Number of Hunters Falls, Worrying Some

By DAVID CRARY
The Associated Press
Sunday, September 2, 2007; 4:53 PM

-- Hunters remain a powerful force in American society, as evidenced by the presidential candidates who routinely pay them homage, but their ranks are shrinking dramatically and wildlife agencies worry increasingly about the loss of sorely needed license-fee revenue.

New figures from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show that the number of hunters 16 and older declined by 10 percent between 1996 and 2006 _ from 14 million to about 12.5 million. The drop was most acute in New England, the Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific states, which lost 400,000 hunters in that span.

The primary reasons, experts say, are the loss of hunting land to urbanization plus a perception by many families that they can't afford the time or costs that hunting entails.

"To recruit new hunters, it takes hunting families," said Gregg Patterson of Ducks Unlimited. "I was introduced to it by my father, he was introduced to it by his father. When you have boys and girls without a hunter in the household, it's tough to give them the experience."

Some animal-welfare activists welcome the trend, noting that it coincides with a 13 percent increase in wildlife watching since 1996. But hunters and state wildlife agencies, as they prepare for the fall hunting season, say the drop is worrisome.

"It's hunters who are the most willing to give their own dollar for wildlife conservation," Patterson said.

Compounding the problem, the number of Americans who fish also has dropped sharply _ down 15 percent, from 35.2 million in 1996 to 30 million in 2006, according to the latest version of a national survey that the Fish and Wildlife Service conducts every five years.

Of the 50 state wildlife agencies, most rely on hunting and fishing license fees for the bulk of their revenue, and only a handful receive significant infusions from their state's general fund.

"They're trying to take care of all wildlife and all habitats on a shoestring budget," said Rachel Brittin of the Washington-based Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

In New Hampshire, only multiple fee increases _ which produced numerous complaints _ have enabled the Fish and Game Department to keep revenues robust. Its ranks of registered hunters has dropped from 83,292 in 1996 to 61,076 last year, according to department spokeswoman Judy Stokes.

"We hear concerns about land access," Stokes said. "People grew up hunting _ you went out with your family, your uncle. And now you go back, and there's a shopping plaza or a housing development. Some of your favorite places just aren't available anymore."

National hunting expert Mark Damian Duda, executive director of Virginia-based research firm Responsive Management, says America's increasingly urban and suburban culture makes it less friendly toward the pastime.


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