By John Bradley
My uncle and I go pheasant hunting a couple times each year. We usually hunt over our labs in Montana and during the holidays in Minnesota. He has a couple catch phrases that will undoubtedly be said during each hunt. The first is said upon seeing other hunters out in the field he wanted to work, “Do any of these SOB’s work anymore?” His other saying happens at the end of the hunt. After the dogs are put up, he’ll crack a beer at the tailgate and say, “It ain’t easy being a sportsman.”
My uncle’s grousing about people in “his spot” rings true. With over a third of hunters being baby boomers (anyone born between 1946 and 1964) the hunters he is seeing likely don’t work anymore. This trend of an older population of hunters has state and federal wildlife agencies worried. If younger folks don’t take up the sport, license sales will decline at an alarming rate. Hunting participation peaked in 1982 when nearly 17 million hunters purchased 28.3 million licenses. Today, only 11.5 million people in the United States (4% of the population) actually hunt.
For state wildlife agencies who have relied on a user-pay, public benefit system for decades to fund their conservation efforts, the decline in hunting has suppressed license sales and other forms of funding. This leaves them short staffed and unable to do their jobs to protect critical habitat and implement wildlife management programs. The system worked great when a larger portion of the population was hunting and buying licenses. It played a key role in bringing deer, turkey, ducks and other game species back from the brink of extinction.
This isn’t a new problem. Agencies and conservation organizations have been working on this issue for decades. Their “Recruit, Retain, Reactivate” mantra, commonly called R3, is a nationwide effort aiming to increase participation in the outdoors. They are targeting young and old to participate in activities like hunting, fishing, and trapping, with the hopes of creating a new crop of sportsmen and women who will buy licenses. While they do host events and trainings on fishing, birding, and wildlife photography, most of their focus is on hunting; facilitating new hunters getting into the outdoors, engaging current hunters, and motivating former hunters to take up the sport again. An R3 event could be anything from a day at the shooting range, a mentored pheasant hunt, a video on how to cook duck or squirrel, or a wild game butchering demonstration. All these activities and events are worthwhile, but I think agencies and organizations would be better served doubling down on something they already work on: access.
A lack of access is routinely listed as the number one reason hunters quit hunting. If we want to retain and reactivate hunters, we need more access to better habitat. If we are going to recruit new hunters into the fold, we better have a spot where they can go. State and federal agencies should work on opening new lands for hunting, angling and other outdoor activities. The Trump and Biden administrations both opened more wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries to hunting and fishing. Actions like this will better serve R3 goals of getting more hunters than a one-off event. States should also be looking to increase their private land access programs, a popular option for both landowners and sportsmen. Here in North Dakota, the state legislature has an Interim Committee on Access. The committee should be drafting legislation to increase hunter and angler access to new lands and waters.
Even with a hunting population that is aging out of the sport, it is getting tougher to find a spot to hunt. R3 programs are needed and, when done right, can be effective in moving event participants to become hunters and license buyers. Unfortunately, a lot of R3 programs tend to focus primarily on young people who would hunt anyway. Their friends or families already hunt. They don’t need an R3 program to lure them in. They need places to go hunt on their own. If our R3 efforts are going to be effective in the long term, we need the same level of focus on increasing access. Hopefully, there’ll be less grumbling about hunting pressure and at the end of a hunt we’ll hear: “It’s pretty easy being a sportsman.”
John Bradley is a contributing writer for Dakota Edge Outdoors and the Executive Director for the North Dakota Wildlife Federation.
Featured Photo: The author and his uncle on public-access acres in Minnesota. DEO Photo by John Bradley.