Pondering The Present And Future Of Hunting

Photos courtesy of Paul Atkins

The following appears in the January issue of Alaska Sporting Journal: 


I see it and read about it more and more every day: the drastic and somewhat alarming decline of hunters in the United States.

Many people try and rationalize it, blaming it on one thing or another. But one thing is for sure: If we don’t do something soon, it will get even worse.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we lost about 2.2 million hunters between 2011 and 2016. USFWS also reported that only 11.5 million Americans hunt, which is only 4 percent of the U.S. population. Most of those are from the baby boomer generation, and using simple math, many of those are about to age out of the sport.

One of the most devastating effects is the loss in revenue that comes from the sale of hunting licenses. Those sales help fund our wildlife agencies. Those funds in turn help with conservation and the overall health of our wildlife populations. Also, with the decline comes the loss in sales from hunting gear. If people aren’t hunting, they’re not buying the gear it takes to actually hunt. Bottom line: A decrease in hunters affects the entire industry.

For me, I thought it was just a phase, similar to how game populations fluctuate over time, but it isn’t and now it is starting to get serious. Many will ask, What can we do to increase hunting numbers? Others stand by and keep doing what they’re doing without any effort in trying to recruit new people to the sport.

I notice it more on social media than anywhere else, where many of the more influential companies and even the so-called professionals stand by and watch, trying to sell the latest and greatest. If something isn’t done soon, there will be nobody to sell anything to.

Hunting has been a rite of passage for Atkins’ family. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

WHAT HAS CAUSED ALL this to happen? As I mentioned, it comes from a variety of circumstances, in my opinion. Many think it’s just a sign of the times. With so many distractions, such as video games, phones and the age of technology, the younger generation just isn’t into hunting anymore.

I’m a teacher and see a great deal of this trend. Kids today would rather stay home, hang out with their friends and play on their phones and Play Stations. It honestly isn’t their fault entirely; it’s just the social media age we live in. Even here in the far north, where hunting is a way of life, I’ve started to see the decline.

I can use my son as an example. To be honest, I wasn’t much different when I was young. I, like many other fathers and grandfathers, took my son everywhere with me when he was young. It might be upriver to hunt caribou or out on the tundra to chase moose and muskox. Occasionally, if his mother didn’t know, we’d even look for bears.

He was glad to be there and shared in the joys and discomforts of the hunting life. Now in his late teens, his interest is elsewhere and he doesn’t really want to go when I ask. I can relate.

I went everywhere with my dad when I was a kid, but when I discovered girls and had the ability to drive, I veered away from hunting. Luckily my father had laid the foundation early and I eventually came back to it.

Time and money are two other factors that have played a major role in the decline, in my opinion, though I’m also guessing that’s not so much the case in some parts of the United States, where heading out to the back 40 for an afternoon hunt is as easy as slipping on your boots and grabbing your bow.

But in places like Alaska, especially here in the Arctic, going out on any hunt can be a major ordeal and takes effort. Hunts here are usually weeklong affairs, or at least long weekends, where the entire family loads up in their boat to go. People just don’t have that kind of time anymore.

USFWS graphic

MONEY IS PROBABLY THE determining factor for how much hunting is done in Alaska, especially with the high price of fuel in most of this rural state. It costs big bucks to go anywhere, which cuts down on trips and, in some cases, no trips at all. I know that it isn’t this way everywhere, but it is reality here. I imagine it happens in other places, where work gets in the way and time and money has other purposes.

Another factor that affects hunter numbers comes in the form of, or the lack of, finding places to hunt. This is especially true in some parts of the Lower 48. When I head back to Oklahoma each year to hunt – and to other states, as well – I see this as one of the biggest deterrents to bringing in new hunters.

There aren’t many places that a person can go and just hunt anymore. In the old days everyone would let you hunt on his or her land if you simply asked permission. It’s not that way anymore. Leasing land for hunting has become all the rage, and it isn’t something new.

You or a group offer money to a landowner, securing the exclusive right to hunt their land. You can’t blame the landowners, especially if they make a living off their land and want to gain some extra income. However, this ties up those places that were often available to those just wanting to hunt. So has hunting become a rich man’s game? Many think so, and in turn we’re seeing a decline in hunter numbers.

Television has also been blamed for the decline. We all love to tune in to the hunting shows and over the years they have been a joy to watch. Heck, I’ve even been a part of many, but what we didn’t realize is that a lot of first timers or those new to hunting watched as well.

Big bucks, big moose and a ton of other monsters are taken each week, if not every day, for the world to see. A first-time hunter or someone wanting to get into the game who sees this may think that’s the way it is for everyone. You buy the latest and greatest gear and head to the woods and you too will kill the biggest and the best. It does happen sometimes, but rarely.

When they don’t succeed, they give up, quit and never go afield again. Now, don’t get me wrong: There are several shows that promote hunting the right way. They educate and really try to do their best to draw in those wanting to get into the hunting life, but there are many who don’t consider that.

Alaska’s hunter ed program is one of the best in the country. Year after year they introduce hundreds if not thousands of young potential hunters to the great outdoors. It’s part of what makes Alaska such a special place. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

THERE ARE OTHER REASONS that I imagine have caused a decline in numbers, but those I’ve mentioned – in my opinion – have had an impact. Hopefully we can come up with new ideas and create new opportunities for those newbies who are maybe on the fence about hunting. We need to remember, though, that recruiting new hunters takes time and isn’t something we can fix overnight, but with a little effort on all our parts we can make a change. And some have.

There are many people and programs out there trying their best to recruit numbers and show hunting in a favorable light, such as Becoming an Outdoors Woman and Field to Fork, the latter of which emphasizes the need for good, quality sustainable food. Along with programs aimed at kids, they all have good intentions. But sometimes they aren’t enough. We need to hit all age groups and both genders.

I’ve always thought that one of the best ways we as hunters could do this is to take somebody hunting who has never been. Introducing them to the great outdoors in a favorable, systematic way can have big dividends in the long run.

If all of us would do this just once we would see change. And it’s a no-brainer, plus it’s a lot of fun, especially after seeing the face of someone who has had success. There is nothing like it.

A long time ago I introduced a group of kids to archery. It was here in the Arctic just after I arrived. I equipped them with long bows and arrows and taught them to shoot. Then, with parental and school permission, we took them out during the winter for a weekend of small game hunting.

The ptarmigan and snowshoe hares were pretty safe and we lost a lot of arrows, but the kids had a blast. Still, even today when I see those kids after 20-plus years, they remind me of how great that weekend was. I ask if they still hunt and most all of them tell me they do. I encourage and challenge all hunters to do something like that.

There are several more prominent programs that I think have had a big impact on bringing in new recruits, if not in hunting than in the shooting sports, which in some ways leads to hunting.

The National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP) was introduced many years ago.  Young students get bows and arrows and learn to shoot. It has had a big impact, and not just here in Alaska but throughout the entire United States.

It doesn’t matter if your young, old or in between, the sheer joy in seeing someone’s success on their first caribou hunt will have them hooked for life. Getting them back out to hunt would be a great step. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

HUNTER NUMBERS MAY BE on the decline, but there is one area where we are seeing an increase and that is among female hunters. Great programs such as Becoming an Outdoors Woman have had big success and continue to grow. Another area is the desire to harvest your own meat.

The benefit of obtaining an organic, sustainable food source has great value. Many are starting to realize that if they choose to hunt they can fill their freezers, feed their families and relish in the enjoyment of doing so.

So we agree that the stats tell us that there is a decrease. But not unlike game populations that tend to rise and fall, we as current hunters can make a difference if we choose to. With just a little effort, whether by taking a kid hunting or providing some well-earned meat to a neighbor or even a stranger who may have never even thought of hunting, we can have a big impact on the decline.

So, with the new year let’s make a pledge, do our part and make a difference. ASJ

Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He’s written hundreds of articles published on big game hunting throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a regular contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.