Can Hunting Survive in California? And If It Can’t, Who’s Going to Pay to Conserve the State’s Wildlife and Habitat?

Golden State hunters and wildlife are facing fallout from megafires, urban sprawl, ammo scarcity, and pending anti-hunting legislation. Some say the sport is on its way out
Christine Peterson Avatar
Hunters line up for a duck blind lottery in darkness. Photo by Tom Fowlks
Duck hunters wait to submit their names to a lottery in hopes of drawing a blind at Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area near Sacramento.

NO ONE IS HUNTING TONIGHT. But still, many of the folks standing around the parking lot are wearing camouflage, maybe as a point of identity, or maybe as a statement of hope. These are the unlucky souls who didn’t draw a reservation to hunt one of central California’s most popular public duck hunting refuges. Now they must wait in line for one more chance to draw a spot as traffic races by on Interstate 80, connecting Sacramento with San Francisco.

Brendan Hinkle, Tim Owsley, and Owsley’s 7-year-old son Timber shuffle to the front. Hinkle has already spent $500 on lotteries for duck hunting reservations this season. This last-ditch try must be made in person, which means a 30-to-45-minute drive for the men. With their names on the list, they head home along with everyone else, each person to run through the same morning itinerary: Wake up early, make the drive through the dark and the fog, hopefully get picked for a spot, and then, maybe, shoot a duck or two.

That’s public-land duck hunting in California. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s also one more straw on the increasingly bowed back of California’s hunting scene.

The list of obstacles looming before Golden State hunters reads like a doomsday letter: Megafires close millions of acres of forest during deer season and consume precious quail habitat; urban sprawl eats up increasingly large sections of wild land; drought turns reservoirs to puddles and puddles to cracked earth; duck populations struggle and deer numbers plummet; predator populations expand; ammunition becomes harder to find and much more complicated to purchase; and the possibility of a ballot initiative banning hunting lingers in a state with 63 percent fewer hunters than it had 50 years ago.

Ask any hunter in California if hunting in the state could ever cease to exist, and you’ll hear answers ranging from “Yes, absolutely” to “Not a chance.”

California still has plenty of hunters — about 286,300 — but the state also has 40 million people, which means that fewer than 1 percent of Californians hunt, just about the lowest per-capita number of any state in the Union.

Hunters sign up for duck-blind lottery
Finally at the front of the line, hopeful waterfowl hunters get their chance to draw a number for tomorrow morning’s hunt.

Holly Heyser, a diehard duck hunter and former communications director for the California Waterfowl Association, doesn’t think the state will ban hunting in her lifetime. But, she adds, “Do I see them chipping away at it? Yes.”

“There’s a feeling every time you turn around of being punched in the face by something,” Heyser says.

Already hunters and anglers fund only about a quarter of the state’s fish and wildlife management budget. Who pays for habitat and wildlife conservation if those numbers drop even more? No one knows for sure.

Drought, Fire, and Habitat Loss

About 50 miles north of that public refuge in Sacramento, pintails fly over our private-land blind, their thin, narrow tail feathers silhouetted in the gray light of early morning. But as far as hunting experiences go, we’re in a different universe from those hunters waiting in the parking lot.

First a few pintails come in, gliding down to landowner Larry Gury’s calls and decoys and then banking away. Then they arrive in waves, mixed with wigeons, mallards, specklebelly geese, and snow geese. I shoot, dropping my first and only pintail of the day (there’s a one-pintail limit). Then I drop a wigeon over the decoys. Then we wait for any duck that’s not a pintail.

“They start stacking up every year in about mid-September … and then it seems like with the first rain they start dispersing throughout the valley,” Gury says. “This year, there are so many more here because there’s no water up at Lower Klamath and Tule Lake in the valley. We have quite a crisis with the mallard population because of the Klamath situation, and I hold a lot of them too.”

And by “here,” Gury literally means here, on his 400 acres of wetland and the surrounding wildlife habitat areas where he helps pay to pump groundwater in an increasingly dry Pacific Flyway.

Waterfowl fly over flooded marshy area
A swarm of waterfowl flies over Closed Zone Farms north of Sacramento.

Through our morning hunt, Gury doesn’t shoot much. He’s killed plenty of ducks since he started chasing them as a college kid in Sacramento. He didn’t have money or access to fancy duck clubs back then, but it was fun, and he was hooked. Now he mostly takes people hunting. He wants to show them his land, the farm he’s nurtured with duck-friendly species of bulrush, smartweed, and water grass, plus nesting habitat for mallards. He and a business partner built a small empire of family-friendly fitness centers in California — 19 in total — before they sold it in 2015. Since then, he’s been making habitat for ducks. Because Gury, like tens of thousands of other hunters in California, loves ducks.

It’s why he spent the money to buy and revitalize prime wetland habitat in the middle of Northern California’s duck and goose highway, why he works with organizations like the California Waterfowl Association to take out new hunters, and why he spends tens of thousands of dollars each year supplying water and farm equipment to the nearby refuge. As wildfires ravage the forests, development eats away at foothills and bottomlands, and drought evaporates wetlands and leaves behind disease, he wonders if private landowners, the ones with enough money to buy water, are the best hope left for migrating waterfowl.

Gury’s worries about the future of hunting in California in the face of multiple natural disasters aren’t unfounded, Heyser says.

The Lower Klamath Basin, part of the expansive Klamath Basin that spans the border between Oregon and California, went almost completely dry in 2021. It was the country’s first federal waterfowl refuge, and it and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge used to draw millions of migrating ducks each year.

“It’s like taking out the only city on a 1,500-mile road trip,” Heyser says.

In 2021, through a series of complex water battles, failed action on the part of Congress, and years of drought, almost no water flowed to the wetlands. The year before, in 2020, miles of sun-soaked mud fueled a botulism outbreak that killed more than 60,000 ducks. The Sacramento Bee reported on wildlife biologists who spent months collecting the maggot-infested duck corpses in hopes of stemming the carnage.

Parts of California had a rainy October, and Gury stopped pumping groundwater for a time. But then no more rain fell, and the drought continued. The entire state is currently in a moderate drought, and 87 percent is in a severe drought. Climate scientists say this is the future.

Waterfowl aren’t the only California critters declining under climate change. Deer populations in the state have fluctuated since the early ’90s, when they hovered around 700,000 animals, according to the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ Mule Deer Working Group. There are now about 460,000 deer (a 35 percent decline), due to a complex combination of drought, habitat loss, lack of new growth, and lack of doe harvest (depending on whom you ask).

California duck hunting with dogs
From left: Timber Owsley, 7, holds up a duck his dad shot at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area; Owsley and Hinkle’s dogs wait for their next retrieve.

California hunters are being displaced by habitat destruction too. Heyser and her partner, wild game chef Hank Shaw, watched images on the news of their quail hunting spots being incinerated in the massive Caldor wildfire in late summer 2021. For weeks, she couldn’t talk about it without tearing up.

“It could be a 50-year destruction,” she says. “I don’t expect to ever hunt quail there again.”

Even in early December, when Heyser wanted to check the areas and see what could be left, she found that the forests remained closed.

Bahman Ghashghaei devotes each fall to chukars, a bird native to Iran, where he was born. They remind him of home. He has a few spots in California where he knows he can find birds, but many keep burning up in wildfires. Now he often heads to neighboring Nevada, where he finds more open lands and more birds. He can also use lead ammunition there, which is banned for hunting in California. Ghashghaei is not the only one willing to make the trip. Most hunters in California know people who leave the state for easier or better hunting elsewhere.

And if megafires like the Dixie fire that burned almost 1 million acres or the Caldor fire that burned more than 220,000 acres aren’t eating through habitat, then the threat of fires is closing forests anyway. At one point in 2021, all national forests in California were shut down.

Tim Owsley, the Sacramento-area duck hunter, had two deer tags for Zone B in the northern part of the state, but the forests where he wanted to hunt were all closed to visitors.

“The excuse was they had to shut it down because if something were to happen, they didn’t have the resources to fight it,” he says.

‘We’re Going to Die

How, exactly, hunting could be banned — if it could be banned — in California is an exercise in hypotheticals. But it’s one hunters from around the country, even ones who never have hunted and never will hunt in California, should care about.

Wayne Pacelle, the former head of the Humane Society of the U.S. and nemesis of most hunting organizations, is often quoted as saying sometime in the ’90s: “We are going to use the ballot box and the democratic process to stop all hunting in the United States. … We will take it species by species until all hunting is stopped in California. Then we will take it state by state.”

Whether or not he actually said that, California often sets trends for the rest of the country, and in many ways, the trend here is not good for hunting.

It started, perhaps, decades ago, where most antihunting efforts start: banning predator hunting. In 1972, California’s governor, soon to be U.S. president Ronald Reagan, signed a moratorium banning sport hunting of mountain lions. California voters made the ban permanent in 1990.

Since then, lawmakers have tried banning dove hunting and black bear hunting, though both those efforts failed.

Back in Sacramento, Dan Whisenhunt, a lifelong deer hunter, a Californian, and now president of the California Deer Association, is in full panic mode.

“We’re fighting an uphill battle here,” he says of the political climate in the state. “It’s almost like the frog in the pot of water and you don’t know it is boiling until it’s already boiling. We’re getting to the point where it’s getting close to boiling … and we’re going to die.”

Whisenhunt stresses about ballot initiatives like the one being raised in Oregon, IP13, which is marketed as an animal cruelty bill and would, effectively, ban hunting in the state.

“This is the time that we need to sound the alarm across the nation, not just here in California and Oregon,” he says.

Hunting in California involves bird dogs and office work
From left: Bahman Ghashghaei with his bird dog; Dan Whisenhunt in the California Deer Association office.

Heyser is more concerned about laws that are making hunting harder. Take for example California’s ammunition regulations. To buy hunting ammunition in California, you must have a firearm registered at your current address or else pay $19 for a background check, which takes a few days. In the first several months of implementation, one in five people didn’t pass. In fact, tens of thousands of people in California were initially stopped from buying ammo because they couldn’t pass the background check. Many of those who failed were not flagged for a legitimate incident, like a felony conviction, that disqualified them. They had simply moved since they last purchased a firearm.

A bill wound its way through the legislature in early 2021 that would have created another 11 percent tax on rifles, shotguns, and ammunition and a 10 percent tax on handguns. The additional money would have gone to the California Violence Intervention and Prevention Firearm and Ammunition Tax Fund.

The total tax on firearms and ammunition in California would have risen to nearly 30 percent, according to the California Waterfowl Association. That bill eventually died, but Heyser says she wouldn’t be surprised if similar legislation crops up in the future.

Who Will Pay for Wildlife?

Ask California Fish and Wildlife’s hunter recruitment and retention staff if hunting is going away, and they will tell you to look at the numbers.

California hunters have dropped from a high of about 764,000 in 1970 to somewhere around 286,000 in 2022. And the number of hunters had been incrementally dropping, down to a low of 258,316. Until 2020, that is, when more people started hunting through the coronavirus pandemic.

“How many hunters are in Wyoming?” the department’s communications officer, Peter Tira, asked me about my home state. About 131,000, I told him, though we have fewer than 600,000 people total.

Even South Dakota and Alaska, two states with strong hunting cultures, have only 212,736 and 90,406, respectively. However, Texas might make for a fairer comparison. The Lone Star State has a population of 29 million people and had more than 1.12 million hunters in 2020, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Hunting in California has declined for many of the same reasons it has across the rest of the country: competition for time, urbanization, and lack of accessibility, says Jen Benedet, the department’s assistant deputy director of communications, education, and outreach. And as California’s population exploded to 40 million people, hunters became a smaller percentage of the overall population.

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Benedet also acknowledges some California-specific challenges, including a culture that hasn’t always favored hunting. But hunting wild game and foraging are becoming increasingly important, she says. Benedet was a vegetarian for many years before she picked up a bow and began hunting. Now she hunts deer on and off from June to the end of December.

California has plenty of huntable species, including three types of elk, bighorn sheep, blacktail and mule deer, pheasant, quail, chukar, ptarmigan, many ducks, several geese, snipe, and black bears. But all that species diversity is expensive to manage — the department’s budget for 2021 and 2022 is just shy of $865 million. In any given year, between 20 and 25 percent of that budget will come from hunting and fishing licenses and excise taxes. The rest comes from dozens of other places, including the state’s general fund, which makes up the largest single share.

Sportsmen and -women paying for only a quarter of a state’s game and fish budget is not generally in line with the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, which calls for hunters and anglers to pay to support the conservation of fish and wildlife. For reference, more than 80 percent of Wyoming’s Game and Fish budget comes from hunting and fishing licenses and taxes. Do hunters get less of a say in how wildlife is managed because their dollars don’t pay for all of wildlife management? That depends on whom you ask.

“The people out here, we’re not going to the mall. We’re not going to the bar. Hunting is what we do. We’re outside, and this is what we enjoy.”

—Tim Owsley

“Right now in California, hunters’ voices are already being diminished,” Whisenhunt says.

But Benedet says it’s a myth that fish and wildlife agencies manage for huntable species only if conservation dollars come from hunters.

“The monies that come into fish and wildlife agencies across the entire nation support activities that hunters and anglers also benefit from, even though hunters and anglers may not actually be the ones paying for those activities,” Benedet says. “The fees generated from the cannabis permitting program [for instance] go to cleaning up illegal grows on public land, and huntable species are going to be benefiting from that, but that money did not come from hunters. And so would hunters come back and say, ‘Oh, actually, we don’t want that money because we didn’t produce it’? I don’t think so.”

Hunter collects duck decoys in a flooded marsh
Larry Gury, owner of Closed Zone Farms, collects decoys after a morning hunt.

And even if hunter numbers increased to their former 764,000—which Benedet says the habitat and populations of big-game animals could likely not support—hunting license dollars still wouldn’t generate enough money to support the budget. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is not only responsible for wild-game management but also manages more than 1 million acres of public land, cleaning up oil spills, fighting wildfires, and overseeing the state’s cannabis permitting program.

It’s unclear if a decrease in hunting license dollars links directly to a lack of hunting opportunity, says Ron Regan, executive director of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Excise tax dollars that go to states must fund the conservation of game animals and game fish, and those funds have boomed in recent years.

“There’s not a shortage of funds to address [hunting and fishing],” Regan says. But in order for states to receive those federal funds, they must match the money coming in (usually with $1 for every $3). The state money used to match those federal funds typically comes from license dollars.

The more pressing question is, What happens if the funding from hunting and fishing licenses drops to the point of insignificance?

“If funding shrunk over time, we would probably see impacts to hunting-specific consumptive use, specific programming and education, and outreach efforts,” Benedet says. “Would it impact the actual, physical habitat? Yes, because the money that hunters supply would need to be replaced, and we’d have to figure out how to replace that, and right now, we don’t have that.”

Hunting for the Future

The persistent drought, frequent wildfires, and deadly bacteria all feel like a bad dream as Owsley, Hinkle, and Timber sit on stools nestled in leggy tules (a tall, grassy plant ubiquitous in California marshes) on the edge of Pond 14 in the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area.

The group decided to wake up at 1:30 a.m. and drive an hour in soupy fog for a chance to shoot ducks. Owsley drew number 84 in the lottery, not nearly high enough to earn them a spot. But Timber, the 7-year-old on his first duck hunt, drew number seven, and the three hunters got to go in.

Shortly after daylight, a lone teal lights over the decoys, and Owsley gets a shot. The bird drops, and Hinkle’s yellow Lab, muscles taut and shaking from anticipation, brings it back.

Duck hunters in the marsh
From left: Larry Gury watches for ducks; Brendan Hinkle hunts a public marsh near Sacramento.

An hour later, Owsley drops another duck, but then the action really slows to a crawl. With his father’s guidance, Timber fires his .410 a couple of times as practice. He doesn’t seem bothered by the fact that he hasn’t shot at a duck. Likewise, Hinkle and Owsley don’t seem disappointed that they haven’t killed more ducks this morning.

“The people who are out here, we’re not going to go to the mall,” Owsley says. “We’re not going to go to the bar. [Hunting] is what we do. We’re outside, and this what we enjoy.”

“There’s a hunting heritage that is important to pass on,” Hinkle adds. “And the effort, and the commitment and the dedication, the hunters’ etiquette—it teaches young people great life skills, and problem-solving skills, and they gain an appreciation for a natural resource that could be lost.”

So Hinkle, Owsley, and Timber will keep holding out hope to draw the next blind, because at least for now, hunting in California is worth it.

This story first ran on April 22, 2022.