The list of reasons why the number of licensed hunters in the U.S. shriveled by roughly 2.2 million between 2011 and 2016, is a long one. That number, provided by a survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is expected to climb in the coming years. Not good!

The USFWS performs the survey every five years, and at the current status, approximately 11.5 million people in the U.S. hunt. That’s roughly half the number of people that were taking to the field 50 years ago. While 11.5 million sounds like a throng of sportsmen and women, it only represents a mere 4 percent of the population.

Countless states around the nation depend on hunting for income, as do wildlife organizations funded by hunter dollars. Wisconsin, for example, has seen a 2.5 percent drop in license sales over the past 20 years. States like Michigan and Pennsylvania, where licensed hunter numbers boom due to populous deer herds, have seen drops of 32 percent and 20 percent over the past two decades.

The number of licensed youth hunters, as well as those in the 18-24 and 25-34 age brackets, are shrinking at a rapid rate.

Why We Are Losing The Battle

The heritage of hunting helped form our nation, and currently, we are losing the battle. The baby boomer crowd (those born between 1946 and 1964), which currently makes up close to a third of all hunters nationally, are aging out. Some say this isn’t a problem — a naturally occurring phase that has happened for centuries. I would agree, however, this crowd isn’t being replaced.

According to the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, only three percent of the U.S. hunting population is made up of those between the ages of 16 and 17. The 18 to 24 and 25 to 34 age brackets — historically the most populated hunt groups — make up a combined eight percent of the hunting population.

The recruitment of women hunters is also dismal. The survey suggests that males make up 90 percent of all hunters. Also alarming is the number of Asian, African-American and other races besides Caucasians that take to the field. Caucasian hunters make up 97 percent of all hunters according to USFWS surveys. All other races combined make up the remaining three percent.

While social media can make it look like there are piles of women hunters, surveys show they only make up only 10 percent of the hunting population.

Looks Are Deceiving

Someone told me recently, “Hunter numbers can’t be down. My social media platforms get blown up with hunting photos and posts.” Of course, the gentleman that told me this is a hardcore hunter, and most of his friends/followers are of the outdoor crowd.

While social media can be a great tool, it can be really, really bad for recruitment as well. Throngs of hunters are trying to become famous in the industry, which makes for a very self-centered digital platform. Then there are the cyber-bullies — cowards with keyboards — bashing young and new hunters for harvesting immature deer.

The Answer

According to Eric Dinger, founder of Powderhook, a website and app that promotes hunters meeting hunters and then going hunting, recruitment is the only thing that will turn things around.

“We can blame urbanization, the millennial crowd and the list goes on,” Dinger said. “We can blame the anti-hunting movement. We can say families are busier and kids aren’t as interested. We can say all of these things, but we can’t fix those things. All we can do is take young and new hunters into the field and let them experience what we love to do so much. We have to get past our own agendas and egos and look to the future. It’s our responsibility, and if we don’t act, we will continue to see a decline. We can control how many people we expose to the outdoors.”

Brian Lynn, Vice President, Marketing and Communications for the Sportsmen’s Alliance had this to add:

“If a hunter just replaces himself, that’s a recipe for extinction. Research is showing that the baby boomers are aging out. They are going away. That’s our biggest pressing issue. In addition, while we can’t control it, urbanization is killing us. Urban voters make laws that affect rural people. These urban voters don’t have to deal with the ramifications of what they are putting into action. It’s the ranchers, farmers, and people in rural settings that have to deal with the wolves. It’s the rural population that has to deal with predators. When people can’t trap or run hounds, there is a problem. We have people making decisions that don’t have to live with the consequences.

“Peer-to-peer networks are so important. You need to think about what you can do to replace yourself when you stop hunting and then reach more people. We are working on a program in Ohio called Conservation Outdoor Adventures. We are using high school club systems to reach kids in high schools and give them hands-on experiences in the outdoors. They start to understand and experience the outdoors at an impressionable age. If we get more kids that understand the outdoors, they will protect our heritage and hunting future. We are hoping to grow the program quickly.”

Getting youth involved in the outdoors is pivotal for the survival of our sport.

It’s Not Hard

My 14-year-old son, Hunter, is addicted to hunting. Why? Because he was introduced to it at a young age. That’s great, but I always knew there was more I could do. Three years ago, I started taking his friends — lots of them — waterfowl hunting.

The author’s son shows off his 2019 Boone & Crockett Colorado Pronghorn.

I’m not going to sugarcoat the process; it was a lot of work. Most of them didn’t have access to gear or firearms, so they had to use ours. In the beginning, they couldn’t help with decoy setups or calling. They didn’t know how to stay still or when to move and when not to move. I got to see lots of ducks and geese fly away.

That’s all changed now. They have their own gear and firearms (many saved pennies and purchased their own), and what they don’t have they try and milk out of loved ones during Christmas. Many of their parents are now hunting, which is awesome. They can set decoys while I stay warm in the truck. As for calling, two of them have become so proficient they plan to compete in a contest this January. All it took was an investment of my time. That was it. These boys and girls will hunt forever, and they will pass it on to others. They aren’t spending their days clicking on a computer or staring blankly into a Fort Nite game. They are actively going out into the outdoors, and they will continue to do so as long as they can. Even if they end up in an urban setting, they will find a way and will be a positive voice in that setting.

This image shows the maturation process of what was once three novice waterfowl hunters.

Your Challenge

If you’re reading this, then you’re likely an involved hunter. Here’s my challenge to you: take one new hunter out into the woods in 2021. It doesn’t have to be on a duck or goose hunt. Utilize whatever resources you have available. If you’re covered up in doves come September, take them to a cut wheat field and let them bang away. If you’re in a turkey-rich state, put their back to hardwood and let them be mesmerized by a strutting tom.

A new initiative put forth by the NSSF dubbed the +ONE Movement, is a call to action, and worth a look. The initiative states that if just one in three hunters adds a single new person to our sport, we’ll secure a strong future for the generations that follow us.

“According to my sources,” Lynn said, “the +ONE program saw over 100,000 hunters pledge to mentor 500,000 people last year.” That’s awesome. Remember, it’s our responsibility!”

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