Exploring the underbelly of any subculture via internet forums is invariably equal parts fascinating and revolting. Diving into the graininess of people at their most unfiltered teaches a lot, about a particular subject and about humanity generally.
If you dive not far into American hunting culture, you’ll become acquainted with the narrative of how liberal elites are engaged in a conspiracy to end the practice entirely. The variations are several, and include a combination of wolf reintroduction, firearms restrictions, and overcrowding serving to, from a variety of angles, make hunting all but impossible to regularly practice, or so socially looked down upon that no kid or young adult will want to do it. The sentiment is, in the end, one of many symptoms of the current generational and demographic sea change in the United States. Hunting is in danger of dying out significantly in the next few decades. The unpleasant fact is that hunters themselves and the policies they’ve grown up with and come to experience as background noise have given birth to most of the threats to hunting’s future.
The data is clear, assuming the Fish and Wildlife survey is sound; as the population of the US has increased the number of hunters have decreased, both as a percentage and in absolute terms. In 2016 11,453,000 people in the US hunted. The overwhelming majority were white men, with a heavy bias towards the 45-65 age group, and rural residents. 4% of the total US population hunted that year, which can be broken down to 3% of the urban population, and 13% of the rural population. Including anglers, the total number of “extractive” wildlife sportspeople was in 2016 39.6 million. Wildlife watchers, by contrast, numbered 86 million, though only 23.7 million of those did so “away from home” via specific outings 1 mile or more away from home. Those wildlife watchers accounted for not quite half of the almost 157 billion dollars spent by all “wildlife related” recreation-ors. Of particular interest, while that figure increased only a few billion from 2011 to 2016, the share of hunting expenses dropped from 36 to 26 billion, while the wildlife watching share increased from 59 to 76 billion. The survey attributes most of the later increase to including photography equipment, and the former decrease to less money towards leasing private land for hunting, though hunting trip and equipment related expenses both trended downward markedly.
All of this is concerning for a number of reasons. Most obviously, hunting is an aging pursuit, and for that and/or other reasons, eventually dying habit. The most obvious issue emanating from that has nothing to do with hunting directly, and everything to do with the majority of wildlife funding on the state level coming from hunting license fees. Fewer hunters buying fewer licenses, especially (in the western US) few out of state hunters, means much less money for wildlife management. Those who are not hunters might be surprised at just how much more a nonresident will pay for the pleasure of hunting in another state. This table is dated but mostly still accurate, though Idaho and Wyoming both voted significant increases for the coming year, with Idaho directly acknowledging that increased fees are designed to keep a reduction in tag numbers (for elk, mostly) revenue neutral. By way of example, by resident Montana Sportsman’s license (which includes fishing, upland bird hunting, general elk, deer, and bear) will this year cost me 77 dollars with the base hunting license and conservation license another 18 dollars. A nonresident will pay $25 for the base licenses, and a cool $1046 for the deer and elk combo (which includes upland and fishing, but not black bear). Montana is the most disparate in this area, but hardly in a different category.
The fairness of charging so much for people who live in other states to hunt what is often federal land is a circular world (though state’s rights to govern wildlife is well established as nearly absolute), and while I find the argument that the expense of out of state hunting puts the future of the pursuit in jeopardy (on both practical and PR levels) compelling, the supporting data is as of 2020 mixed at best. What is certain is that the vast majority of wildlife management dollars, in states in the western US, come from a small (~1.3 million, total) pool of hunters who ever hunt out of state. The fish and wildlife survey does not parse out region or demographics for out of state hunters, but it is easy to imagine an impending and precipitous drop in numbers, and thus, revenue.
The largest concern with hunting is that as license revenue begins to dry up, management decisions will become increasingly biased towards shorter term dollars, as opposed to longer term landscape health and integrity. A few states, noteably Missouri, pay for wildlife management out of the general fund. Which seems appropriate, especially if the above-mentioned trend of “nonextractive” wildlife recreation continues to grow. This is the point where the backpack tax, a complement to Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson, comes into play. P-R (hunting) and D-J (fishing) tax gear and directly fund conservation projects, and have over the years provided a certain buffer against political winds. A backpack tax thus has virtues, and fits with the ethos of user fees which have since Gingrich become the norm in US public lands. It also promises both a broader funding base for wildlife management and to capture a more complete share of those who “use” wildlife in a recreational capacity. Which just might, eventually, with a slow revolution in tags and access for urban folks, bring hunting back to a broader portion of society.