by Whit Gibbons

November 11, 2007

If you hunt wild animals, you are in a minority of the country's population. And according to the most recent government survey the numbers of hunters have declined steadily for more than 30 years. Some people may find it ironic that this trend could be bad for the environment, but hunters are among the strongest proponents and financial supporters for protecting and maintaining natural habitats

At approximately five-year intervals since 1955, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has sponsored a survey to assess how involved people are with wildlife. The latest National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, taken in 2006 and released in November 2007, provides estimates by category of how many people fish, hunt, and watch wildlife. Wildlife watching includes observing, photographing, and feeding wildlife. The survey also gives information on how much time and money people who are engaged in these activities spend each year.

During 2006, 71 million people watched wildlife one way or another. Almost 30 million people fished. But only 12.5 million hunted. The highest number of U.S. hunters ever recorded was in the mid-1980s, almost 17 million people; about 9% of the population. But as the nation's population has grown, the increase in hunters has not kept pace, going from 11% in 1960, to 8.3% by 1990, to about 6% in 2001. The recent survey puts the percentage down further, to 5%.

A disturbing trend to hunters is that the actual number of Americans who hunt is declining at an even steeper rate than the percentage. One explanation is that the number of young people who hunt decreases every year and cannot keep pace with the number of old hunters who quit hunting. This is equivalent to a deer herd having more individuals die or leave the population each year than are added to it. Recruitment is too low to result in a sustainable population. An additional issue is that as urban areas expand, people are farther removed from habitats where they might conveniently go to hunt. Consequently, hunting advocates diminish in number.

Nonetheless, hunting revenues are substantial. The amount of money paid by hunters in pursuit of their craft was about $23 billion last year. These include economic benefits to communities through the sale of guns, ammunition, and other hunting supplies, plus various travel expenses and accessories. In addition to local and state taxes that benefit the public, federal excise taxes on hunting equipment contribute directly to the support of land purchases, habitat protection, and wildlife management programs. In addition, migratory waterfowl hunters are required to purchase a federal Duck Stamp, some of the proceeds going to purchase land for wildlife refuges. Taxes from hunting activities also go for maintaining parks and wildlife refuges, and conducting surveys and research to determine the status of not only game but also some nongame species.

So why is the decline in hunters potentially bad for the environment? The answer is that hunters contribute financially to benefiting natural habitats. The hunting community pays to ensure that wildlife populations of game species are sustainable from one generation to the next, which requires that a diversity of natural habitats be kept intact, unpolluted, and undisturbed. Hunters support these efforts with their attitudes about natural habitats, and with their pocketbooks.

Environmentalists should support hunters. In many states, hunting clubs preserve more natural habitat than do most environmental organizations. Although their agenda may be directed toward management for deer, quail, ducks, or other game species, their role in protecting habitats along with non-game wildlife has become increasingly important. Some hunting clubs are exemplary models of private ownership of land contributing to the preservation of natural habitats.

Preserving natural habitat is critical for all wildlife, not just game species. The major threat to most natural ecosystems and wildlife species today is habitat degradation and destruction. Irresponsible commercial development is a leading culprit when natural habitats are destroyed and replaced with artificial ones where most native wildlife does poorly.

I don't hunt but am sorry to see the steady decline in the number of hunters because it means fewer high paying participants are working to keep America wild.

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