Hunting's Bind of Less Space and Time

Luke Watts, 17, in Nokesville, said he rarely talks with friends about hunting.
Luke Watts, 17, in Nokesville, said he rarely talks with friends about hunting. "They might not understand," he said. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 11, 2007

There's a declining species in the woods of the Old Dominion, a blaze-orange, two-legged, gun-toting creature under threat from every new subdivision and Nintendophile teenager: the Virginia hunter.

Despite adding a million residents in the past decade, the state lost nearly 100,000 hunters, according to Virginia's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Hunting license sales slipped last year to 702,944, down from a peak of 808,633 in 1995.

Suburban development is partly driving the decline, leaving fewer open spaces where it's safe to pull a trigger without hitting a home or one of its occupants. But the trend goes deeper, experts say, reflecting a cultural shift underway nationwide. As Americans become busier, more urbanized and less rooted in family and social traditions, they're less inclined to go into the woods on a cold, wet morning to wait in breathless silence for a deer to walk by.

National hunting and firearms groups have mobilized to stem the defections, launching programs aimed at attracting women, the disabled, teenagers and children. But in fast-growing areas such as Northern Virginia, a simple spatial challenge besets hunters, one that is often described in language borrowed from endangered species advocates: loss of habitat.

"It's a terrible paradox," said Steve Clark, owner of the Clark Brothers gun shop in Warrenton, which has outfitted hunters for nearly 50 years. "The more people you have, the larger your customer base is," he said, "but the harder it is for those customers to have a place to do what you're trying to sell them to do."

The decrease in license sales has worrisome financial implications for state efforts to protect threatened and endangered species, including fish and birds. The Department of Game and Inland Fisheries covered more than half of its $47 million budget last year with fees collected from hunting and fishing license sales. "We don't know where those dollars will come from if we don't have people buying licenses," said Julia Dixon, spokeswoman for the agency.

"Even in the metro Richmond area, in Chesterfield County, 20 or 30 years ago kids would take off school on the first day of hunting season," she added. "You don't see that anymore."

Benefiting immensely from the slide are the prey of erstwhile hunters, especially deer, which appear to delight in the perks of suburban living, with its flower gardens, shrubs and gun ordinances, just as much their biped neighbors. Hunted to near extinction 100 years ago, deer now number about 1 million in the state.

To manage this vast, hungry herd, state officials are encouraging hunters to kill more deer than ever, preferring that they be downed by fee-paying sportsmen rather than suburban commuters. Hunting season on antlerless deer was extended by a month in Prince William, Fairfax and Loudon counties this year in the hope that hunters would bag a few extra does.

On a recent afternoon in Nokesville, a few days before the close of the extended season, Clarence Watts, 45, and his son Luke, 17, drove to a sod farm where they have hunted for years. They parked on the edge of the field, then suited up in blaze-orange and camouflage outerwear to buffer them from the icy wind. Luke sprayed his trousers with a bottle of scent eliminator and silenced the ringer on his cellphone.

A row of two-story, single-family houses was visible through the trees a few hundred yards away, but Clarence said they would be careful not to shoot in that direction. They loaded high-caliber, low-velocity rounds into their shotguns so that an errant volley wouldn't carry too far. It was just one of the quirks of "residential hunting," Clarence said, along with the sounds of cars and barking dogs.

"It's a little strange," he said. "But the deer are there."

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