TTL;DR – America’s hunters and anglers are graying and there will soon be fewer of them contributing to wildlife conservation revenues.
Here’s the Problem
Modernizing forces are changing wildlife conservation across North America. Concurrently, hunting and fishing has declined ubiquitously, and has resulted in a reduction in conservation revenue. Stemming this decline in hunting and angling is of keen interest to state wildlife agencies, yet little is known about the nature of recent participation declines or the extent to which they will continue into the future. In particular, very little attention has been paid to the potential for cohort effects (differences in participation by birth cohort that continue throughout life) to drive hunting and angling participation. To clarify the role of cohort effects, we conducted an age-period-cohort analysis on hunting and fishing license sales in 23 states across the U.S. We found evidence that “age effects” temporarily suppress participation during the college years, but permanently suppresses participation beginning in the early 70’s. It is the “cohort effects”, however, that clearly drives participation in hunting and fishing, as there is a cohort of individuals moving through different life stages that have experienced consistently high participation rates throughout their lives. All reasonable models predict declines in hunting and angling will not only continue but be exacerbated into the foreseeable future as these cohorts reach older ages and eventually attrite.
The World is Changing
The ability of state wildlife agencies (agencies) to adequately represent today’s public interests is being tested by a recent societal shift in the way people perceive and interact with wildlife. In the past, agencies have worked to conserve hunted and non-hunted wildlife species; using revenues generated largely from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses as well as from federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment (Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson). However, in recent decades, there has been a significant decline in hunting and fishing (USFWS, 2007; Chase, 2010), which has led to concerns about the ability of the agencies to secure a stable source of funding to support wildlife conservation in the future. The graph below depicts the relative growth of wildlife viewing (red) and the per capita decline of hunting (blue) and fishing (yellow) specific to Arizona, but these declines are reflected of the national-level data (wildlife viewing[triangle], fishing [diamond], and hunting [square] USFWS, 1991-2011)
In response to these trends, and in an effort to stay relevant, agencies are attempting to bolster their traditional hunter/angler-based business model. This has taken the form of “Youth Camps”, “Recruitment, Retention, and Reactivation”, “R3”, or simply “Recruitment”. However the overall efficacy of hunter/angler recruitment and retention initiatives is largely unknown, as documented evidence evaluating the lasting effects of these initiatives is lacking. Moreover, in biology, recruitment has the connotation of taking youth and raising them into functioning adults. Many within the conservation community have postulated that this connotation has misguided recruitment efforts as the hunting and angling heritage message may be more effective on audiences other than youth. Below is an image of the author’s son, demonstrating a more organic recruitment into shooting sports and eventually hunting.
Science is the Basis for Wildlife Policy
Agencies rightfully pride themselves on the fact that sound biological science is the basis for wildlife management policy. Increasingly, wildlife management is more about managing people who are passionate about wildlife, rather than the wildlife itself. Therefore, wildlife management policy is increasingly including sociological science to make more informed decisions. An example germane to recruitment is Responsive Management’s report on the recruitment programs of 37 states. That report consolidated the successes and failures of the states and proffered best practices for recruitment programs nationwide. To improve the effectiveness of recruitment efforts, there is a need to systematically understand the nature of the declines in hunting and fishing.
To comprehend hunting and fishing declines, we conducted an age-period-cohort analysis on hunting and fishing license sales in 23 states the U.S. Age, period, and cohort effects are difficult to analyze because at any instant in time they are perfectly linear (i.e., a person who turns 38 in 2016 will always have been born in 1978). Therefore, data collected across time are critical for differentiating age, period, and cohort effects. Age effects manifest by altered participation levels at specific ages, regardless of which year in time it is and what is occurring during that year. For example, over the last 20 years, a significant decrease consistently occurs in the early 70’s, presumably because participants are physically no longer able to participate. Period effects occurs when a specific year in time shows a change in hunting and fishing participation across all age groups simultaneously. An example of this effect is when state agencies increase the costs of licenses or tags, resulting in lower sales volumes; affecting all ages of license buyers. Cohort effects manifest by people of the same birth year who are consistently higher or lower in their participation. An example of this effect is that individuals born in 1975 are nearly twice as likely to go hunting as individuals born in 1985, even while holding ages constant.
We found “age effects” reduce participation during college years, and again in late adulthood, beginning about age 70. “Period effects” were somewhat variable across states, but generally show declining participation rates over time and offered unique insights into specific incidences (related to license structure changes, policy, disease, or environment) that immediately affect participation for all ages and cohorts. “Cohort effects” are clearly the strongest driver in hunting and fishing participation. Individuals born between approximately 1948 and 1968 were the most likely to hunt and fish. These findings definitively demonstrate hunting and fishing are not tied to a specific life stages; rather, there is a twenty-year cohort of hunters/anglers moving through different life stages that have experienced high participation rates throughout their lives. The next three images show license sales patterns in Arizona from 1992 to 2012. Note the main cohort of hunters and anglers (born between 1948-1968) approaching the stationary attrition point (early 70’s), where most people age-out of the sports.
I am a shooter, hunter, and angler. We in the outdoors sporting community, we have been disproportionately funding wildlife conservation for decades. Under the current model of conservation funding, if hunters and anglers continue to decline, the fiscal virility of agencies will be severely diminished. Most states witnessed a brief preview of this issue during the most recent market contraction. However, the duration and magnitude of the impending budgetary crisis for agencies will be unparalleled by anything seen in the past. If future generations are going to hunt, fish, and enjoy wildlife like their predecessors, state agencies are going to have to do business differently. To preserve the current model of conservation funding, I see three avenues that the conservation community can take to address these issues:
- Make more hunters and anglers- Programs like youth camps, locavore movements, fishing clinics, and outdoor expos are all intended to create more recreationists. However, they are expensive, time intensive, and many in the recruitment community are beginning to deem them impractical in the long-term. For example, a colleague of mine was boasting about a program that annually brought in over 80 locavores into hunting and fishing. While that is great news, we need to keep in mind that our community has lost more than that amount in the time that you have been reading. A better approach is to re-recruit parents in their mid 30’s to early 40’s and subsequently let them recruit their children. They have the social bonds, infrastructure, and time to inspire organic growth rather than synthetic programs from a government agency. A point to consider, however, is many states have draws or lotteries in place because there is not enough sufficient wildlife in the system for all hunters to go, so making more hunters may not be sustainable long-term. Encouraging small game opportunities for both parent and child will allow for a fuller adoption of the hunting tradition.
- Extract more money from each hunter and angler- Several people in the conservation community have suggested that if agencies can get more from each individual hunter and/or angler, the conservation revenue issue could be resolved. As a hunter and angler, I respectfully disagree. I love wildlife and I am willing to pay more than my fair share to conserve it. Asking for more revenue from those who already pay more than their fair share may not be tenable. Further, commanding a higher conscription fee will only perpetuate and exacerbate the perception that hunting, shooting, and angling are only for the wealthy.
- Evolve the funding model- The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is one of the most effective tools worldwide to conserve the wildlife resources, and is the envy of the rest of the conservation world. The success of the model is evidenced by the diversity of now-common species recovered from the brink of extinction such as white-tailed deer, Wild Turkey, and Wood Ducks as well as recovering species like the California Condor, Bald Eagles, and Gila Trout. However, some mistakenly believe that the model has been static in the past, others erroneously believe if the model evolves it is an admission that the model was imperfect. Nothing could be further from the truth, during its time, the model worked perfectly to accomplish what it was meant to do, conserve wildlife. However, the world has changed, and so must the model evolve— as it was always meant to do. Each state is different is its approaches to diversify its funding sources. Florida sets a tax on the sale of real estate so a small percentage is reinvested in the wildlife that make it so desirable to live there. Virginia, Missouri, and a few other states have a general sales tax wherein all citizens contribute to wildlife conservation, which is great because all citizens benefit from wildlife conservation. Further, many states have donation accounts, many in the form of tax checkoffs. Agencies must carefully consider how they will chose to evolve their model, and how best to serve their constituencies.
Hunters and anglers are crucial, but no longer sufficient to exclusively fund wildlife conservation. These data from 23 states unequivocally indicate hunting and fishing is declining. Moreover, there is a cohort of hunters and anglers who are going to exit their respective sports and exacerbate the declines that we have already seen in the last two decades. The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation has served us well, and if we adapt it, it will continue to serve us for generations to come. It is time to diversify client-bases and wildlife conservation revenue sources to meet the conservation challenges of the future head on.