Hunters Are Going the Way of the Dinosaur

Scenes like this are becoming less common, as figures show that the number of hunters in the United States is way down from a decade ago.
Scenes like this are becoming less common, as figures show that the number of hunters in the United States is way down from a decade ago. (By Angus Phillips For The Washington Post)
By Angus Phillips
Sunday, September 9, 2007

Opening day of the 2007 Maryland hunting season last weekend could not have been better. Four of us took up station at noon in a weed field in Howard County where Johnny and Larry Coburn toiled over the summer to put in a half-acre of sunflowers.

The sunflowers are heavy with seed now and doves flocked in to feed. "I love it when a plan comes together," said Coburn, admiring the pastoral scene he helped create, as we waited for legal shooting time.

The next three hours were bliss: Plenty of birds, good retrieving work by my young Labrador, Nellie, a bright day tempered by cool breezes and a limit of 12 doves for each of us. When we left, birds were still buzzing around by the dozens, offering bright promise for future outings.

Back home that evening, I dressed my birds, put the breasts down to soak in a light, vinegar-based barbecue sauce and fired up the grill. You don't want to overcook doves, which are as tender as aged filet mignon. While I fussed with the coals, my wife stripped sweet corn and fixed a tomato salad. We finished off with Maryland peaches under cream.

The king of any country you can name will never have a better meal -- or a better day. So why, you might ask, given rewards like these, are the ranks of hunters in America declining?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers the latest gloomy assessment, reporting that the number of licensed hunters dropped from 14 million to 12.5 million from 1996 to 2006. It's a continuing trend. In 1982, hunters numbered about 17 million from a total population of 230 million. Today there are 300 million Americans, meaning that as a percentage of the population, hunters have dropped from 7.4 to 4.1 per cent in 25 years.

If the numbers are bad, demographics are worse. The hunting population today is predominantly middle-aged and older white males -- not exactly a growth sector. Once they're gone, who will fill their boots?

It's not as if wildlife is disappearing. Deer and wild turkeys are as plentiful today as they've ever been, maybe more so. Waterfowl seem to be holding their own, despite some worrisome ups and downs. The picture is not so rosy for quail and rabbits, victims of declining habitat, and for woodcock and grouse. Squirrels, of course, are everywhere.

And unlike Europe, America still has miles and miles of public hunting land available, even in crowded Eastern states. So where is everybody?

Nobody really knows, but there's much conjecture. Urbanization, increasing parental workloads, broken families, computers, and continuing efforts by animal protection groups to vilify hunting are cited by Russell Sawchuk in his treatise on the subject in, the deer and elk farmers' information network.

Steve Tuttle's thoughtful piece in Newsweek last year put the blame on "fewer fields and streams and hills full of game to hunt . . . more restrictions and lawsuits; more video games and diversions to keep junior (and his dad) on the couch."

Everyone seems to agree that if youngsters aren't introduced to hunting early by parents or uncles or some other kindly adults, they are unlikely ever to take it up. And adults, pressed in the current culture and economy to work longer hours to make ends meet (or buy shiny baubles they probably don't need), are less likely to take the time. The upshot is fewer hunters, which spells trouble for state fish and wildlife agencies, which get most of their operating funds from license sales. (Fishing, too, is sharply down, from 35.2 million license sales in 1996 to 30 million in 2006, according to the latest federal survey.)

Any bright spots in this bleak picture? Not directly, but some trends give hope. For starters, Americans seem finally to be waking up to the fact that most of what they eat is one step up from garbage. The busiest places to shop these days are local farm markets -- at ours in Annapolis, they need two state troopers to direct traffic in and out on Saturday mornings.

Nor are people moving indoors. At the same time fishing and hunting participation dropped, bird- and wildlife-watching and photography increased 14 percent, up from 62.8 million in 1996 to 71.1 million last year.

Of course, it's one thing to pile the kids in the car and head for the farmers market to stock up on tomatoes and corn, or out to Great Falls to scan for eagles, and quite another to take the time to acquire the skills and gear you need to take them perch fishing or rabbit hunting.

In the end it comes down to time, the most valuable commodity any of us ever will have. Sure, the Coburns and I only needed three hours to get our limit of doves on opening day, but those three hours followed lifetimes of preparation -- days spent scouting, exploring, working up the field, training the dog, practicing shooting, and on and on.

Will Americans come back to hunting and fishing? It could very well happen, about the same time land developers start deciding they ought to leave that vacant weed field alone, and employers come to the conclusion that workers really need six weeks of vacation to stay healthy in body and mind; when public schools offer classes in shooting and gun safety and the malls shut down on weekends to give people a break from runaway consumerism.

Until then, if you're among the ranks of folks eagerly awaiting this blossoming autumn season afield, count your blessings. You're a dying breed.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company