The Future of Hunting in the United States

Hunters moving through a thick grass field

This is a guest post by Cody Hinson, a student in Rob Dunn‘s Future of Life undergraduate course. Cody interviewed Deet James to understand what the next 10, 50, or 100 years of hunting might look like in the United States.

Deet James.

Deet James works for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission as an R3 Hunting Specialist with R3 defined as the Recruitment, Retention, and Reactivation of hunters. One facet of his work includes facilitation of hunting seminars and hunting workshops intended to educate and encourage new to hunting individuals on the best practices and hunting’s many contributions to conservation. I was wondering about how hunting may look in the future, and Deet was recommended to me as a forward-thinking individual who may be able to provide insight to my questions.

Cody: From all that I’ve heard and researched, the hunting population in the United States is fairly stable, but there are a multitude of destabilizing factors like climate change and urbanization, and as we’re seeing now disease, that can alter this stability.

With that in mind, what does the future of hunting look like to you, and how does that compare and how it may look like in the year 2100? 

Deet: As the story goes, the only thing constant in life is change and the elements mentioned, specifically urbanization, will continue regardless of hunting participation. Regarding climate change, I defer that to climatologists. Not unlike other states, North Carolina license sales have ebbed and flowed with the times and will likely continue to do so. 

What I have noticed recently and, purely anecdotal at this point, it appears that individuals have a tendency to self-medicate via time outdoors in nature during economic downturns and or other trying times. A perfect example of that self-medication occurred during the 2008 economic downturn with a significant increase in hunting participation nationally. Although too early to put into numbers, it appears the same may be occurring relative to the COVID-19 pandemic correlating into increased participation in hunting as well as other outdoor-related activities. Again, time and data will provide insight into whether a true correlation exists. 

Getting back to hunting licenses, a relatively recent data set from our surveys and research folks indicated relatively stable license sales in NC, but nationally we remain on a precipitous decline in participation based on USFWS five year participation surveys and, as indicated, license purchases do not tell the entire story.  Simply put, you can be a license owner, but never use it and license sales are but one facet of the model that funds conservation. 

As an example, those that actually participate (i.e., go hunting AND angling) also purchase the equipment that provides the excise taxes supporting the bulk of Federal Funding for Conservation (i.e., WSFRP). In short, hunting licenses, among other “in-kind” contributions, serve as a match (25%) for the federal reimbursement (75%) and are distributed to the states based on a conservation formula. Hence, we are in this together nationally, although each state may have its own individual challenges.    

As for the precipitous decline, it essentially began between 1975 and 1980 and continues to present day. The Baby Boomer generation (those born between 1947 and 1964), represents the largest participating cohort of modern day hunters. 

During early assessments [1975], we were at 17.1 million hunters participating (age 16 and older), based on the US Fish and Wildlife national five-year survey and represented about 8% of the population overall. By 2016, the number was reduced to 11.5 million, or roughly 4 or 5% of the population. 

Getting back to North Carolina, license sales, at least during my recent review, were relatively stable. Moreover, as a colleague from another state once pointed out following a multi-state license sales review a few years ago, he noticed NC license sales were increasing. That said, and including many states, license sales can fluctuate annually and there are many factors causing those fluctuations both direct and indirect. And, NC has also been subject to general population growth which, by default, can also increase sales when hunters from other states emigrate to NC just like I did when I came from PA. 

Speaking in terms of the boomers and declining hunting participation, the generation is indeed aging out. The huge cohort of boomers appears to be  dropping out of hunting altogether between 63-65 years of age and this age out represents the attrition that will likely leave a big gap in the population of participating hunters moving forward.

What I am very excited about is the new to hunting individuals that are coming to us that are wanting to feed their families naturally while also playing the unique, intimate role in the harvesting of their own food whether from the garden, or from the field. Many are seeking other than manufactured and processed foods for locally grown and organic varieties. Hence, they want to be directly involved in the  harvesting of foods for their table. 

In fact, one person that I am working with directly is a woman in her early 40s. She was a former animal rights activist that is now somewhat interested in eating meat, but wants it done knowing that that animal had lived its entire life free, and then harvested quickly and humanely. Essentially, the essence of these conservation-minded folks includes an ethical harvest and deep respect and admiration for wild things and wild places and it’s both exciting and beneficial to the future of conservation.

Getting back to the baby boomers. When we began hunting, it was basically because everybody did it being passed down from generation to generation. Essentially, anglers and hunters developed into conservationists over time and, at least in my case, conservation was not the first lesson taught by many mentors other than a brief overview during Hunter Safety Courses. Many of us also, according to the “Stages of the Hunter” as taught during hunter Safety Courses, proceed through several stages as we develop into hunters including a Shooting Stage, Limiting Out Stage, Method Stage, Trophy Stage and Sportsman’s Stage. While an individual hunter may experience all the stages, some may not as hunting is uniquely personal. If I had to choose on a stage that is not representative of the “new to hunting” individual, it would be the trophy stage (i.e., a personal preference toward the harvesting of mature animals). In essence, a developing preference common to folks of my generation, but is not the focus, and more so a disdain, of the contemporary new to hunting individuals. 

Although each new, non-traditional hunter may have their own likes and dislikes, I can only speculate that a dislike for trophy likely exists to the constant barrage of bigger is better mentality in our society as a whole and now is being replaced by food in the freezer with a lack of interest in external adornments, especially if adornments are thought of as the only reason for the harvest. My point is this. I do believe we as the conservation community at large must listen to, adapt and be welcoming to a new breed of “initially” conservation-minded hunters while remaining conscious of their needs, desires and new way of thinking for the future of conservation.

One of my greatest concerns, however, regarding the future of hunting and conservation, is constant human encroachment. Most of the people I meet at programming in NC have access to private property. Some of that private property may ultimately succumb to development one day, so I speculate there may be additional demand on public lands for all forms of recreation whether hunting or otherwise. In fact, most of the individuals that participate in our Getting Started Outdoors Workshops, are looking for a place to hunt (i.e., not from traditional hunting families having private land access), so a focus for these folks other than the initial skills and knowledge is always on where to hunt.

Another often overlooked point regarding new to hunting individuals, including whether or not they’ll actually become participating hunters, is the service economy factor and mindset. In short, nearly anything and everything we desire today we can get now and fast, rarely having to wait for anything. In contrast, hunting is a great equalizer and there is a relatively steep learning curve, hence it takes time and effort to become proficient. Moreover, there is not a deer, or a turkey, or a squirrel, etc. behind every tree and therefore success in the woods must be measured in ways other than just harvest, or the desire to hunt could quickly fade if mere harvest is seen as the only reward. 

Simply put, persistence in hunting ultimately pays off, but I think we’re going to find that some individuals, and how many remain unknown, may decide to go back to the grocery store for sustenance. That said, I’m cautiously optimistic to see what happens, liking to think that this new hunter conservationist will be the light in the tunnel to ultimately replace the aging out baby boomer generation.

Cody: You talked about the baby boomer generation. You are about the same age as my dad, and I believe you are similarly minded when it comes to hunting. He’ll use it to fill the freezer, but he always goes for that big buck, and you talked about my generation. I would be more apt to shoot a big doe over a small buck if given the choice between the two.

Deet: Since you mentioned it, we’re working on new to hunting promos and focusing on new to hunting information including the sharing of hunting information that exists with contemporary hunters as compared to the secrecy that I encountered as a new hunter years ago.

Cody: How will hunting change with the impending increase in urbanization? And how might that compare to fishing?

Deet: Constant human encroachment is not going to cease and it impacts all forms of recreation hunting or otherwise. I speculate the greatest concern for fishing, even though we’re always going to have waterways, is efforts to avoid contamination. As you may know, human nature is not always proactive. That said, I like to think that people care overall, especially the new hunters that I meet, and will therefore be proactively interested in the environment and conservation practices.

On the hunting side of it, private land, and it’s associated use, is largely out of our control. I feel that eventually we will get to a point that private land access will decrease. I’m not saying it’s 2100, it could be 2300, 2500, etc., but there likely will be a greater demand on public land for not only hunters but also for non-hunters alike and wildlife agencies, including ours, have been discussing those potential issues. 

Cody: How might the public views on hunting and views on nature change?

Deet: Again, I’m an optimist. I like to think that the cultural views on hunting have not really changed a lot or we wouldn’t be getting these new to hunting individuals, especially those that were formerly anti hunters that are now wanting to hunt. 

I think there may be a cultural shift, based on the folks I meet, that did not come from hunting backgrounds or from people that hunted and will continue as long as we traditional hunters remain ethical and express ourselves in a welcoming way including humane treatment of all wildlife.

Cody: This might be something that you are more directly involved with. How will we maintain a public interest in activities like hunting and trapping in the future, and should we maintain an interest in these activities?

Deet: Well, as you know, hunting and angling have funded conservation since the beginning of time, but largely within the 20th century, especially between 1937 and 1950 with the federal excise taxes on equipment. Unless additional funding models are developed, and they should be, that help and or exceed the current funding models through hunting and angling, both avocations will remain feasible and value-added for conservation as we currently know it today. 

Regarding trapping, not in my realm of expertise, but trapping was once largely scorned, and likely primarily due to frightening images of big claw bear traps used during the 1800s. The majority of trapping nowadays, however, is usually associated with nuisance wildlife and / or animal damage control and ongoing education regarding best management practices is key. 

As for hunting, our best way to promote it is as a sustainable resource and wise use of natural resources and that participation in hunting supports conservation of species and habitats.

Cody: For the next question, I think we both know the answer for it, but is there a place for hunting in the future?

Deet: Absolutely. There is no greater intimated connection to the food we eat including a respect for where food actually comes from and, moreover, lessens the inadvertent motivation to waste it.

I don’t ever think we will go back to 1975, 1980 participation levels, but I do feel the future is bright. Hunting License stabilization would be nice, and that is a current short term goal, at least in my realm, and do think we’ll see some changes over time. 

What motivated me to do what I do was a love of the outdoors that manifested into becoming an advocate for all forms of wildlife, hence, seeing the bigger picture.

Cody: What are the consequences of the shifts in who hunts and how many people hunt?

Deet: Diversification of participants is extremely important, which includes a welcoming atmosphere and figuring out how to be more welcoming is an agency focus. That said, the reality is that everyone could not hunt, or we could quickly damage the system we serve to protect. If hunting were to become a new fad for all, it would need to be restricted so as to protect the biota which “should” always be first and foremost. 

Cody: Yeah, I see where you’re coming from with some of the diversity stuff. I never really thought much about diversity in the natural resource field until I got to college.

I have three people of color in my close circle of friends, and they never really had the opportunity to go out there and do some of that. My brother and I  became friends with them, and then they started hanging out with us and developed an interest in guns. They wound up getting their own and then they showed interest in going hunting, trapping, and fishing, so my brother and I have taken them out doing some of that, and they wound really enjoy it.

Deet: And because of what you and your generation are doing, that will definitely contribute to the saving grace for conservation.

Cody: How might funding of US wildlife agencies change?

Deet: If our numbers stabilized, I believe it will help, but that remains to be seen. Wildlife agencies and academics have been discussing other potential funding models for some time, including funding for non-game, access conservation permits etc. and must continue thereby not relying solely on hunting and or angling as we have been for so long.

Another not previously mentioned facet contributing to the federal funding model is increased recreational shooting and gun purchasing. So that, in of itself, has the capacity to offset declines in hunting participation (i.e., increased excise taxes), but does not impact the “match” for the federal funding (i.e., license sales, and in-kind volunteer hours).

Cody: What are the main roles of hunting in the United States, and which of these roles seems most likely to change?

Deet: I do believe that emphasis on trophy hunting is going to fade out and already has to some extent, but personal preferences will remain as they should as long as hunting is done both ethically and humanely. I do think hunting will see more of a sustenance shift and have already seen that with the new to hunting individuals I meet. 

In addition, I also believe the primary reason for future hunting enthusiasts will be the connection to the land and food including a realization that the removal of a few animals for food benefits the population as a whole. I think all of that is a ripe education environment for us as managers of public trust resources.

Cody: How might hunting grounds in the US change compared to those in other countries? Are we the norm with regard to our future or are we an exception? 

Deet: Well, I don’t know exactly what goes on in other countries but in a recent conversation with a woman that was from Germany at a GSO on Fort Bragg, wildlife was meant for the privileged and also that it is very difficult having to jump through many hurdles to become a Hunter.

In our country, we need the cooperation from our constituents regarding public trust resources and do feel the new contemporary constituents I meet are far more prone to being concerned about natural resources, conservation and therefore will be proactive and supportive of established and ever-evolving science-based management principles.

Cody: I’ve had an international wildlife management course and when I think of the European model, I instantly go to the German model and when we were learning about that, it’s unimaginable for me. because it’s pretty much reserved for the wealthy and the elites, and they have such strict management practices that it’s hard to get qualified because there are so many hurdles.

Deet: Exactly, and it is very easy to take what we have for granted.

Cody: So how might hunting laws change in the US and maybe even globally? 

Deet: The only thing currently coming to mind is some changes in hunting implements from time to time including the relatively recent air bow, ongoing muzzle loader advancements and TSS relative to turkey hunting ammo but I don’t see any as being detrimental to the resource and agencies constantly assess pros and cons. 

Constant human encroachment may necessitate an access permit system one day, but can only speculate at this point.

I do think there will be fewer violations with the new group of conservation-minded hunters and with it, enforcement officers spending the bulk of their time on education and outreach rather than violations other than inadvertent regulation mistakes.

Cody: How might hunting change the face of disease? This can be both wildlife and human disease.

Deet: All species are susceptible to disease and whatever we can do to prevent transmission will remain a focus via informational and educational outreach efforts.

As an example, we know that chronic wasting disease is always fatal. It is already in some states and the goal is to contain the disease while removing sick animals. State agencies have been increasing their communication relative to transporting wildlife while gaining public support and assistance and that means increased education. What lies ahead is unknown, but working together is key.

Cody: How might climate change affect hunting in the US and maybe how might that compared to other countries that are expected to see more drastic changes like sea level rise in maybe the year 2100 and beyond that?

Deet: Well, I am not a climatologist, but the earth is dynamic. If we lose one element, we typically gain another more adaptive species that will both survive and thrive. Since I’m not someone that fully understands climate change and its effect on all species, I’m concerned, but am also optimistic in that the Earth will heal itself and that we will react proactively whenever and however we can.

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