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.