You know, this hunting deal, as we know it today . . . or should, started with Teddy Roosevelt. He promoted a thing called fair chase. What that simply means is, the animal has a fair chance to escape, in most instances, and it is not attracted to bait or food, shined with a spotlight or behind a high fence.
That defines sport hunting today.
Here in what is left of the United States, we work with something called the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. It is just about the opposite of the European plan.
Here, the wildlife belongs to the public. The government or individual landowners except in instances of high fence “farming” do not own them. Additionally, wild animals are supposed to be killed for food or population control, not just for the trophy antlers. Obviously, that it is not strictly adhered to. The wildlife and the folks managing them are funded mostly through the sale of licenses and various stamps and fees and are managed according to scientific guidelines. The italicized words are important. That is why I italicized them.
Take a walk through Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s or any hunting super market and tell me to some degree it isn’t about trophies for some people. Although there is some growth in consumptive use by hunters and non-hunters, you don’t see those television hunting stars with does or small bucks and there is some sort of gadget on the corner of every aisle that will guarantee you a monster buck or bull. That sells product and that spawns dollars.
Technology is everywhere and there are high-dollar items that absolutely promise to put that giant buck or bull right your lap. In addition, if you don’t have the giants where you hunt, you can buy products that will either grow them or attract them. Or, you can just book a hunt and go where they are. There are products that purport to make you invisible and scentless. There are products that can do almost anything to increase your chances of killing a trophy “something”.
I recall when treestands first were introduced. There was an argument about the ethics of using one. Today, $500 ground blinds and $10,000 luxurious shooting houses are becoming as common as tree stands. The reason for that is contained in the real meat of this column. Here is where it really gets important.
There is a reason for all the high-tech. It is simple and it is two-pronged. There is need to attract more hunters and retain the older ones. One-third of all hunters are over the age of 55. They are approaching an age when they no longer feel comfortable in treestands and they can afford the ground blinds. Yet, there is a sharp loss of hunting interest in middle-aged, male deer hunters. Once the mainstay of recruiting young hunters, they are now leading in the number of hunters who give up the sport. There are many reasons for this decline in numbers. Probably it is a combination of several factors such as overall physical condition and a decline in rural living are in the lead. Whatever the reasons, hunter numbers are declining.
Now, let me throw you a real curveball.
In 2006, spending on hunting in the U.S. was $25.5 billion. According to the most recent census data, it had soared to $33.7 billion. However, the number of Americans buying hunting licenses has been on a steady decline for 10-years. Money is up. Participants are down. How can that be?
That same one-third of all hunters that are over 55, and are willing to pay for the high-dollar items that may allow them to continue to enjoy their sport is declining. Moreover, they are failing in tremendously important aspect.
Hunters my age, the baby boomers who grew up mentored by older hunters are failing. We once, as youngsters, looked forward to those days in hunting camp, hearing the stories, smelling the wood smoke and dreaming of a big buck filling our sights. It was passed on to us but we have not and are not passing it on to the youngsters today. I’ll get to the reasons for that later. That is very important.
Here in Tennessee approximately 220,000 hunters buy licenses. Ten years ago, that figure was 240,000 and it dipped to 200,000 before climbing back. Think about that. In ten years, we lost 40,000 hunters, then, gained 20,000 back. What happened? The decline is easy to understand but why the resurgence? You can lay it on two factors in my opinion. First, is the high-tech we have been talking about and second is the legalization of the crossbow during archery season for all hunters. You can also add in the great job the TWRA has done in managing the deer herd. Today, almost every hunter can expect to kill or at least see deer when hunting.
When crossbows were first approved for all in 2006, there was a great clamor from bowhunters opposed to them. As I wrote in a column back then, the sky did not fall. The terrible things that were forecast did not happen. Ten years ago, 162,000 deer were killed in Tennessee.
In 2013-14, that figure is expected to be 166,000. The crossbow had no impact on the number of deer killed. The impact was in dollar signs and license sales. Figures indicate just how stable our deer population is.
One study recently predicted as much as a 27% drop in gun license sales over the next 20-years years in the hunter heavy state of Wisconsin.
That may well have been one of the determining factors in Wisconsin approving crossbows during the archery season in 2014. They intend to expand the opportunities for hunters in the Badger State.
It is not just crossbows that may save the sport. There is a growing trend in bowhunting and archery. This is especially true in women.
Some of this may be attributed to The Hunger Games. I have not seen it, have no idea what it is all about but I understand there is some woman named Katniss who shoots a bow and it has spawned an increase in bow sales to women. Whatever the reason, as gun license sales decrease, bowhunting is breaking records.
Archery and bowhunting are also under the technology boom. Matt McPherson, engineering genius and owner of Mathews archery, the largest bow company in the world turns out bows that don’t really look like bows and can cost $1,000.
With the change in bows from just a stick and string that requires constant practice, bowhunting can now be mastered in a much shorter time. In fact, with a modern compound bow, if someone will listen to me and follow my instructions, I can have them shooting well enough to hunt in two hours. That is providing they will continue to shoot and get comfortable with shooting a bow.
So, why the boom in crossbows that also easily cost $1,000? First, they do not require practice. A couple shots to make sure they are still shooting dead on and you are ready to hit the woods.
Second, they allow hunters like me who have no shoulders left and are unable to pull a vertical bow, the chance to continue bowhunting. They are the savior for the aging bowhunter.
There is a downside to crossbows. People buying them, thinking they shoot just like a rifle, quickly find out the truth. A crossbow is no more accurate or a long range tool than a compound bow.
What often happens is there is a boom in buying crossbows then a slump in sales of licenses as hunters find out the truth about them. That explains our rainbow effect of license buying.
It seems as though Tennessee has leveled off to an acceptable number of deer hunters.
However, as in every other state, one-third of our hunters are like me-getting a tad long in the tooth and grey in the beard. At some point, as our joints get ever stiffer, we will finally leave hunting to the younger generation. But are we doing it?
If our younger generation continues to play video games and spend countless hours sending text messages about nothing, will they replace us in the deer woods? They will not if we don’t encourage them to try hunting.
Here in Tennessee, mostly we do a good job of that mentoring. The same is not true in other states.
With hunters paying the bill for bird watchers and other non-consumptive users of wildlife, it is something about which everyone should be concerned. The ramifications reach far beyond the hunter.
Hunting is the single most effective form of wildlife management. The money generated by license sales and various state and federal taxes funds the wildlife and other outdoor programs for all.
I could write five more columns full of facts and figures but they would all point to the same conclusion. If we don’t get the kids off the couch and into the woods, over a period of time, hunting faces real problems. A decline in the number of hunters combined with an increase in the population of wildlife may lead to a serious problem. And personally, I think more technology is just a band aid, not a solution.
Give it some thought.
Contact John L. Sloan at email@example.com