by Scott Smith, Communications Director
My first true memory is walking across the stubble of a snowy Nebraska corn field with my father and uncle on a visit to my grandfather’s farm for Thanksgiving. Hardly four years old, I must have succeeded in begging to accompany them on an early-morning hunt for ring-necked pheasant, a family tradition.
What I remember most vividly was failing my task, which was to carry one of the birds killed by their shotguns. Holding the big rooster male by his sharp, dinosaur-like claws, I was not tall enough to keep from befouling the beautiful bird by dragging his head of wondrously iridescent feathers through the dirt.
Introduced from China in the 1800s to give Americans something exotic to shoot at after decimating native gamebird species like the sage grouse and prairie chicken, the ring-necked pheasant is still widely hunted across the Plains states. Over the 2021-21 hunting season, hunters in Nebraska killed 136,000 ring-necks. In neighboring South Dakota, where the immigrant pheasant is valued so highly they made it the state bird, hunters killed 1.1 million of them last year.
I did not follow in my father’s footsteps by becoming a hunter, and even he long ago sold the 12-gauge pump action gathering dust in a closet. And therein lies the problem – and hopeful promise — for state-run conservation agencies across the country. Whether it’s called the Game & Fish Commission, Department of Natural Resources, or Parks & Wildlife, it’s a sure thing that your state agency responsible for protecting the environment was founded by and for hunters. And those hunters are rapidly going the way of the dodo, and with them the primary source of funding for many of these hidebound bureaucracies.
The inexorable decline in the number of hunters nationwide began in the 1980s and has only picked up pace in recent years. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the number of hunting licenses peaked at 17 million in the 1980s and totals 15 million. The drop-off is even more stark when you consider the U.S. population was 226 million in 1980 and now stands at 331 million. Overall, says FWS, only about 5 percent of Americans, 16 years old and older, actually hunt. That’s half of what it was 50 years ago.
On a state-by-state basis, consider these trend lines: Hunters in California, the most populous state, have declined by 70 percent since the 1970s. In Vermont, where Bernie Sanders not long ago cited the state’s hunting culture as the reason to vote against gun-safety bills, including the Brady Act, registered hunters now represent just 10 percent of the population. Sanders has since said he regrets that decision. Even South Dakota, which leads the nation with 24 percent of residents holding hunting permits, sold 26,000 fewer licenses in 2019, which led to a $1 million loss in revenue. (To find out where your state stands in terms of hunter participation, check out the comprehensive listing compiled by the data-tracking media site Stacker.com.)
State wildlife agencies have long tried to buck this entirely foreseeable trend with any number of PR campaigns aimed at recruiting new hunters. Nebraska promotes an annual Youth Hunt in which children 15 years and younger are given first shot at specially bred rooster pheasants released in 19 areas across the state, no registration or special permit required. In Oregon, state lawmakers considered a bill in 2021 that would create the “Oregon Wildlife Council,” composed of representatives from hunting and fishing businesses, as well as individual hunters and fishers, to mount a pro-hunting public relations campaign, according to Brian Oaster of streetroots.org, a Portland-based newspaper. He adds that the money trail behind the effort “reveals a murky world of hunting lobbyists, political action committees and out-of-state Christian right-wingers at work. And the Department of Fish and Wildlife is losing faith in the future of the hunting and fishing industry, a considerable slice of Oregon’s economy, with flagging support from a changing public.”
In Connecticut, where Friends of Animals is based and where less than 1% of residents still hunt, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection published a lavish 2021 Hunting and Trapping Guide with the cover story “Mentor a Junior Hunter” on which a 15-year-old girl was shown, rifle in hand, cradling the head of a dead deer. That misguided campaign didn’t stop the loss of a further 2,000 hunting-license holders, to just 34,300 statewide.
It’s well past time for states to stop catering to these dwindling ranks of aging hunters or trying to indoctrinate kids into the gun culture to salvage their budgets and perpetuate an outmoded approach to “managing” wildlife and their habitats. “Killing is not conservation,” says Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals.
True conservation means ending a generations-long focus on treating wildlife as fodder for the few who still think of “outdoor recreation” as being able to shoot birds out of the sky or to mount the head of an animal on the wall as a “trophy.” It means managing our nation’s fractured and degraded wild and open spaces for the many more who enjoy experiencing the wild and natural world without despoiling it. And it means reorienting the mission of state conservation agencies toward the greater good, for both wildlife and the vast majority of Americans who would rather view wildlife through the lens of a camera or pair of binoculars than over the barrel of a gun.
The latest numbers from FWS show that 86 million Americans participated in wildlife watching in 2016, a 20 percent increase from five years ago. As a recent report by NPR puts it, “State wildlife agencies and the country’s wildlife conservation system are heavily dependent on sportsmen for funding. Money generated from license fees and excise taxes on guns, ammunition and angling equipment provide about 60 percent of the funding for state wildlife agencies, which manage most of the wildlife in the U.S.”
Nationally, 74 percent of Americans believe the country should “do whatever it takes to protect the environment,” according to the Pew Research Center.” As a panel on sustaining America’s fish and wildlife resources recently warned: “Without a change in the way we finance fish and wildlife conservation, we can expect the list of federally threatened and endangered species to grow from nearly 1,600 species today to perhaps thousands more in the future.”
It’s long past time for the 95 percent of Americans who do not hunt to call on their state governments to reflect modern reality, to value a wildlife refuge as just that and not a kill zone. To enable ways to enjoy the great outdoors for the quality of life it contains, not the amount of death it allows. To focus – and fund — resources toward protecting fragile habitats and restoring public lands to function as whole, interconnected ecosystems without the canard that hunting is somehow a necessary evil or family tradition worth perpetuating.
Editor’s note: Stay tuned for our reporting on states that are approaching conservation in new ways.