by Scott Yaich, Ph.D., Ducks Unlimited Chief Scientist
I wonder how many of us remember overhearing our dads making plans to go hunting only to have our hopes dashed when we were told that just the grownups were going on the hunt. My dad often attempted to placate me by promising to take me "soon" or "next time." And while I was greatly disappointed to be left behind in those early instances, he eventually took me hunting, and I've been an avid hunter ever since. Many Americans, for many reasons, have a far different experience than I did growing up, and as a result do not hunt.
We currently have about 18 to 20 million hunters age 16 or older in the United States, or roughly 7 percent of the total population. But surveys indicate that the number of Americans who hunt is declining nationwide, most rapidly on the coasts and least of all in the north-central states. According to the most recent National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, which is conducted every five years by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in cooperation with other state and federal agencies and nongovernmental organizations, 12.5 million people age 16 and older hunted in 2006. This represented a 13 percent decline in hunter numbers compared to the previous survey in 2001. The drop in migratory bird hunters was especially steep, declining 22 percent from almost 3 million in 2001 to 2.3 million in 2006. In addition, duck stamp sales, which serve as an index for waterfowl hunter numbers, have also been declining in recent years. Over the long term, duck stamp sales have decreased more than 40 percent from a peak of 2.4 million during the 1970-1971 waterfowl season to an average of 1.4 million in recent years. So even as the U.S. population steadily increases, hunters are being lost faster than new ones are being recruited, a pattern even more pronounced among waterfowlers.
Why should this concern us? After all, fewer duck hunters means less competition for hunting spots and more ducks for each hunter, right? Clearly, this is a short-sighted view at best. Fewer hunters also means decreased license revenue that conservation agencies depend on to manage waterfowl populations, habitat, and hunting areas. Moreover, as hunter numbers decline so does the number of people who care enough to influence public policies important to waterfowl and hunters. Unlike the banks and multinational corporations that have become "too big to fail" in the eyes of some policymakers, duck hunters could become "too few to matter."
Why is this happening? There have long been many theories about why hunter numbers are declining when many populations of game, including ducks, are abundant compared to times in the past. Fortunately, human dimensions, the science of investigating what people think and do, is beginning to shed light on these questions. This research is providing valuable information that will help us better understand what we can do to recruit more waterfowlers and other hunters now and in the future.