I’ve been following the news for several years. Pretty much all the states have an R3 program trying to stem the tide. But I don’t want to get down in the weeds about trends, age stratification, etc.

I do support efforts to increase hunter recruitment and participation. There is one thing that bothers me about the discussion surrounding the effort. There are magazine articles and national meetings/conferences of federal and state game management folks along with major conservation organizations. When discussing solutions one of the topics of discussion is usually “access”. What this means is that the R3 program must consider access to land if R3 is going to be successful. There is truth in that. Access to private land, without paying for it, is scarce as hen’s teeth. Particularly true for the beginning hunter. But I rarely read or hear anything in these discussions about the other leg of the equation: opportunity.

Do you remember ever going out as a young hunter and never killing anything? Yeah, I know the politically correct term is harvest. But it is killing. What about not even seeing any of the game you pursue? You probably got frustrated, maybe even thinking about giving up the sport. Well, opportunity to me is about having game available to encourage new hunters to stay with it. So when it comes to R3, access without opportunity is meaningless.

Public land available in the United States.

Nationally we have over 800 million acres of public land; 614 million owned by the federal and 199 million by state government (see graphic). Most of that land is accessible to hunting. My guess is that most hunters have some access to public land within a reasonable driving distance, say one hour. The land may exist(access) but the game animals may not (opportunity). Right now on public land, at least in my region, opportunity is slim to none. It is especially true on National Forests. Here are a couple of examples for two popular species: whitetail deer and turkey.

  • There are nearly 1 million acres within the Pisgah/Nantahala Nation Forests of western North Carolina. It is part of the state Game Lands system, therefore accessible to all hunters with the proper licenses. During the 2017-2018 deer season a total of 1050 deer were reported killed on that land. Quick math says that’s about 1 deer per one thousand acres. With those odds, as a new hunter would you go there?
  • Your odds are even worse on bagging a turkey on those two National Forests. During the most recent 2018 Spring turkey season only 414 bearded turkeys were reported as brought to the bag. That’s one turkey per 2400 acres. So the new hunter gets the juices flowing, buys a shotgun, goes to a turkey hunting seminar, and hits the National Forests. Is he or she going to stick with it? Not in my mind.

Meanwhile, private land hunting for deer is the same region has shown better than 30% increase in harvest. You don’t even want to get me talking about grouse hunting data. Let me just say that it’s possible to put in a full day hunt on these forests and never flush a bird, much less put one in the game bag. Why is it this way? During public meetings to plan the future of these two forests we learned that less than 1% of the forest is early-successional young forest growth needed for wildlife habitat. Ten percent is the standard.

Let’s say I meet a young man at my local sporting clays course who shows an interest in grouse hunting. He’s done some research and likes the idea of walking behind a dog through the woods. A couple of videos of grouse erupting from cover piqued his interest. We plan to get together the following season. Over the next several months we work on his shotgun skills and he helps me with pre-season dog training and we discuss what bird hunting is like. His excitement builds.

He attends hunter safety training, buys a license, invests in some brush pants and boots in anticipation of the upcoming season. We hit the woods opening weekend. No birds. The following weekend after four hours of hard hunting we’ve had one flush with no shot. How many times will he repeat this before something clicks within his head and he figures it’s just not worth it. Will he buy a license next year? Not likely.

So you can pound the access drum all you want. But if national conservation groups leading the R3 effort are not concurrently pushing federal public land managers to make wildlife habitat a priority, you have access without opportunity. The millions of dollars spent on the national R3 effort will be for naught. You may get new hunters in the field or reactivate other hunters for one season, but after a couple of trips on public land with no success they’ll sell their guns and tear up their license. And the effort is about building lifelong hunters, right?

Access and opportunity must be seen as a package deal; the two legs the effort stand on. Walking on public land without wildlife is called hiking, not hunting.