Why We're Losing Hunters | Outdoor Life

Why We Suck at Recruiting New Hunters, Why It Matters, and How You Can Fix It

Hunter numbers have been dwindling for decades; now the bottom is about to fall out of license-funded conservation. Here’s what went wrong and what you—yes, you—can do about it

You probably rejoice when you spend an entire day afield without bumping into another hunter. Encountering strangers—especially when they’ve stumbled across your secret spot—spoils the solitude we seek in the outdoors.

So you’d be hard-pressed to find any sportsman or -woman who wants more competition in the woods. Yet, more hunters is precisely what we need right now.

Here’s why: Baby boomers make up our nation’s largest cohort of hunters, and they’ve already begun to age out of the sport. Within 15 years, most will stop buying licenses entirely. And when they do, our ranks could plunge by 30 percent—along with critical funding for wildlife management, advocacy for hunting, and a tradition that’s probably pretty important to you. In other words, the clock is ticking. And unless we act now, we might not recover from the fallout.

Baby Blues

Hunting participation peaked in 1982, when nearly 17 million hunters purchased 28.3 million licenses. Hunter numbers have steadily declined since. We lost 2.2 million hunters between 2011 and 2016 alone, according to the National Survey of Hunting, Fishing, and Wildlife-­Associated Recreation, a report issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2016, just 11.5 million people hunted. That’s less than 4 percent of the national population.

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Baby boomers (anyone born between 1946 and 1964) make up roughly a third of all hunters nationally. They currently range from 54 to 72 years old, which means the oldest have already crossed the threshold for aging out.

montana hunting and fishing licenses

A new hunter shows off his tag. You can read about his hunt here.

Matt Arkins

“If you watch the demographic shift of license purchases by age, what you find is that when people hit their late 60s and early 70s, regardless of how much you incentivize them, they stop hunting and fishing,” says Matt Dunfee, director of special programs at the Wildlife Management Institute (WMI). He’s been studying hunter recruitment and retention for the last decade. “There’s nothing we can do. They just get too old.”

Fishing participation is also in danger of imploding, but that collapse won’t occur for about 20 years. If we can defuse the more pressing hunting license problem first, we can apply those solutions to fishing.

Participation Plummets

The baby boomer bubble is going to burst, but boomers aren’t entirely to blame for this mess. Hunters should have been recruiting enough new license buyers to, if not increase ranks, keep them stable. So what gives?

Shifting demographics play a big part. Hunters have historically been white men; today, more than 90 percent of hunters are Caucasian, and more than 70 percent are male. But soon—by 2044, according to U.S. Census projections—Caucasians will make up less than half the U.S. population. Plus, the rural population is staying relatively stable, while urban populations are increasing.

“If we think about the future of hunting like a portfolio, right now we have everything invested in one stock—in one demographic: middle-aged white guys. How representative is that of the American culture right now? More importantly, how representative will it be in 50 years?” Dunfee says. “And the crazy thing is, we know this stock is going to go down. Let’s diversify the portfolio so hunting becomes something Americans do, not just something middle Americans do.”

Band-Aid Programs, Big Problems

This might be news to you, but wildlife agencies and non-governmental agencies (NGOs) have been aware of the issue for years. States initially reacted by offering new-hunter events that recruitment, retention, and reactivation (R3) experts call “feel-good programs.”

In 2009, researchers at the WMI found that nearly 500 of these programs were in place nationwide: Multiple programs for attracting new hunters existed in the same states, most of them duplicating efforts and few gathering data. Only a quarter kept track of who attended, and just 10 percent administered exit surveys to determine whether their program was effective. But the continued decline of license sales demonstrates this glut of good intentions didn’t stop the countdown clock.

“Most often, we are preaching to the choir. We’re giving the kids of folks who already hunt [about 80 percent of attendees] this opportunity, rather than reaching new audiences,” says Chris Willard, R3 coordinator at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Meanwhile, these programs aren’t that strong at attracting a diverse crowd, according to the Council for Advancing Hunting and the Shooting Sports (CAHSS). Many events are designed for kids, which often deters adults from enrolling. And, contrary to popular belief, kids aren’t the best audience to recruit as lifetime hunters. In fact, they’re actually the hardest to retain. This may surprise hunters from hunting families, but think about R3 in the context of non-hunting families: Kids don’t have disposable income, parents direct their time, and competing interests like athletics only intensify with age.

“If you spend $500 on a kid, the probability you get a return on that investment is really low,” Dunfee explains. “But a young adult population from college students on up has time, has money, has solidified socially, has motivation. We’ve seen with pilot efforts that this audience can be motivated at a much higher rate. Your return on investment is much higher, because they’ll buy a license next year, and they’ll take their friends.”

R3 stakeholders (who usually belong to the outdoor industry, state wildlife agencies, or conservation NGOs) also realized too late that recruitment takes time.

“It’s not enough to just host these events and have a good time—you have to be really strategic about who you bring into those events,” Willard says. “And more importantly, once they’re at those events, how do you connect them to that next step?”

U.S. Hunting License Holders vs. Population

U.S. Hunting License Holders vs Population infograph

These two graphs reflect the change in hunting license holders over time (left) and those same trends compared to the change in national population trends. The upswing in license holders in the 2000s is attributed to a change in data collection methods.

Illustration by Nicolas Rapp / Sources: USFWS, U.S. Census

Age of U.S. Hunters

Age of U.S. Hunters infograph

This graph demonstrates the rising age of hunters. The proportion of hunters age 45 and up has increased from 29 to 55 percent since the early ’90s (combined green segments). The ratio of hunters age 16 to 44 has shrunk from 71 to 45 percent (yellow segments). The age data from 2016 USFWS surveys was not available.

Illustration by Nicolas Rapp / Source: USFWS

the license age cliff infographic

Distribution of Hunters by Age in Arizona

This data is specific to Arizona, but it’s a good representation of the national trend: Dr. Loren Chase compiled data in more than 20 states, and nearly all showed this same shift. The two peaks roughly represent baby boomers. As they age, that peak shifts closer to the threshold when most hunters stop buying licenses—age 70. When the peak crumbles (i.e., all boomers breach 70), hunter ranks will drop by about 30 percent.

Illustration by Nicolas Rapp / Source: Dr. Loren Chase

Hunting License Holders, by State

We broke down historical hunting license data by state and found the net change in hunting license sales has decreased in 21 states and increased in 29 states since 1960 (“Net Change,” below). But that analysis is deceiving until you track it against population changes (“Per Capita,” below). Only four states have seen a per capita increase in hunting license holders (ND, AL, OK, MS). The remaining states have seen no change or a decrease in holders.

change in license holders per capita, 1960-2016

Change in License Holders Per Capita, 1960–2016

Hunting license holders have failed to keep pace with population in most states.

Illustration by Nicolas Rapp / Sources: USFWS, U.S. Census

Net Change in License Holders (1960-2016)

Net Change in License Holders (1960-2016)

Some states show a positive increase in license holders over time, but when you compare those figures with population growth (below) you can see that we've lost hunters per capita.

Illustration by Nicolas Rapp / Sources: USFWS, U.S. Census

Change in License Holders Per Capita

Change in License Holders Per Capita

When you track license changes alongside population growth, you can see that we've lost hunters per capita.

Illustration by Nicolas Rapp / Sources: USFWS, U.S. Census

Number of Hunters 1991 and 2016

Number of Hunters in 1991 and 2016

These boxes are proportional representations of hunters by species type. There were 14.1 million U.S. hunters in 1991; in 2016, that number fell to 11.5 million, according to the USFWS. You might notice that the sum of these breakdowns is greater than those respective totals; that’s because some hunters bought more than one type of hunting license that year. The net change in number of hunters for each species type decreased between 1991 and 2016. For more on the decline of migratory bird hunters, see The Goslings.

Illustration by Nicolas Rapp / Source: USFWS

Rethinking Recruitment

So what is effective? Workshops, like those offered by the Becoming an Outdoors Woman programs, get more of the folks who enroll to buy hunting licenses.

“We know that model works,” Willard says. “The challenge has been, most agencies do a handful of those programs in their state every year. And that’s not enough to really move the needle. It’s not scalable. So what we’re working on is to take that model that works, and scale it.”

Other agencies are testing programs designed to target the locavore movement that has captivated urbanites.

“Hipsters want to hunt. But they don’t want to hunt the way a rural farm boy from Illinois wants to hunt,” Dunfee says. “They don’t want to dress the same way, they don’t like focusing on antlers, they don’t like taking pictures of their animals. But they want local, sustainable, ecologically conscious meat. And within our efforts, there are few places to realize those values.”

Charles Evans, an R3 coordinator in Athens, Ga., piloted the Field to Fork program in 2016 with groups like the Quality Deer Management Association. Evans recruits at farmers markets by offering samples of venison.

“We recruit people, including vegetarians, vegans, organic farmers, nutritionists—we’ve had all sorts of different people come through our course, and they’re all there because they want to learn to hunt,” says Evans, who is working to expand the program statewide. “They likely already have an interest in nature. They see hunting as viable, especially when you give them the facts about how hunting supports conservation. And their willingness to learn how to do it is astounding. We were met with more demand than we could handle.”

Meanwhile, Mountain Song Expeditions in Vermont offers weekend intensives for novice deer hunters, and eight-month apprenticeships. Course activities include traditional shooting practice and blood-trailing exercises, but also mock hunts, meditation, and a sacred goat slaughter so students can practice butchering.

“Most people who learn to hunt are woven into communities who give them that momentum. The type of people I teach don’t know anyone else who hunts,” says owner Murphy Robinson, a 35-year-old former vegetarian. “They aren’t friends with people that hunt who are going to reinforce that. So we’re creating that group within this program.”

Robinson is also a hunter-safety instructor. Hunter-ed courses are limited in their R3 role since they’re designed to address safety and game laws, not mentorship. Research shows hunter ed isn’t a barrier to R3, but state agencies are making courses more convenient by addressing issues like seasonal bottlenecks.

“Our common refrain was, ‘You should’ve planned better, it’s not our fault,’” Willard says. “But if we know people are clamoring for hunter-education classes in September, they’re clamoring because they really want to hunt. And if we don’t accommodate that, we’re not going to be able to sell them a license.”

Another R3 champion is Dr. Loren Chase of the Oregon DFW. One of his reports shows small-game camps recruit hunters just as effectively as big-game camps. Chase argues that small-game hunting is cheaper and easier. It can be done more frequently, offers more trigger pulls, and takes less biomass out of the ecosystem.

An Easy Cure

Right now, organizations are in the trenches. Even the job of R3 coordinator is relatively new—26 states have R3 coordinators, compared to just seven states two years ago, reports CAHSS. The other party responsible for our situation is the orange army. Agencies aren’t charged with recruiting hunters, but they’re stepping up because they must. Hunters need to step up, too. There are piles of research to wade through, but the takeaway is stupidly simple: If just 30 percent of the 11.5 million individuals who hunted in 2016 create one new hunter, we could solve the looming license problem in one year.

There’s a catch, of course—two, actually. The first is that recruiting a hunter takes time. Veterans should budget two to four years for mentoring a newbie. Hunters must commit to ensuring rookies get the skills and support they need to become an annual license buyer.

The second, Dunfee says, is to recruit someone who doesn’t look or live like you. If you’re a man, maybe it means recruiting a woman. If you’re white, maybe it means mentoring a person of color. If you’re a farmer, maybe it means teaching a townie. Choose your own apprentice—after all, it should be someone you like to spend time with—but remember to be on the lookout for aspiring hunters in all sorts of unexpected places.

“We could shift the paradigm. Hunters were given a gift of the resources of North America and the opportunity to hunt,” Dunfee says. “And implicit in that gift is that it must be passed on to somebody else.”

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