Is the USFWS Low-Balling the Total Number of Duck Hunters in the U.S.?
There’s been a longstanding disparity between duck hunter numbers and the amount of duck stamps sold each year. Something doesn't add up.
Ask almost any duck hunter, and they’ll say they’re seeing more pressure in the field over recent years. But federal data indicate there actually aren’t more waterfowlers buying duck stamps. So, what gives?
From 2011 to 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) sold an average of 1.5 to 1.7 million federal duck stamps a year. But according to its annual harvest reports (HIP), duck hunter numbers have been much lower, fluctuating between 800,000 to 1 million over the last decade or so. That means there are potentially 500,000 to 700,000 more stamps sold each season than there are hunters—a staggering number.
The USFWS attributes the extra sales to collectors, hunters who buy two or more stamps, passionate birders, outdoor enthusiasts, and vehement supporters of National Wildlife Refuges who value preserving bird habitat across the nation. But it remains a mystery as to who definitively purchases these stamps because the USFWS doesn’t have any hard data on individual sales.
So, who is buying all these extra stamps? Does the disparity in stamps bought and the number of estimated duck hunters in the U.S. mean there are more waterfowlers than the USFWS reports? I talked to some of the leading experts in conservation and waterfowling to find out.
Why Do Duck Stamp Sales and Hunter Numbers Matter?
The continued disparity between duck stamp sales and hunter numbers has both puzzled and frustrated duck hunters for years. The USFWS continues to estimate that the amount of participation is trending down. In 1970 there were more than 2 million duck hunters, according to the USFWS, and there are definitely far less than that today, but how many fewer hunters go afield is up for debate.
Duck stamp sales remain steadily (and significantly) higher than the number of U.S. duck hunters. Many waterfowlers don’t understand how there can be such a wide gap between the two estimates, especially when so many of them see more hunters in the marsh each fall. Overcrowding has become an issue in many duck hunting locations. It has gotten so bad in Arkansas that the state actually limits the number of days non-residents can hunt WMAs and also the actual dates they are allowed to hunt those management areas.
HIP is supposed to accurately tally the number of active duck hunters, but it’s a flawed system. It’s impossible to coordinate all the different state’s data and come up with an accurate number of participating duck hunters. Also, many duck hunters hunt multiple states and must adhere to the HIP standard when buying a non-resident license. Does all that data actually make it to the USFWS? No one we talked to can say for sure.
It also seems impossible that there would be 1 million active duck hunters and 1.7 million duck stamps purchased. That would mean that nearly 70 percent of duck hunters buy two stamps, or that many of the surplus stamp purchases are made up by non-hunters. Imagine if you were a deer hunter and a massive contingent of non-hunters bought a deer license just for the hell of it. That doesn’t happen in the whitetail world, so how can it be possible in waterfowl?
And since not every state has an accurate way of tracking hunter densities (some public marshes are simply open to hunters without signing in or securing a permit) that makes it more difficult to manage hunting pressure at public wetlands and refuges. If you don’t know how many folks are actually hunting, you can’t know how much access (i.e duck habitat) is required in order to sustain viable hunting options.
How Do We Start Tracking Duck Stamp Buyers?
According to the USFWS, in the 85 years since the duck stamp was implemented, funds from the sales have supported the conservation of 6 million acres of wetland habitat. Now, conservation groups want to start targeting their marketing efforts to hunters and expand to photographers, birders, and general conservationists to help diversify the funding generated by the stamp. The funds don’t actually go to the conservation groups but more dollars for ducks is certainly good for these organizations. But without the data to understand who is buying the stamps, their efforts are a shot in the dark.
John Denvey, the Senior Vice President of Policy for Delta Waterfowl said he’s been having the same conversation about the gap in active hunter data versus federal duck stamp data for most of his career, about 23 years.
“If you we’re marketing this, if this was something on Amazon, you’d find a way to understand who your consumer is and why they were buying,” he said. “I get this every time I call Delta Airlines or a credit company, or bank or mortgage company. They all are doing surveys on the front or the back end. I think it’s easy to implement and it’s a 21st century solution.”
In March of this year, the waterfowl working group under the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) created a new task force to make recommendations for the federal duck stamp. One of the members on that task force, Luke Naylor, the Waterfowl Program Coordinator for Arkansas Game and Fish Commission says there is a lot of conversation about the feasibility of data collection through the online purchasing platforms.
“The E-stamp program is run entirely through state licensing systems. So, if any additional data collection would happen, it would have to be coordinated through those states that are actually selling,” Naylor said.
Naylor also says that some of these changes will require legislative congressional action because of the way the duck stamp was originally implemented.
“[It’s] a lot of layers of complexity and not as simple as just saying, ‘hey, we want this to happen,’” Naylor said.
Duck Stamp Numbers and HIPs Don’t Match
The Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act was signed in 1934 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, requiring all waterfowl hunters (anyone 16 years of age or older) to purchase and carry a federal duck stamp on an annual basis. The data from the federal duck stamp purchases were used to determine how many waterfowl hunters there were across the country.
About 58 years later a new program to assess other types of migratory bird hunters (including waterfowl) and species harvest began to be implemented by each state across the nation. The 1998-1999 waterfowl season was the first time all states participated in the Migratory Bird Harvest Information Program (HIP). Just like the federal duck stamp, all migratory bird hunters are required to enroll in HIP.
When a hunter enrolls, they provide the state agency they are hunting in with their contact information and answer a few questions about their hunting activity. But hunters don’t necessarily go through this process just once a season. Hunters needs a separate HIP certification in each state they hunt migratory birds through that state agency. Those agencies then provide the USFWS with the hunter’s contact information and the hunting activity survey. The USFWS then randomly selects hunters in each state, flyway, and management unit in order to get a representative sample of active hunters.
This is where some of the perception of inaccurate waterfowl hunter numbers stem from. Dale Humburg, a retired Ducks Unlimited Chief Scientist and Senior Science Advisor says: “Those questions hunters are asked during the initial certification are only used to stratify the sample that’s conducted later. It’s not used to develop the estimate itself. So, you can understand why people might have a misconception about the data acquired.”
That representative sample of hunters that is identified are then asked to complete a more in-depth survey, the national harvest survey. These surveys are broken down into five categories: waterfowl (ducks, geese, sea ducks and brant); doves and band-tailed pigeons; American woodcock; snipe, rails, gallinules and coots; and sandhill cranes.
The national harvest survey asks hunters to maintain a voluntary hunting record throughout the hunting season. This information is used to estimate the number of active hunters, number of days hunted, as well as the harvest estimate of each species. A subset group of hunters who are participating in the national harvest survey are also asked to complete a wing survey. This information helps generate more detailed harvest information and population health that informs seasons and limits as long as hunters are providing accurate information.
There Are Two Kinds of Hunters, and They Are Tough to Track
Reports from HIP have shown a decline in active waterfowl hunters. According to the latest report for the 2019-2020 season there were 989,500 hunters, down from 1.09 million in the 2018-2019 season. This was only the third time in the past 81 years that the number of waterfowl hunters in the United States has slipped below 1 million.
That decline isn’t always felt by hunters when they head afield, especially as they are elbowing for a duck hole in a crowded public marsh.
“So, if there are fewer hunters, the perception that there ought to be more places to hunt (i.e. less crowded) then becomes a question that the decline [in hunters] might actually be a reflection of the decline in hunting effort,” said Humburg. “It could be that the folks who are not hunting now are those that are on the edges, who hunted a day or two throughout the last 10 to 20 years…and those [people on the edge] are the primary folks that we’re losing from the hunting population.”
Humburg also says that “any single years estimate of waterfowl hunters really underestimates the total number of people that, over a period of time, hunt…so there’s a whole lot of variation of the people who hunt casually versus those that hunt in an avid manner.”
The Data Doesn’t Add Up to Duck Hunting Reality
Ramsey Russell, the founder of getducks.com, is a life-long duck hunter. He recently embarked on a year-long U.S. duck hunting tour and has traveled to six continents to hunt ducks. So, he has been around and seen things many waterfowlers and biologists have not. He believes there is a decline in hunters but that the real problem lies in hunter density and lack of access. In his estimation, there are too few public locations for duck hunters, which is what makes it seem like more folks are taking up the sport.
“Mississippi is a prime example. Go to public land and you go to the boat ramp, and there are a dozen out-of-state vehicles parked there. It’s not just the local hunters in your backyard, it’s hunters from other places coming to hunt,” he said.
“And that is a tremendous amount of hunting pressure and hunting activity on a decreasing land base. We all know, we need to recruit more hunters but where are these hunters going to go? Where are they going to hunt? It just makes me wonder how many people are going to participate in hunting, if they can only go out a couple of mornings [each season and be successful].”
Russell’s perspective should help fuel the fire for the USFWS to conduct more surveying on the federal duck stamp in order to diversify the marketing of the stamp, which will increase funding. That will help preserve more migratory bird habitat and theoretically give duck hunters more places to hunt because it will generate more revenue that will aid in developing additional hunting locales.
The disparity between the national trends versus hunter experiences in the marsh also raises concerns about the legitimacy and quality of HIP data.
“I think part of the challenge we have right now is because of some of the challenges with HIP and some of the challenges with the duck stamp,” Devney said. “We don’t have as much precision around that decline. Do we need to get to the seventh decimal point of clarity to understand and take action to remedy the decline? No, I’m not saying that. But I think having better information would be quite useful.”
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New Methods for Counting Hunters
The USFWS is trying to address those data quality concerns. Brad Bortner, the retired Chief of Migratory Birds for the USFWS out of Washington D.C., is working with the Wildlife Management Institute (in cooperation with the states) to look at new methods of determining the number of hunters.
Bortner has been in the profession of waterfowl management for over 35 years and says one of the issues with data quality is when hunters go to their sporting goods store to buy their hunting licenses.
“In some cases, the salesclerk has a line of hunters to buy licenses, so they want to rush through the purchase. And those clerks don’t take the time to ask the hunters the questions that are associated with HIP,” he said. “And those questions are important for conducting an efficient sample and efficient survey.”
The data quality heavily relies on the accuracy of a hunter’s response. It’s possible some hunters say they harvested fewer birds than they actually did (or none at all) because they are worried about that information becoming public, and more out-of-staters showing up in their public duck holes.
“Sometimes hunters don’t understand the importance of those questions and are suspicious about them. They’ll indicate that they didn’t hunt last year or they didn’t harvest any birds and that makes it much more difficult to find the avid hunters that are successful and also affects the precision and efficiency of the survey,” Bortner said.
Bortner is working with state agencies to look at their licensing systems to see if there’s a way to take the third party, the salesclerk, out of the HIP certification process so the hunter responses that are being collected go directly to the state agencies.
Other important data that might be missing from HIP and the federal duck stamp are demographics and social motivations. National surveys have been initiated to understand the age classes of hunters and the reasons why they hunt, but are only done periodically. The argument to integrate that type of social survey into HIP and the federal duck stamp to help strategic marketing efforts is more urgent. Many important waterfowl habitats in North America face potentially detrimental impacts from drought, varied weather patterns, or just poor management, and more targeted data tracking could significantly help such areas.
But Botner says that there are consequences to asking more questions. Because the more detailed this survey, the longer each hunter will have to spend filling it out, and that’s not ideal.
“The length of time that it takes for hunters to fill out that information may start becoming counterproductive,” Bortner said.
That same theory could be applied to a birder or a photographer buying the federal duck stamp. If hunters and conversationists want to ensure productive wetland habitat for birds and have more good hunting opportunities, they will likely have to take the time to fill out more survey questions. For now, people like Naylor, Bortner and others are trying to decide how to implement that data collection more efficiently and accurately, so all duck hunters (and ducks) can benefit.