Disappearance of Hunting and Fishing

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)


State Response

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.

Science Rocks!

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.

What now?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

The take-home

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.


Halting the decline of hunting and fishing

TTL;DR – Small game hunting is likely more effective at hunter recruitment.



Declines in hunting and the resultant waning of wildlife conservation revenues are concerning to state wildlife agencies. Agencies have attempted to bolster revenues through recruiting potential hunters; including hunting camps for youth designed to teach hunting techniques, ethics, and ingrain the heritage of hunting in new participants. Yet, hunt camps centered on big game may be problematic for biologic, economic, and sociological reasons. In spite of these reasons, big game camps might be more effective at recruiting hunters than small game camps, but nobody knows. To find out, we compared the change of interest in hunting (i.e. “recruited-ness”) in pre- and post-event surveys for both big game and small game camps. Our research suggests small game camps recruit just as effectively as big game camps. Therefore, given the similarities in the ability of small game and big game camps to increase likelihood of participation, we recommend wildlife conservation decision-makers consider focusing on small game recruitment camps for the reasons enumerated herein.

Here’s the Problem:

The funding for wildlife conservation and hunting and angling are inextricably intertwined. In a recent nationwide study, the average state wildlife agency gets nearly 60% of funding from hunters and anglers (Chase, 2016). Primarily this comes from the sale of hunting and fishing privileges. Secondarily, there is a federal excise tax on all hunting and fishing equipment that is allocated back to the states. If hunting and fishing declines, the conservation funding erodes for everyone. It is little wonder that state agencies are trying to increase interest in hunting and fishing through camps and other events. In fact, recently Responsive Management conducted an evaluation of over 400 programs designed to recruit or retain hunters or anglers (Duda, 2011). Do the math, that’s 8 programs per state, ALL designed to make more hunters and anglers.

Logic dictates that if people have a good experience, then they will be more likely to repeat the behavior, or recruited into the activity. Therefore, in their effort to provide the most satisfactory experience possible, some state wildlife agencies and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) set up experiences that are as appealing as possible… from their perspective. Through their eyes (and mine too, if I am honest) the best experience is hunting enormous bull elk in premiere hunting grounds. Yet newcomers may not hold this worldview, and may not need that level of experience to be satisfied.

Big Game Camps for Youth May not be a Requirement to Recruit

Biological- Many states, particularly in the West, are unable to produce enough big game species to match the current demand. In fact, where I am from, 4 out of every 9 hunters are disappointed because they were not successful in the annual Big Game Draw. In the West, there is simply not enough rain to create enough forage to generate biomass in the form a deer or elk, for everyone to go hunting. Some states have attempted to recruit youth by setting aside tags specifically for youth, but if preference is given to youth hunters, hunting opportunity for other hunters is diminished.

Economical- Big game hunting is generally more expensive to participate in and therefore the threshold for participants to conscript is higher. Further, big game hunting opportunities are commonly farther from urban centers than are small game opportunities, also representing a higher commitment of financial resources by the participant. Finally, participation in big game hunting often requires a time investment of several days, meaning people have to arrange their school and work schedules to accommodate this absence.

Social- Satisfaction (required for recruitment) is a ratio of the experience delivered to the experience expected. That’s why when you go into a fast food restaurant expecting a bad hamburger and you get something that looks like the plain burger (left), you are satisfied. Similarly, if you go to a spendy restaurant and order a high-end burger, and you get a great burger (middle), you are also satisfied. It is only until you have higher expectations (below, right), and you don’t get something matching those expectations (above, right) that you become dissatisfied. In my business this is expectation confirmation theory.

We intuitively have a sense for expectation confirmation theory, which is why state agencies offer special youth tags, often with higher draw rates, higher harvest success, or higher quality animals. It is also why sportsmen’s group support recruitment camps with mentors, guides, spotters, cooked meals, activities, campfires, archery practice, fishing, raffle prizes, and demonstrations. These types of camps may artificially inflate expectations of hunting experiences, leading to long-term dissatisfaction with hunting because the ‘standard’ hunting experiences later in life do not replicate those experienced in big game camps.

Science Rocks!

In spite of the concerns listed above, it could be that big game camps recruit better than small game camps. To find out, we measured “recruited-ness” before and immediately after the experience for youth participating in 2012 and 2013 hunting camps. Our research contained 835 camp attendees. We measured “recruited-ness” using 12 questions such as: “I intend to hunt in the future”, “I consider myself a hunter”, “I plan to hunt in the next 12 months”, “I am interested in hunting”, etc. These questions measured “moving the recruitment needle” extremely well (α=0.88). We then compared the pre-assessment to the post-assessment for participants in big game and small game camps. My research suggests small game camps recruit just as effectively as big game camps (HDI -0.24 to 0.17).

What Now?

Many of you commented on my past article about the decline of hunting and expressed a desire to change. I would invite conservation decision-makers to consider focusing recruitment camps on small game. The Boone and Crockett Club, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Safari Club International, Whitetails Unlimited, Mule Deer Foundation, and the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep (all organizations that I am a member and/or supporter of) are wondering why I am betraying them. I contend that a small game hunter is just as beneficial to their organization as a big game hunter. Here’s why I might say that:

  1. Small game hunting can be done frequently. If you only hunt big game, you might be able to go with the youth in your life 3-6 times as youth (12-17). It is difficult to create traditions that last a lifetime going that infrequently. My children and I may go hunting that many times a month, and they know that a slushie from Circle K is always at the end – our tradition.
  2. Small game allows for more than one trigger pull. When I hand a firearm to my kids, all they want to do is bang, and that’s great. Small game hunting encourages that. Plus, not so much is riding on each trigger pull, so a miss only lasts a few minutes.
  3. Small game is easier. I have hunted quarry of nearly every size. Small game is easier because there are more opportunities and you can target multiple species each outing. *Note that in the header, my son has a .22; he was in charge of rabbits that day because he doesn’t like the kick of a 12 gauge. Plus, it can be spontaneous; no need to wait for a successful application to draw.
  4. Small game is cheaper. You can buy a shotgun or .22 for a few hundred dollars and have bacon-wrapped fill in the blank , in a few hours. To hunt big game, you have to plan, apply, successfully draw, take off work, buy a rifle and scope, buy equipment, invest a few days, butcher, taxidermy costs, etc.
  5. Small game doesn’t raise expectations. Big game camps conducted by well-meaning agencies and NGO’s are fantastic! The draw rates are more generous, the harvest rates are higher, there are usually higher quality animals, there is a lot of experience that is paired with a newbie that often has a guided-hunt like feel, and there are prizes, activities, and demonstrations. Sound great right? Why would anyone think that is a bad thing? Once newbies turn 18 or try to hunt on their own, the ‘standard’ hunting experience may not replicate those experienced in big game camps. This may lead to long-term dissatisfaction with hunting because the experiences later in life don’t match the expectation.
  6. In the West, there is enough biomass in the form of small game to allow nearly everybody who wants to go hunting a chance to go. Plus, less biomass is coming out of the system each time.

The take-home

This research suggests that small game camps recruit just as effectively as big game camps, but they don’t have the potential drawbacks. I am not suggesting a “this-or-that” proposition, this is NOT a matter of big game or small game. What I am suggesting is a “this-then-that” proposition. Putting on hunting events is expensive and NGO partners donate a tremendous amount of experience and time. If they can hook youth into hunting small game, over time the will develop into big game hunters and join sportsmen organizations later in life. It is a long-term investment, but the evidence suggests it is a savvy venture, with immense returns.

The legal stuff- The views and ideas contained herein are my own and do not represent an official position of any agency, organizations, federations, committees, technical advisory groups, or boards that I am affiliated with. Use of trade names, companies, or specific products/services does not imply an endorsement by any governmental organization.