Fewer Americans Are Hunting and Fishing

If you're a squirrel or a trout, we've got some good news for you: Americans are hunting and fishing less. Every five years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service puts together a massive survey of outdoor recreation, and the 2006 preliminary numbers were released today. They show ominous trends, depending on your worldview—or species. The number of anglers has dropped 12 percent since 2001; the hunter count has fallen off by 4 percent during the same five-year period. This doesn't mean Americans aren't spending time outdoors or interacting with wild animals; "wildlife watching" is up 8 percent since 2001. They're just choosing not to kill them so much.

Though the final report won't be available until November of this year, the preliminary findings reveal a downward pattern that worries many sportsmen: over the last 15 years or so, millions fewer people have been hunting and fishing in a country with a rapidly expanding population. There are countless reasons for the trend, chief among them urbanization and changes in America's rural culture. Video games and cable television vie for the attention of young kids, and their parents can't find the time or gain access as readily to the nation's rapidly disappearing hunting fields and fishing holes.

Mark Damian Duda of the outdoor research group Responsive Management in Harrisonburg, Va., says he was especially surprised by the sharp drop in fishing, but understands it: "We just have less time overall for recreation, and there's a lot more competition for the time we do have." Another problem: traditions are not being passed down. Duda says 90 percent of the kids who hunt grow up in a hunting family, and starting from scratch is difficult. Duda is optimistic about the long haul, because states are noticing the trends and working hard to stop the slide. Another reason he's hopeful: "The old image of the hunter and fisher as Teddy Roosevelt burns deep in the American psyche."

That may prove true down the road, but the 2006 survey shows that the number of migratory bird hunters dropped a whopping 22 percent in just five years; while small-game stalkers fell by 12 percent. The number of big-game hunters has remained relatively stable over the last half decade, falling only 2 percent.

Still, 12.5 million people over the age of 16 went hunting in 2006, down from about 13 million in 2001, and they dropped $23 billion on the stuff it takes to get out in the field (roughly the same amount of money spent on hunting five years ago).

Fishing participation fell three times the rate of hunting over five years—down a jaw-dropping 23 percent in the Great Lakes region. Freshwater fishing outside the Great Lakes was off 10 percent; saltwater fishing fell by 15 percent.

In 2006, 13 percent of the U.S. population still took the rod and reel out for a cast. Nearly 30 million people—five million less than 2001-went fishing, spending an average of 17 days angling during the year. They dropped about $40 billion on licenses, equipment and trips to support the activity.

Nicholas Throckmorton, a spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife Service, admits that the hunting and fishing trends are "disturbing." But he argues that the data is secondary to the report's real news, that "the value of wildlife remains high to millions of Americans, who know that outdoor recreation rejuvenates our spirit and gets us away from the wired, modern world."
Sportsmen can take heart in the fact that despite the declining numbers, nearly 34 million people still found time to fish and hunt in 2006, and spent a combined $75.4 billion doing it. That's important, because federal taxes on guns and sporting equipment are spent on conservation efforts and wildlife refuges; without those places, many of the 71 million "watchers" identified in the survey would be left staring at a starling on a bird feeder.
The real lesson of the report is that as a nation we're gradually finding new, less violent ways to interact with nature. If this keeps up it won't be long before Elmer Fudd goes after Bugs Bunny with a pair of binoculars.