by Fran Silverman

Most Americans prefer wildlife watching so why is DOI expanding hunting?

In every state in the U.S., wildlife watchers – that is, those who like to observe, photograph and appreciate animals in their habitats- far, far outnumber those who hunt for sport.  The majority of Americans, in short, do not hunt.

Yet, the Department of Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is continuing to prop up this dying industry in every which way, including a rule change allowing hunting in refuges that would be, in its own words, the “the single largest expansion of hunting and fishing opportunities by [FWS] in history.”

This proposed rule would create nearly 900 distinct new hunting and fishing opportunities and is in addition to last year’s expansion of 1.4 million, bringing the Trump Administration’s total expansion of hunting to 4 million acres nationwide.  Among the expansion is a new rule that will allow hunters in Alaska’s national preserves to shoot bears, their cubs and pups in their dens, hunt wolves and coyotes as well during denning season and shoot caribou from motorboats while they are swimming.

Couple that with FWS’s recent attempt to change the rules for the artist work depicted on the Duck Stamp, which raises money for migratory bird habitat protection, requiring that artists submitting designs include a hunting element and you have an administration that is purposefully out of touch with the desires of most taxpayers.

This push to expand hunting opportunities and promote it as a sport comes at a time when hunting in the U.S. is in rapid decline.

Sales for the Duck Stamp, which hunters are required to purchase to shoot waterfowl, are down from a peak in 1970 of 2.4 million sales to 1.5 million. Less than 5 percent of the U.S. adult population hunts. Only 11.5 million Americans hunted in 2016, representing a decline of 15% since 2011.

In most states, the number of hunters falls into the single digit range, while the number of wildlife watchers are the clear majority. More than 60 percent of Americans reported wildlife watching activities, according to national figures from the 2016 50-State Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Related Recreation.

Yet in recent years, the story of the decline in hunting is something FWS seems to be trying to keep quiet.  Every 5 years, FWS publishes the 50-state survey, which includes state-by -state figures that enumerate the number of hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers and the revenue the activities bring to each state.

But in 2016, the numbers for each state were never published, only national figures were. The survey, which has been published since 1955, is funded by the MultiState Conservation Grant Program and administered by FWS and is in conjunction with the Dingell Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act and Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act, which channels revenue from excise taxes on guns and ammunition to state environmental agencies.  The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) stewards the survey and the information collected is used to provide $1 billion in grants annually to states to improve and restore wildlife habitats, as well as support hunting and fishing opportunities, among other things.

Curious about what happened to the state level survey, FoA filed a Freedom of Information request. Our FOIA documents revealed that the state-by-state survey was never published in full because the AFWA leadership, concerned about costs, decided to split the survey research. The national level survey was conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, which usually does the state level surveys as well. This time, the state level surveys was conducted by the Rockville Institute, a nonprofit private research corporation.

In a letter to readers of the survey, then AFWS President Virgil Moore wrote that differing survey methods, despite attempts to keep the questions the same, yielded vastly different results, rendering most of the state level statistics unreliable.  Oh, and Rockville only sent mail-in surveys to households, many of which from hunters were not returned so the results were not statistically sound.

His letter also threw the future of the survey into question with this gibberish:

“Regarding the second question, the future of the survey, one thing we have learned is that neither of these two surveys on its own is the future. The Census efforts
are too expensive to continue given the limited funding we have and the survey instrument in its current form does not work as well as it could in a mail only version.”

But with the information we already have from the results of the national 2016 survey obtained from the Census and some figures from the state-by-state survey we reviewed from our FOIA, it’s clear that while the voice of hunters in this administration is amplified, the numbers are in a freefall.

What AFWS isn’t publicly saying, but is likely on the minds of the folks who run the agencies that cater to hunters, is that the survey results —from which grants are based — showing the precipitous decline in hunting –is not serving its cause any longer.

Recently, FWS issued a notice calling for comments on whether to even conduct the survey again and how.  Perhaps the agency, stacked with hunting supporters, thinks if it squelches the survey, then the bad press of the declining number of hunters will not be revealed. But pro-hunters can’t get around the declining number of hunting licenses being issued by states each year.

Some hunting organizations are calling the falling revenue from hunting sports a “looming crises.” In reality, it’s a starkly clear indicator that the Department of Interior/ FWS is wildly out of focus in its effort to prop up a dying industry instead of giving lands over to the majority of Americans who prefer to view wildlife in their habitats over shooting and killing them.

The government shouldn’t be expanding the areas for hunters, it should be safeguarding the habitats of species.  After all, the true story from the surveys is that the vast majority of Americans want to see a thriving biodiversity of species on lands free of hunters.