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Fewer U.S. hunters worries wildlife agencies

The lack of new hunters being introduced to the sport of hunting is affecting the revenue of wildlife agencies. AP Photo/E Pablo Kosmicki

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.

"You don't just get up and go hunting one day — your father or
father-type figure has to have hunted,'' Duda said. "In a rural
environment, where your friends and family hunt, you feel
comfortable with guns, you feel comfortable with killing an
animal.''

Indeed, hunting remains vibrant in many rural states — 19
percent of residents 16 and older hunted last year in Montana and
17 percent in North Dakota, compared with 1 percent in California,
Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Nationally, 5 percent of
the 16-and-over population hunted in 2006, down from 7 percent in
1996.

As their ranks dwindle, hunters are far from unified. The often
big-spending, wide-traveling trophy hunters of Safari Club
International, for example, have different priorities from duck
hunters frequenting close-to-home wetlands.

One rift involves hunters disenchanted with the National Rifle
Association, which runs major hunting programs and lobbies
vigorously against gun control. A Maryland hunter, Ray Schoenke,
has formed a new group, the American Hunters and Shooters
Association, primarily as a home for hunters who would support some
restrictions on gun and ammunition sales.

"The NRA's extreme positions have hurt the hunting movement,'' Schoenke said. "Soccer moms now believe hunters have made things
more dangerous.''

Political support for hunting remains strong, though, with
several states recently enshrining the right to hunt and fish in
their constitutions.

Last month, President Bush ordered all federal agencies that
manage public lands to look for more room for hunting. In the 2004
presidential campaign, both Bush and Democratic rival John Kerry
courted hunters' and gun owners' votes. A camouflage-jacketed Kerry
even toted a shotgun during a goose hunt.

Among the 2008 candidates, Democrat Bill Richardson aired a TV
ad showing him hunting, while Republican Mitt Romney was derided
for calling himself a lifelong hunter even though he never had
state hunting licenses.

Public support for hunting also is high, in part because huge
deer populations have become a nuisance in many areas. Duda's
surveys indicate less than 25 percent of Americans oppose hunting,
although groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
denounce it as cruel.

Most major animal-welfare and conservation groups don't campaign
to end hunting, but some lobby against specific practices such as
bear hunting or "canned'' hunts in which game is confined in
fenced areas and shot by hunters who pay large sums for the
opportunity.

"As a matter of principle, we should not condone the killing of
any animal in the interest of sport,'' said Andrew Page of the
Humane Society of the United States. "But as a matter of
pragmatism, we target those practices that even hunters would agree
are egregious.''

The Humane Society welcomed the new federal data showing a
surging number of birdwatchers, wildlife photographers and other
wildlife watchers. They increased from 62.8 million in 1996 to 71.1
million in 2006, spending $45 billion on their activities compared
to $75 billion spent by hunters and anglers.

"The American attitude regarding wildlife is changing,'' Page
said. "I suspect the day will come when a presidential candidate
goes to a local humane society to adopt a homeless animal, rather
than go the field and pose as hunter with a gun.''

However, hunting groups and state wildlife agencies are striving
to reverse the decline by recruiting new hunters. Vermont's Game
and Wildlife Department, for example, sponsors thrice-annual youth
hunting weekends, offers low-cost youth licenses and teaches
firearms safety and outdoor skills each summer at youth
conservation camps.

Another initiative is Families Afield, sponsored by three
national hunting groups; it aims to ease state restrictions on
youth hunting. At least 12 states have obliged, enabling thousands
of youths to sample hunting before taking required hunter education
courses.

Other programs seek to attract more women, though few promote
racial diversity. More than 90 percent of U.S. hunters are male;
roughly 96 percent are white.

Rob Sexton, a vice president of the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance,
said one upside of the shrinking numbers is that hunting groups are
more motivated to seek remedies, such as access to more land and
less burdensome regulations.

"There are still a lot of us,'' he said. "Hunting is a great
passion for our people.''