Delta: Rumors of Hunting's Demise Have been Greatly Exaggerated
Posted on 04/02/2008
BISMARCK, ND—The headlines painted a gloomy picture for the future of hunting—"Fewer Americans Hunting and Fishing"..."Waterfowl Hunters a Vanishing Breed"..."The Elusive Hunter".
The stories were in response to last fall's release of the 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, which showed hunter numbers the lowest they've been since 1970.
Anti-hunters gloated at the news, but an article in the current issue of Delta Waterfowl magazine—the first in a five-part series—says rumors of hunting's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
"The numbers simply don't tell the whole story," says Senior Vice President John Devney of Delta's Bismarck office. "Yes, hunting participation has declined from its peaks. Waterfowl hunting, in particular, is way down. The question is ‘why?'. This series looks beyond the headlines to learn more about what's causing the declines."
What Delta learned is that declines in hunting participation appear to be more the result of changing demographics than changing attitudes about hunting. Foremost among those demographic factors is the aging of the post-war baby boom generation.
"Lost in the hand-wringing over outdoor participation is the impact of baby boomers, those 44- to 62-year-olds who for decades have constituted the bulk of the hunting and angling population," the article says.
The story likens the baby-boom generation's impact on hunter numbers to a rabbit being swallowed by a rattlesnake. "That rattler was long and lean before it ate the rabbit and will be long and lean after the rabbit is digested, but for now there's a noticeable bulge passing through its body."
The 1946-to-1964 population explosion had the same effect on outdoor participation. Hunter numbers swelled from 10 million in 1955 before the boomers came along to 18 million in 1975 when most of the generation was old enough to hunt.
By 1980, the first year the entire generation fit neatly into the survey's age groups, 58 percent all hunters were baby boomers. Boomers still make up 44 percent of the hunting population, but many will soon be hanging up their guns for good.
A retention curve developed by economist Jerry Leonard of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, author of a 40-page addendum to the national survey called "Fishing and Hunting Recruitment and Retention in the U.S. from 1990 to 2005", shows the drop-out rate accelerates at age 45.
It's possible the sixty-is-the-new-forty mentality will warp Leonard's retention curve, but it's inevitable that all boomers will eventually quit hunting. "The retention curve always starts at 100 and always goes to zero," Leonard says.
"Just as their retirement will put a strain on social security," the Delta article says, "the baby boom generation's departure will leave fewer hunters to support conservation."
Says Devney, "Baby boomers inflated hunter numbers in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. If the boomers hadn't come along, hunting participation would have been stable to slightly increasing from 1955 to the present."
Devney admits hunting participation hasn't kept pace with the overall population growth, but says another demographic factor—urbanization—is largely responsible. "Almost half of all hunters are rural males," he says, "but the rural population isn't keeping pace with the overall population. Back in the 1950s, almost 40 percent of Americans lived in rural areas, but today only 20 percent are rural."
An index developed by Delta shows hunting participation has actually exceeded the growth of the rural male population since 1955. Mark Damian Duda of Responsive Management, a research firm specializing in outdoor participation, agrees, saying, "Urbanization is the driving force behind the decline in hunter numbers."
Leonard's analysis confirms the impact of urbanization. "There's no doubt the bulk of the decline from 1990 to 2005 takes place in urban areas," he says.
Devney says availability of game is another important consideration, and cites the growth of big-game hunting as proof. "A lot of people don't realize we actually have twice as many big-game hunters today as we had in 1955," he says. "The increase in big-game hunting reflects the tremendous growth in the number of whitetail deer and wild turkeys in this country."
Another contributor to the article, researcher Dr. Craig Miller of the University of Georgia, cites access as "the No. 1 problem facing hunting." As quality places become harder to find, participants drift away from the activity.
Leonard's analysis revealed several other little-known factors Delta says will be helpful in understanding fluctuations in hunter numbers:
* The hunting initiation rate declined dramatically among children living in households with incomes of less than $40,000 but was virtually unchanged in households with $40,000 to $99,999 incomes.
* Parents who hunt small game are far more likely to have children who hunt. Squirrels and grouse had the most noticeable impact, while rabbits, ducks and pheasants have a positive but less pronounced impact.
* Children are more likely to become hunters if their parents hunt. In households where the male parent hunted 1 to 3 days, sons were nine times more likely to hunt than in households where the male parent doesn't hunt. "If the female parent hunts, the odds of having children who hunt skyrocket," said Leonard.
* The decline in the hunting initiation rate between 1995 and 2005 was five times higher in urban areas than it was in rural areas, and the decline in the retention rate among urban hunters was double.
Devney says ensuing installments in The Vanishing Hunter series will examine the social-cultural aspects of hunting, privatization of hunting lands, the role of the media and solutions for addressing the problem.