Habitat is the key to wildlife's future, but as hunters proudly point out, most species of huntable game in North America and abroad are abundant and many populations are at all-time record highs. It doesn't hurt to keep saving wetlands and woodlots, creating water holes in arid areas and planting food plots, but the future of hunting is not so much tied to wildlife and habitat anymore. The future of hunting is a people problem.
According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, 5% percent of the U.S. population 16 years old and older, 12.5 million people, hunted in 2006. The number of all hunters declined by 4% from 2001 to 2006 and there was a 3% drop in overall expenditures. Although the total number of hunters declined from 2001 to 2006, the number of big game hunters held their own. Since 1955, the number of big game hunters has dramatically increased from 1,579,704 to about 12 million these days. The huge whitetail deer herd sure brings people out, but hunters are most definitely a minority group, and while big game hunting is holding steady, small game hunting is waning.
So what is the future of hunting? It's tied to two things — affordable access and building a positive public image.
I just finished co-writing a 500-plus page book, "Chasing the Hunter's Dream", that's about places to hunt across North America and around the world. From that research endeavor, I conclude that about the only place where the "Ask the farmer and you get to hunt for free" culture exists in any numbers is in Manitoba and Saskatchewan for waterfowl hunting. Otherwise, it's pay for access on private and public lands, with fees climbing.
I'm not opposed to farmers making money from letting hunters use their land. In doing research for the book and speaking at the North American Gamebird Association convention, it became very clear that charging for hunting on farmlands is what is keeping a lot of family farms afloat. I'm just stating the reality that charging fees to hunt on private lands and increasing regulations and charging for access to hunt on public lands means that the casual small game hunter who wants to spend a couple hours afield after work or after school chasing rabbits, squirrels or pheasants is a vanishing species. This is why in 2006 the biggest declines in types of hunting were in migratory bird hunting (-22%) and small animal hunting (-12%).
Across North America and around the world, game wardens need support, too. Without wardens there would be no wildlife. California's $100 million a year black market in illegal wildlife trafficking is an example of what happens when there are too few wardens to police the resource.
Wardens are chronically underpaid and their salaries are closely tied to hunters' license sales. If hunter numbers decline, new systems of funding fish and game departments will have to be created and sportsmen will lose their special relevance as the primary supporters of state and provincial fish and game agencies. You know what that will mean in terms of protecting hunting.
Recruitment and retention programs are great. BOW and USSA's Families Afield programs are laudable and have introduced many to shooting sports, but keeping people out in the field translates into having affordable, easy access. If it ain't there, you'll have to create expensive special programs to keep them involved.
For kids, peer pressure is especially important. With all the anti-hunting programs and literature that are targeted at kids, it's increasingly hard to find communities where kids who hunt aren't teased, harassed or ostracized by their peers, who increasingly are opting for vegetarian menus, regardless if its good for them or not. True, most of the newborn vegans may not know the difference between a squirrel and a grouse, but then the average person these days spends over 90% of their life indoors, using screens – TV, computers, I-pods and movies – to define reality. And good hunters appearing on mainstream media screens are about as common as white deer. Such environmental naiveté makes easy targets for anti-hunting emotional appeals.
Good storytelling drives culture. Once upon a time, hunters were heroes in mainstream TV and feature films. "Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier" was number one at the box office and "Daniel Boone" ran for six years on primetime TV, along with the extremely popular American Sportsman TV series. As the number of programs with a positive spin on hunting has waned, so has the number of hunters dropped. Could there be a causal relationship?
As an actor and producer, I hunt greenbacks in the wilderness to the south called "Hollywood." Hunters ask me why more mainstream shows don't give hunters a balanced portrayal. In "The Art of War", Sun Tzu says that you must know your enemy to defeat them. Wise advice for hunters.
Twelve million or more people belong to animal rights groups, which are gradually merging into one group, the Humane Society of the US, which reduces competition. (Is there any competition among hunting groups? Hah! )
The antis have a war chest of over $200 million a year, a large part of which is spent on building a media presence. The American Humane Association monitors all films with animal actors. The HSUS produces the "Genesis Awards" every year, a nationally-televised program that honors people and films that support their point of view — including opposition to trophy hunting. PETA and others wine and dine screen celebs all the time to recruit them for ads, etc. On one of my recent forays into Tinseltown I met a guy who produced the In Defense of Animals fundraiser on the Paramount lot last year. The event grossed $2.8 million. He said that his production budget was $550,000.
If someone gave me $550,000 I'd produce a great wildlife gala in Hollywood to show how hunters are conservationists.
Where once outdoor shows were primetime on major networks, contemporary outdoor TV shows appear on separate networks and target a special audience — sportsmen — featuring tips, techniques, gear and travel promotions. Help me with the logic here; designing programming that tries to get declining numbers of sportsmen to spend more money. What is the long term future for that if numbers of hunters are required to preserve the sport?
Hunters and shooters grouse about Michael Moore's movie "Bowling for Columbine." If someone was willing to put up $4 million, which was Moore's production budget, I could do a helluva job of making a documentary that shows some good things about hunters and shooters. (I could get it on primetime TV and with celebrity host, too.)
I can assure you that some extremely talented people in Hollywood in front of and behind the camera would be happy to work on pro-hunting programs for mainstream audiences if they can get paid reasonable wages.
The plain fact is that with all the work and money that anti-hunting groups pour into Hollywood, and the criticism that a celebrity gets if he or she advocates shooting or hunting, they stand to lose a lot of money and work. Would you be willing to lose your career and/or millions of dollars, and get little or nothing back from the people you are trying to support?
So, what does my soothsaying crystal ball look like for hunting's future? It's pretty cloudy, and that haze is the smog that hovers over Hollywood. Studies show that while over 80% of the general public believes that ethical hunting is okay, they also believe that 64% of the hunters are reckless, often drink in the field and violate game laws. It may not be true, but that's the image that people have and that image in these days is tied to the image of hunters and shooters in mainstream media that is heavily influenced by hunting's opponents.
Sure, habitat and political action are important, but what shapes public opinion that drives the political process? The current presidential race tells the story. It's mainstream media, and my crystal ball shows that its power is going to be strong for a very long time.
James Swan who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.