The Future of Hunting

Oh woe is us. Doom and Gloom. By all indications the future of hunting in the United States is in question. According to an article in Outdoor Life we are in trouble. And don’t seem to be handling it well. In 1982 there were about 17 million licensed hunters in the U.S. In the most recent survey from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 2016 that number was down to 11.5 million. That is a problem unto itself. It’s further complicated by the fact us Baby boomers comprise about one-third of that number. Thanks to the aging process (less physical strength, lack of mobility, etc.) we stop hunting at some point. So what to do?

That is a question faced by most state agencies and according to the Outdoor Life article they are doing it wrong. Just about all states, and a lot of non-government conservation groups, have an R3 program: Recruitment, Retention, and Reactivation. We have one here in North Carolina. Recent evidence is the addition of an Apprentice hunting permit, and specific days and weeks set aside for youth deer, turkey, and waterfowl hunting. So why aren’t these programs being successful? I have my own theories which I’ll get to. But the article says we shouldn’t be targeting youth because it has a low return on investment. Most of the kids in the programs are in families that are already active hunters. You see, as they grow older they will simply be filling the shoes of an older family member who is aging out.

The key to the R3 program is young adult hunters. Now there is bright news on that front. According to a survey conducted by Southwick Associates, the number of women participating in hunting increased 10 percent in just four years. If you watch outdoor TV shows or thumb through your favorite hunting magazine you’ll see a larger number of women writers, columnists, and brand sponsors. That is good news.

But how do you attract young adult men? Let’s call them hipsters or millenials. They don’t fit the typical hunter mold. Yes, they may want to hunt but not for the same reasons that typical hunter does. The hipster deer hunter is doing it for organic meat, not the rack. They want to connect with a natural environment because we are increasingly urban and they may live in a large city. They may forsake the usual hunting traditions to pursue that path.

So how do we change our R3 model to both develop youth as long term hunters and recruit young adults? There is no simple answer but let me offer a couple of my thoughts. First, for both of those groups start out by connecting them with nature. Too often a first experience (particularly kids) is an ATV ride to a deer stand; sitting in the stand with dad or uncle; playing video games; shooting at a deer when dad says, “There’s one. Shoot it.” Sound familiar?

My old school solution to introduce someone to hunting is taking them out for small game. You’re moving around. You don’t have to be super quiet (with exceptions). It is natural that when you walk you observe your surroundings. When they see something that interests them it’s a chance to talk about wildlife movement and feeding habits, and what their habitat needs are. Can’t beat squirrel, rabbit, or bird hunting for that. Driving an eight year old to a tree stand, sitting with Dad while playing video games, and shooting a deer on command is not hunting.

Part of the R3 equation is access and opportunity. Access is about having places to hunt. Opportunity means having game in those places. This is another place we are failing. North Carolina is blessed with over 2 million acres of public access Game Lands. But is there game to pursue on those lands? At least in our region the answer is no; unless you are a squirrel hunter. Let me belabor the point: Our nearly one million acres of National Forests are nearly devoid of game animals. Just over 1,000 deer harvested last season. Grouse flush rates are at an historic low. It is difficult to recruit and retain hunters when there is no game to pursue. Then it becomes just a hike in the woods. To recruit new hunters there must be game to pursue on public land. That’s part of the equation.

Why We Are Able to Hunt – Part 2

Last week we looked at the basis for the North American Model and its first two principles – Wildlife is Held in the Public Trust and Prohibition on Commerce of Dead Wildlife. Let’s look at the remaining five principles to get an overall picture of how the model works. Each of the remaining principles is just as critical to model success as the first two. Especially number seven.

Principle 3 says wildlife management is governed by the Democratic Rule of Law. Have you ever attended a state DNR or Wildlife Commission public meetings on new game regulations? That is what this is all about. Hunting and fishing laws are created through the public process where everyone has input into the systems of wildlife conservation and use. Season and bag limits for migratory game are set at the federal level through public input. State legislatures typically have a Wildlife Committee that establishes game laws. And you as hunters and anglers have the opportunity to speak your peace about how those game laws are enacted.

Principle 4 tells us there are Hunting Opportunities for All. Every citizen should have an opportunity, under the law, to hunt and fish. This is there to insure we do not adopt the European model of hunting mostly for the privileged wealthy. Notice two things. First, “under the law” means not only do you have to obey game laws but others as well. If you are a convicted felon you cannot be in possession of a firearm. That pretty much limits you to muzzleloaders and archery equipment. Also if you violate game laws you may have your license revoked. The second part is “opportunity”. We must always remember that hunting and fishing are privileges, not rights. They can be restricted or removed.

Principle 5 says there will be no Non-Frivolous Use of wildlife. Basically this means you use what you take. This is there to prohibit strictly trophy hunting; killing an animal for its trophy status and leaving the carcass in the field is the best example of this. Yes, there are hunters that go on trophy hunts. But they also pack out the meat and personally consume it or in many cases the meat is donated to food pantries for those in need. Doing otherwise can result in fines or license suspension/revocation. An older example of this mentioned in last week’s column is the market hunters in the late 1800’s that killed buffalo just for their hides and left the carcasses in the field.

Principle 6, Wildlife are International Resources. Let me state the obvious: animals cannot read signs saying “Entering the United States”. Elk in the northern Rocky Mountains freely cross over the border between Canada and the United States. The best example though is migratory waterfowl. Many of the ducks and geese hunters harvest in Arkansas rice fields or Mississippi flooded timber started their journey in the open plains of Canada. For the model to work we had to have cooperation between both countries. Due to market hunting, waterfowl populations were at a near extinction point in 1900. That is why this provision is in the model.

Last of the seven principles is Scientific Management of wildlife. In my humble opinion, this should have been in the top three. Why? Because of the seven principles, this is the one we have most violated; particularly in the last couple of decades. Governments and non-profit conservation groups, mostly made up of hunters, have spent millions of dollars studying wildlife habitat and their needs. The scientific evidence is established. However, in the last twenty or so years emotion has ruled over science. Examples are replete. Let me share one.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service started the re-introduction of gray wolves into the Upper Midwest about 20 years ago. As with any species, the herd grew and reached a maximum carrying capacity about eight years ago. They tried to establish limited hunting and trapping opportunities through a permit system to maintain balance. Animal rights groups have taken legal action to stop it. Now moose and deer populations are declining in the region because the wolf population exceeds capacity. Bear hunters are losing dogs to wolf attacks. Science should determine game seasons and limits; not emotion.

Let me close with a quote from the man who brought the Model to conclusion, President Teddy Roosevelt. It sums it up in one sentence: “The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak, so we must and we will”. Hunters and anglers, we must take that responsibility seriously.

Why We Are Able to Hunt

This quote from President Roosevelt expresses the purpose of the North American Model


Talking with fellow hunters I’m continually amazed by the lack of knowledge about the North American Wildlife Conservation Model. Huh? Yea, you’re not alone. You don’t know it, but everything you do in the outdoors as a hunter or angler is guided by the 7 principles of the model. Or at least should be (more on that later). Over the next couple of weeks we’ll look at the Model, what it means to sportsmen, and why our understanding of it is important.

Seeing the depletion of wildlife resources due to market demand in the late 1800’s, a group of sportsmen led by President Teddy Roosevelt decided something had to be done before many species became extinct. Because many of these species like waterfowl were migratory and crossed international borders, it had to be done in a joint effort with Canada. This effort became the Model in 1910. The Seven Principles are:

  1. Wildlife is Held in the Public Trust
  2. Prohibition on Commerce of Dead Wildlife
  3. Democratic Rule of Law
  4. Hunting Opportunity for All
  5. Non-Frivolous Use
  6. International Resources
  7. Scientific Management

Let’s start with Principle #1 – Wildlife is Held in the Public Trust. This means that natural resources and wildlife are managed by government agencies and owned by no individual to the benefit of present and future generations. The Model has been in existence so long this, the foundational principle, just seems to be second nature to most hunters. It wasn’t so in our predominantly European heritage.

In Europe at the time, and some traditions continue today, wild game belonged to the property owner. We’ve all heard the stories of European landed gentry having trouble with the laboring class (serfs) stealing game off their land. Isn’t that where Robin Hood’s Merry Band got its start? The ghilly suit used by modern snipers? It was developed by game keepers in Great Britain to hide and catch poachers!

Due to our expansive lands and diversity of wildlife populations, public trust of wildlife was the only way to protect all species and manage them for the future of hunting. You must also remember this was the time National Forests and Parks were established by President Roosevelt. With a mixture of both government and private lands, wildlife management responsibility had to be put in public versus private hands to ensure continuity across the continent. Again, based on our European heritage and the standard throughout the world, public trust of wildlife was an unheard of concept at the time. This is why wildlife enforcement activity applies to private as well as public land in the country today.

The second principle, Prohibition on Commerce of Dead Wildlife, is tied to the first. I learned the difference when hunting in Europe while in the Army. Even to this day in Germany wild game belongs to the landowner. If you kill an animal, for me chamois and reh deer, the landowner keeps the meat and sells it to local restaurants. That is unheard of (and is illegal) here in the United States. This was developed to stop market hunting. We’ve all heard the stories of market hunters decimating buffalo herds in the west just for their hides. Another problem at the turn of the century was waterfowl market hunters. They would shoot hundreds of ducks, barrel them up, and ship them to market to be sold in restaurants. This had to be done to stop the depletion of wildlife resources.

These two principles, and the reason they are the first two, are primarily responsible for the bountiful game populations we have today. Here are some numbers to support it. At the turn of the 20th century when the Model was developed there were only 500 thousand whitetail deer in the United States. Today that number exceeds 32 million. At that same time there were an estimated 100 thousand wild turkeys. Now their population exceeds 7 million. Ducks and geese were nearly non-existent and their numbers now exceed 44 million.

Yes there are other factors that affect those numbers. The Pittman-Roberson Act comes to mind. But if our forefathers did not have the vision to establish the North American Model over 100 years ago all of that would be for naught. Next week we will look at the remaining principles to show how they work in concert.