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Hunting's Bind of Less Space and Time
Sportsmen Thin in Virginia, Uprooted From Land and Custom

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."

Luke, a junior at Brentsville High School who shot his first buck at age 11, said he doesn't talk about hunting much with his friends at school. "I just kind of keep it to myself," he said. "Some people who grow up in the suburbs haven't been around hunting much, so they might not understand."

The Wattses' access to a large tract of private land is luxury. In national surveys on hunting access, the commonwealth ranks among the bottom quarter of states, said Mark Damian Duda, executive director of Responsive Management, a Virginia-based research firm that gathers data for state and federal wildlife agencies.

"The more a state becomes urban, the fewer hunters a state has," Duda said.

Cultural changes are the other component of the trend, but public perceptions of hunting have not soured, Duda said. Survey data indicate the opposite: Public support for hunting is increasing as some suburban residents begin viewing deer as a nuisance. And the hunting photo op continues to be a mainstay of political campaigns in Virginia and elsewhere, Duda noted.

Instead, the cultural change is one of increasing social fragmentation, he said.

As young men leave rural areas in search of work, the "social support system" of the hunting culture breaks down. Fathers die. Sons move away and lack the time or space to pass on the tradition. "It's the erosion of the small hunting unit," Duda said.

Culpeper County resident Josh Tamplin, 26, has seen it happen to his hunting club. "Last year, we had 15 or 20 guys go out," he said. "This year, it was like four or five.

"The way things are going, I don't believe there's going to be any hunting around here in 25 years." Most of the guys in the club are much older, he said, and it has been hard to get friends his age interested in the sport.

"It's something I love to do, but it's just trickling away," he said.

National studies have found that the average age of hunters has risen to the mid-40s. "Hunters are getting older and older, and we're not recruiting enough young people to the sport," said Nicholas Throckmorton, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The sport is flourishing among one group, however: women. According to the National Rifle Association, 2.4 million women went hunting in 2005, a 72 percent increase from 2001. Women make up 16 percent of active hunters, with 18- to 24-year-olds the fastest-growing group.

The number of disabled hunters is also increasing, elevated by programs such as Wheelin' Sportsmen and Deer Hunt for the Disabled in Fauquier County, which offers wheelchair-accessible trails and deer stands, some with electric lifts.

But children and teenagers are the main focus of efforts to reverse hunting's decline.

Families Afield, a program devised by the National Shooting Sports Foundation and other groups, is working to lift restrictions in 20 states that limit hunting to children 12 and older. The program ranks Virginia the 28th most restrictive state for youth access to hunting; Maryland ranks 25th.

Attracting more teens is another objective, resulting in promotional efforts such as Xtreme Jakes, a flashy magazine and Web site run by the National Wild Turkey Federation. Redolent of a Mountain Dew commercial, the site advertises youth hunting events and features an "Are you an Xtreme Jake?" top 10 list. (No. 3: You'd rather bag a turkey in the woods than on your video game.)

"It's got to be a cool thing to do," said Rob Keck, chief executive of the federation. Xtreme Jakes (for teens 13 to 17) and Jakes (12 and younger) have 217,000 members, Keck said.

"I think there is a real need to be in line with what turns young people on," he said. "They've got to feel good about it and say, 'I want to be cool.' "

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