The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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September 21, 2012

Hunting on decline, so we’re losing family tradition

It’s hard to miss the romance of practically any hunter’s description of his first time in the wilderness: the warm crackle of the campfire, the smells of bacon frying and meat roasting, and, of course, the excitement of the kill.

But a combination of urbanization and cultural change is conspiring against the efforts of longtime hunters to share that experience with a generation of youth whose only exposure to hunting may be in video games.

Nevertheless, hunters remain a powerful force in American society, though their ranks are shrinking dramatically and wildlife agencies worry increasingly about the loss of sorely needed license-fee revenue.

New figures from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show that the number of hunters 16 and older declined by 10 percent in the last decade, or from 14 million to about 12.5 million.

The drop was acute in New England, the Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific states, which lost 400,000 hunters during the 10-year span.

Primary reasons, experts say, are the loss of hunting land to urbanization plus a perception by many families that they can’t afford the time or costs that hunting entails.

Some animal-welfare activists welcomed the trend, noting that it coincides with a 13 percent increase in wildlife watching since 1996. But hunters and state wildlife agencies from around the country, as they prepare for the fall hunting season, say the drop is worrisome.

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.

“It’s the hunter who is most willing to support wildlife conservation and give his money through licensing fees for wildlife conservation,” explained Colin Carpenter, a wildlife biologist with the DNR in Beckley.

Carpenter also was quick to point out that West Virginia remains a stronghold for hunting and fishing, especially in the southern part of the state where fathers and grandfathers are noted for introducing their offspring to the outdoors at an early age.

The game biologist said hunting numbers remain vibrant in the Mountain State, even if they are dropping in other parts of the nation.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which compiles outdoor-recreation statistics, the hunting participation has dropped precipitously from its 1975 peak in the U.S. and at least one index shows hunting has not kept pace with the overall population growth.

The study also found that 49 percent of all hunters are rural males, 91 percent of all hunters are males, and rural residents are four times more likely to hunt than urbanites. These statistics have changed only slightly since a 1990s survey, which clearly defines the prototypical hunter as a rural male.

And while the total population has increased steadily since 1955, the pool of likely participants-rural males-has increased only fractionally, with 23 percent of rural males hunting now as opposed to just 6 percent of urban males.

Hunting overall grew twice as fast as the rural population through the mid-1970s and early 1980s, but that growth was fueled by 80 million baby boomers that by 1980 comprised nearly 60 percent of the hunting population.

Now, hunter numbers have tapered off in the last two decades as baby boomers began dropping out, and future decreases are inevitable as boomers age and the urban population continues to expand. Given these demographic realities, it is unlikely that hunter numbers will ever return to the glorious levels they once enjoyed.

In other words, the prototypical hunter of the 1970s and 1980s is slowly fading from view, and the pool of candidates to replace him is shrinking.

Still, those of us who reside in the Mountain State can take comfort in the knowledge that the numbers aren’t as bad as our critics would have us believe.

Hunting has survived through generations by fathers passing it on to their children. Families bonded during hunting trips.

And a majority of hunters reported in a recent Census and Fish and Wildlife survey that they didn’t hunt as much as they would have liked because they were too busy or had family or work obligations. The reasons were the same for why people gave up hunting altogether.

“A lot of this stems from the fact that we have less time to enjoy the outdoors,” Carpenter pointed out. “But if we don’t keep kids interested, hunting one day might all but disappear.”

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