Finding ways to fit hunting into the schedules of American kids.
It may be my earliest memory. I'm under the dining room table, curled up next to the rangy setter who would be my closest companion for the next 17 years. Now and then, the windows shake as the cold storm rises in the darkness outside.
Dad is sitting at the table; I can see his feet in heavy wool socks and, now and then, the lambswool end of a wooden cleaning rod poking out of a shotgun bore. Half a century later, the warm, safe feeling of family and home always comes back to me when I catch a whiff of Hoppe's No. 9.
In the years that followed that moment, Dad provided the equipment along with coaching on marksmanship and safety. I walked with the men while Sam the beagle-dog serenaded cottontails to us, learned to stalk squirrels in the fall timber and, when I was 14, killed my first goose.
It was the classic beginning for a hunter, the best way to start. The importance of this kind of classic introduction is getting hard to find. Unless something changes, the sport of hunting could be relegated to high-end clubs and the men who can afford them.
Numbers Don't Lie
The National Survey of Hunting, Fishing, and Outdoor-related Recreation tracks the populations of hunters and anglers in the United States. According to the survey, there were 14.1 million U.S. hunters (16 years or older) in 1991. In 1996, there were 14.0 million, and in 2001, there were 13.0 million. The trend is certainly no collapse, but it's worth noting that, from 1991 to 2001, U.S. population increased by more than 13 percent while the population of hunters dropped by about eight percent.
Over the same period, the population of U.S. waterfowl hunters grew significantly. In 1991-92, 1.4 million people bought duck stamps. In 1996-97, the number grew to 1.6 million, and in 2001-02, it stood at 1.7 million. That's 19 percent growth in a decade.
But the trend is misleading. As graybeards may recall, 1991 was one of the worst duck years in the last 50, and 2001 was one of the best. A longer view shows a more discouraging pattern. In the glory years of the late 1950s, duck stamp sales peaked at more than 2.2 million before slumping during the drought of the early 1960s. When duck production rebounded in the early 1970s, duck stamp sales soared to 2.4 million. If we compare the peak of hunter interest in the early 1970s with the most recent peak in 2000, duck stamp sales declined by 30 percent.
I'm not quite sure what happens to old duck hunters. A few may sneak off to Argentina to spend their declining years and Social Security checks in pursuit of the rosy-billed pochard. Many probably expire from overdoses of black coffee. Whatever the proximal cause, they make their way out of the duck blind, leaving vacancies that can only be filled by the next generation.
The Loss Of Hunting's Appeal
Therein lies the real problem. Hunting is losing its appeal among America's younger generation. Some of this is due to raw demographics. The actual number of Americans under the age of 18 has been increasing slowly, but the proportion of young people in the population has been dropping. According to an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "The proportion of children in the U.S. population has fallen from 36 percent (in1960) to 26 percent (in 1998), and is expected to drop to approximately 24 percent in 2020."
A remarkably high proportion of kids express an interest in hunting. In 2003, Mark Duda and his associates at Responsive Management reviewed the research that has been done on young people and hunting in the United States. One of Duda's own surveys collected opinions from people 13 to 20 years old and found that 49 percent of the teens that responded expressed at least a minimal interest in hunting. A 1993 survey of Ohio residents from 12 to 17 years old found that 49 percent of the people who responded had either hunted or thought they might like to try it. Forty-seven percent of Wisconsin kids from 16 to 17 years old said they would be interested in hunting.
The trouble is that fewer and fewer young people get a chance to try.
There are powerful influences at work in American society, and it comes as no surprise that they have a particularly intense effect on young people. Some observers have attributed the decline in hunting among modern teens to the increase in the number of single-parent households. Most one-parent homes are run by single mothers--not only do they have little time to take their kids hunting or fishing, but according to this line of thinking, they often don't hunt or fish themselves.
A lack of time really is a critical barrier for would-be hunters. A study done for the National Shooting Sports Foundation found that 43 percent of the hunters who responded had trouble finding time to hunt. Access problems are often a variation on this theme.
Adolescents who want to hunt are caught in a double time bind. Like their parents, modern teens face huge demands on their time. The combination of the family's commitments at work, home and school makes it extremely difficult to take a day or several days for hunting. If every home had a marsh or a pheasant covert out back, the time crunch would disappear.
No Place To Hunt
A century ago, most families had that option. Game coverts, home, school and the workplace were sometimes no more than a few hundred yards apart. Hunting was a relaxed activity. If a father had other obligations, a son or daughter could pick up the .22 or 20-gauge and go out alone.
But times have changed. According to the most recent census, only 29 percent of us live in rural areas; the rest are in metro areas or their suburbs. The recent flight to the "exurbs" may give some kids more room to roam, but in this era of liability claims and gun paranoia, a landscape of 10-acre ranchettes probably won't give young hunters the space they need to pursue the sport close to home.
This is a part of the classic introduction to hunting that's often overlooked. After the father figure introduces the young hunter to firearms and the field, he has to go back to work. This was just as true on the farm in 1900 as it is in the suburbs of 2005. The difference is that the farm kid has a chance to hunt on his own. It should come as no surprise that a majority of young hunters live in the country, even though the overwhelming majority of Americans live in town.
Even in my suburban upbringing, I had chances to hunt on my own.
For every hour I spent in the field with Dad, I spent a hundred more with friends or on my own. As I look around my suburban neighborhood today, I don't see any places a 12-year-old kid could repeat the experiences I
Protecting The Tradition
Over the last decade, state and federal wildlife agencies, hunting groups and mainstream conservation organizations have spent a growing amount of time and money recruiting and retaining hunters. Wildlife professionals recognize that hunting has provided the core funding and political support for conservation over nearly two centuries, and they're looking for ways to protect the tradition of the hunter-conservationist.
Many of their approaches hold promise. Mentor programs that match kids with veteran hunters should help the next generation get started in the field. More volunteers would help these efforts, and some sort of insurance against liability would be welcome as well. A new "archery-in-the-schools" program allows young people to get an introduction to shooting. More shotgun and rifle ranges would provide another venue for training, especially if they weren't too far from town.
Waterfowl might provide an exceptional opportunity for that kind of close-to-home hunt. Most urban areas are overrun with resident Canada geese and mallards. I wonder whether we could establish wetland hunting areas on the fringes of our major metro areas. Are there waterfowlers who would volunteer as guides and mentors on such preserves?
There's another component of the recruitment puzzle that's worth considering. A growing number of people take up hunting as adults. One study of this phenomenon found that, from 1951 to 1961, 18 percent of the people who took up hunting were 20 or older when they started. In the period from 1962 to 1972, that proportion jumped to 29 percent.
In this era of political polarization, waterfowlers and other sportsmen have obvious selfish reasons for bringing more people to the discipline of hunting, but the size of the hunting community touches more than the future of hunting itself. The hunter is a crucial part of American conservation, a component that, once lost, could not be replaced.