It is no secret that hunting is a dying sport. It peaked in the 1970s and has been falling every year, by as much as 10 percent according to both the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Shooting Sports Foundation. New Hampshire lost 20,000 hunters from 1996 to 2006, Wisconsin lost 45,000 hunters from just 2000 to 2007 – representing a loss of $1.1 million in revenue from state licenses each year – and the number of Iowa hunters plunged 26 percent in one decade according to the Wildlife Service.
Hunting promoters are especially concerned about the dip in young hunters, aged 16 to 24, whose numbers fell by 300,000 from 1996 to 2006, according to the Wildlife Service. In Pennsylvania, always a strong hunting state, their numbers have fallen by 37 percent since 1976.
“For every 100 hunters who retire, only 62 take up the sport,” warned former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell at a hunting club in Allegheny County. “If this trend continues, our ability to manage wildlife will be severely affected and Pennsylvania’s economy will suffer.”
There are many reasons given for hunting dropouts – urbanization and the distance of hunting areas, lack of time, lack of money, competing activities, the debut of Viagra and other competing “indoor” activities (really), society’s growing antigun bias sentiments after mass shootings, single parent households and tablets and smart phones replacing .22s under the Christmas tree.
Nor is hunting necessarily cool in school anymore. “Only a couple of my friends really hunt,” high school student Jonathan Gibbons told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “The rest have never really found the appeal of sitting out in the cold to shoot an animal.”
Kids are more involved with “cars, girlfriends or hanging out” and “think it’s boring to sit in a tree for hours and have nothing walk by,” agreed Kevin Kelly, a college student, to the lower Hudson Valley’s Journal News. It’s not popular in middle school either agreed Carmel student Nick Sadowski.
While hunting is falling in popularity, it is a primary source of state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) revenue. Hunters buy licenses that pay the salaries of state wildlife officials who then create hunting opportunities so they can sell hunters licenses in what many see as an abuse of the Public Trust Doctrine in which wildlife is held in trust by the state for the benefit of the public.
To re-interest kids in blood sports, hunting groups worked closely with state legislatures to launch the Families Afield initiative in the 2000’s to reduce so-called “barriers” to youth hunting like age restrictions and preventing kids from shooting big game. In 2006, a bill was introduced in Wisconsin, written by State Rep. Scott Gunderson, a gun shop owner, to allow 8-year-olds to hunt. But, children that age “still believe in Santa Claus,” are just learning cursive writing protested Wisconsin resident Joe Slattery whose own son was killed by a child hunter. This year, legislation was introduced in Idaho to lower the minimum age to hunt big game from 12 years to 10 years.
Pennsylvania abolished hunting age requirements in 2006, excluding deer, but hunting interests were not happy. “You are tearing the heart out of this very important program,” said Janet Nyce, adviser to the Governor’s Youth Advisory Council for Hunting, Fishing and Conservation about the deer exclusion. She is a strong gun advocate. “We stand to seriously disappoint those families,” said Ron Fretts of the National Wild Turkey Federation who headed the protest.
Meanwhile, “controlled” hunts of pen-raised pheasants are billed by states as perfect for kids. Raised like battery hens, the pheasants are sometimes outfitted with goggles so they don’t peck each other in the crowded conditions. That means, when they are released, they can barely fly or see and require no skill to kill.
“We are holding these birds to be released as close as possible to the holiday season so youth can take advantage of going afield during their school break,” said former executive director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission Carl G. Roe about an upcoming shoot. Put-and-take, canned hunts are priceless for children said Jerry Rodeen of Pheasants Forever when the partially taxpayer-funded programs were in danger of being cut in Illinois. “They are the only places these young men and women can hunt and be assured of a good shot,” he told the State Journal-Register.
But do young people want such a “good shot” – when killing pen-raised pheasants is widely seen today as neither about food or skill but gratuitous cruelty? Is it ethical for states to offer blood sports to children just to fill DNR coffers?