Number of Hunters is Dwindling
Urbanization and cultural changes discourage newcomers to the sport
By PATRICK JACKSON, The News Journal
Posted Thursday, September 6, 2007
Arthur Bright has spent his life on the hunt.
And while there are still enough hunters like him to force the state to hold lotteries for seeking game on its property, he said he can see the number of hunters dropping.
“There just aren’t as many hunting families, so it’s not being passed on to young people,” he said outside the Little Creek checking station Wednesday, where Bright was waiting to get a dove-hunting site on the Penuel Tract of the Milford Neck Wildlife Area.
“It’s really good when you can get the whole family out hunting,” he said. “People think it’s just fathers and sons, but I know of some mothers who are pretty good hunters, too.”
But statistics show that whole families of hunters are becoming the exception, not the rule.
New figures from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show that the number of hunters 16 and older declined by 10 percent nationally between 1996 and 2006 — from 14 million to about 12.5 million. The drop was most acute in New England, the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific states, which lost 400,000 hunters in that span.
In Delaware, the number of hunters dropped from 20,257 in 1997 to just under 17,000 in 2005, the last year for which full official figures were available for licenses issued in the state.
Patrick Emory, director of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s wildlife division, said there is a downward trend, but the numbers may exaggerate the decline because people 65 years of age and older aren’t required to buy a hunting license.
“There are still a lot of senior citizens who go out and hunt,” he said. “So it’s hard to say exactly how many hunters are out there.”
The primary reasons for the decline, experts say, are the loss of hunting land to urbanization plus a perception by many families that they can’t afford the time or expense that hunting entails.
Bright, 71, of Felton, and people like John Thompson, head of the Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association, say the steady decrease in land available for hunting — either through development or because landowners don’t want hunters — plays an important role.
“It is a concern,” Thompson said of the declining numbers. “There are a lot of factors that go into it: Young people have a lot more options for activities than they did before. There is less land and there have been changes in society.”
Thompson recalled that, in his youth, friends would leave Wilmington with a .22-caliber rifle to hunt in nearby wooded areas.
“Today, if you saw a 13-year-old walking with a .22, they’d be surrounded by helicopters and the SWAT team,” he said.
Currently, Emory’s division is responsible for about 60,000 acres, with access balanced among hunters, birdwatchers and other groups, such as horseback riders.
One side effect of the loss of land here has been an increasing sense of frustration among hunters such as state Rep. Joe Booth, R-Georgetown.
Booth said the squeeze from property owners who don’t want hunters on their land is cramming more people who can’t afford to join private hunting clubs onto either public ground or onto the farms and land of people who will let them hunt.
“You get people kind of cutthroating each other for a spot,” he said. “That can frustrate people because they can’t get a shot.”
Dave Graves of Clayton said that may send Delaware hunters elsewhere.
Graves, a retired electrician, said people are interested in game preserves where they have better-than-even-odds of getting a kill, although he tried that once and came away unimpressed.
“When you see these places on TV with woods and the hunters coming out with something, it looks good,” he said. “My son and I went to one of those places in Arkansas. It was $300 a day and we only got one duck.”
The development boom in Delaware and elsewhere has not only reduced the land available for hunting, it also has changed the population mix, in many cases replacing people for whom hunting is part of a rural lifestyle with suburbanites who come from families that have never hunted.
Hunting remains vibrant in many rural states — 19 percent of residents 16 and older hunted last year in Montana and 17 percent in North Dakota, compared with 1 percent in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Nationally, 5 percent of the 16-and-over population hunted in 2006, down from 7 percent in 1996.
National hunting expert Mark Damian Duda, executive director of Virginia-based research firm Responsive Management, said America’s increasingly urban and suburban culture makes it less friendly toward the pastime.
“You don’t just get up and go hunting one day — your father or father-type figure has to have hunted,” Duda said. “In a rural environment, where your friends and family hunt, you feel comfortable with guns, you feel comfortable with killing an animal.”
Seeing a trend
Some animal-welfare activists welcome the trend, noting that it coincides with a 13 percent increase in wildlife watching since 1996. But hunters and state wildlife agencies, as they prepare for the fall hunting season, say the drop is worrisome.
“It’s hunters who are the most willing to give their own dollar for wildlife conservation,” said Gregg Patterson of Ducks Unlimited.
Of the 50 state wildlife agencies, most rely on hunting and fishing license fees for the bulk of their revenue, and only a handful receive significant infusions from their state’s general fund.
“They’re trying to take care of all wildlife and all habitats on a shoestring budget,” said Rachel Brittin of the Washington-based Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
Many states — including Delaware — have responded to the revenue dip by raising fees for hunting — and fishing.
In June, Delaware increased its fees for hunting licenses for the first time in about 20 years. The $12.50 increase was backed by hunting groups and is being used to qualify for federal grants that will improve facilities around the state.
Randy Schmeling, a co-owner of Ocean Pro Outfitters in Smyrna, which sells a wide range of fishing and hunting gear as well as hunting and fishing licenses, said he hasn’t seen the increase drive people away.
“People complain about it,” he said. “Then they get out their checkbook.”
License sales at his store are up slightly from last year, he said, but the fall hunting season is just getting under way and time will tell what effect, if any, the increases will have.
Booth said the fees were designed to put most of the increase on out-of-staters who hunt here.
Hunters like Bright and Graves said the licenses and the $10 fee for a hunting site on state land are a bargain, compared to the shotguns, decoys and other hunting gear that can run into thousands of dollars.
“A buddy of mine and I used to figure it cost about $60 a bird,” said Bright, who eats what he bags. “If you don’t, you ought to just let it fly by.”
Rob Sexton, a vice president of the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, said one upside of the shrinking numbers is that hunting groups are more motivated to seek remedies, such as access to more land and less burdensome regulations.
“There are still a lot of us,” he said. “Hunting is a great passion for our people.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this story. Contact Patrick Jackson at 678-4274 or firstname.lastname@example.org.