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Participation in deer hunting is trending downward nationwide.
On Wednesday, October 19, 2022, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Lincoln Larson, an associate professor of parks, recreation, and tourism management at North Carolina State University. He discussed topics including: statistics on, and demographic trends in, hunting participation; efforts to make outdoor recreation and wildlife conservation, including hunting, more inclusive; scientists’ projections for the future of hunting; research on trends in other types of outdoor recreation; how declines in hunting license sales can affect state wildlife-conservation budgets–and what this means for conservation efforts; and other ways that states can manage deer populations and fund conservation work.
LINCOLN LARSON: Hi, I’m Lincoln Larson. I’m an associate professor in the department of parks, recreation, and tourism management at N.C. State University. And I’m a conservation social scientist, which essentially means I study the human dimensions of natural resource management.
Interview with SciLine
Can you share some statistics on hunting participation, including demographic trends?
LINCOLN LARSON: Hunting in the United States, it’s been a core part of American heritage and identity for centuries. It really peaked, participation, in the 1980s at about 17 million people a year, which really meant just about 8-9 percent of the U.S. population hunted. But it’s been in pretty steady decline since then. Until very recently, some of the most recent reports suggest that about, we’re down about 4 percent of the American population hunting—so, half of what it was in the ‘80s—and there’s been a slight uptick in hunting since the pandemic started, but that’s not likely to last. So, this decline, we anticipate, is going to continue for some time.
What do we know about the causes of the decline in hunting in the United States, and why does it matter?
LINCOLN LARSON: I’m very concerned about hunting for a variety of reasons, but before we go there, it might help to rewind and ask why is this happening? And one of the main reasons is—the main reason is demographic change. Hunters tend to be white males from rural areas. In fact, if you look at hunting statistics, 90 percent of hunters are male, and 97 percent of hunters are white. Throw in the fact that about 80 percent of Americans live in cities now, and you have a big disconnect from that traditional hunting population. And with that, it’s easy to see why hunting’s on the decline and why a revival—at least a rapid revival—is relatively unlikely. Why should we care? Which is your essential question. Well, it is a part, as I said, of American identity that’s really important to a lot of people, but most people, 96 percent of people in a given year, aren’t hunters. I am actually not a hunter myself, so why do I care? It’s because hunting is a critical tool for conservation. Not only does it provide us with a way to manage over-abundant wildlife populations in the absence of predators that humans have exterminated. But it’s the key to our conservation funding model in the United States as well.
What does it mean when those budgets get cut?
LINCOLN LARSON: Everybody knows that less money is a problem no matter what you’re dealing with. And in the case of wildlife conservation, not a lot of people realize the magnitude of the problem. So, historically 50-80 percent of state wildlife agency budgets—these are the organizations charged with managing wildlife in this country—50-80 percent of those budgets depend directly on license revenues from hunting and fishing, and excise taxes that come from equipment sales of hunting, firearms, fishing tackle. So, that’s a huge chunk of money to support research, surveys, land acquisition, pretty much all that these agencies do on a daily basis to ensure that we have recreation opportunities, and that we’re protecting wildlife habitat and species. So, without 50-80 percent of those budgets we’re in a tough circumstances in terms of where that external support comes from.
Based on trends you’re seeing, what do you project for the future of hunting participation?
LINCOLN LARSON: Honestly, it’s not looking good. There’s no way to really overcome those larger social trends and demographic transitions that I mentioned earlier. And I think our only hope is to somehow change what I like to call the social habitat for hunting, to make it more diverse and more inclusive than it has been historically.
Can you describe any efforts to make outdoor recreation and wildlife conservation, including hunting, more inclusive?
LINCOLN LARSON: The good news is that many organizations, many initiatives are rising to this challenge, and I’ll just name a few: for a long while now Becoming an Outdoors-Woman, or the BOW program, has been working to close the gender gap in hunting. And to some extent that has changed in the last decade or so we do see more women hunting than used to. We see newer efforts like field-to-fork style programs, where people come in and learn to hunt for food, have become increasingly popular with audiences like locavores—where people to eat healthy, sustainably off the land and reduce your ecological footprint. We see groups like Hunters of Color coming in to change the face of hunting and make it more welcoming to racial-ethnic minority groups. In fact, our team is working with the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies, and a number of different state agency and NGO partners to figure out ways to introduce college students who haven’t previously hunted into hunting. And we’re actually working with historically black colleges and universities across the Southeast to do this as well. And college is a great entry point for a lot of these first-time hunters because they’re exploring new things in college during a really proactive social setting that promotes these connections with each other and the land that might be helpful. And so, we hope that collectively these and many other R3 efforts as they’re called, or recruitment, retention and hunter reactivation efforts, are going to attract new hunters that better reflect the diversity of the American population and ultimately make the conservation landscape a little more equitable.
Are there any noteworthy trends in other types of outdoor recreation?
LINCOLN LARSON: To what extent does hunting fit the mold, or is it an outlier? I would say it is to some extent an outlier. We see pretty steady rates of outdoor recreation in the United States. When you look for the last 20 years, depending on the survey source, about 50 percent of the American public, any given year, participates in outdoor recreation. And that has gone up a little bit, about6 percent since 2020 when the pandemic hit. I don’t know if that’s going to last or not. That’s something we’ll see over time. But the fact remains that if half of the people are doing it, it also means half the people don’t. So there’s still a problem there, if we know all the benefits associated with outdoor recreation. And what we also see over time is that while the per capita participation rate stays about the same, the number of really avid participants is declining, and the number of total days that Americans spend outdoors is declining as well. And those trends are even more alarming for certain subgroups of people like kids, for example. We see, depending on the source again, some pretty pronounced declines in youth outdoor recreation, including at some of our own work, we’ve seen this, especially around middle-school age. And we attribute a lot of that to the rise in screen time that has only gotten worse during the pandemic, as well, as a replacement for these outdoor activities. And we also know that, like hunters, although to a lesser extent, most outdoor recreationers tend to be white, and they tend to be wealthy. And this raises some major social justice concerns, just as it does in hunting.
If declining participation in deer hunting does not turn around, what are some other ways that states can fund conservation work?
LINCOLN LARSON: I think there are two things that we can do to help create a more sustainable funding system for conservation going forward. First, we need to recruit more new and more diverse hunters. And that’s people from non-traditional hunting backgrounds—like women, like racial ethnic minorities, like urban residents, for example. This will help to broaden the base of support for hunting and stabilize a lot of those revenue streams that are in jeopardy right now. But second, we really need to expand the mechanisms through which we fund conservation in this country. Hunting has historically been the centerpiece—and should continue to be—a big piece of conservation funding. But it should not, it cannot be the only piece anymore going forward. It worked for 100 years, but it’s time to innovate a little bit. And we see that in a few states where they have special taxes, sometimes a portion of a state sales tax devoted to conservation. Other options include finding ways for companies that profit from natural resources. So, oil companies, outdoor industry providers like Bass Pro Shops or REI, actually chipping in to support conservation efforts.
Without fewer hunters, are we seeing overpopulation issues with deer?
LINCOLN LARSON: For those of you who have suburban gardens, you know the answer to that question is yes. Deer everywhere, maybe you’ve seen them on the side of roads, maybe they’ve even hit your car, God forbid. So, we know this is a problem. Overabundant deer and other species can be a pest in certain places. And hunting at this point is really the best tool we have to handle that threat. And I’ve talked to deer biologists in agencies across the country about alternatives, and some of the things that come up would be reintroducing predators. And we know this is a controversial topic in states like Colorado. Wolf reintroductions here in North Carolina with the red wolf, we see challenges when those reintroductions occur. And so that’s not an easy process. Sharpshooting is another option. Immunocontraception, or some form of spaying and neutering, some of these animals like deer. Can we do it? Yes. Is it financially responsible or even feasible? No. And certainly not at a large scale. So, if you look at all the alternatives that are out there, hunting is very often the best option. And so that’s why the decline of deer hunting is concern from an ecological management perspective. And that’s also why it’s really important to think about how we infuse more energy, enthusiasm, and diversity into current hunting culture and practice.
What are the consequences of higher deer populations?
LINCOLN LARSON: Over-abundant deer excessively browse native plants and natural habitats and can totally disrupt food chains and ecosystem dynamics in ways that are not conducive to other species surviving. We also see an increased risk of disease transmission in ecosystems where we have too many deer or other species on the landscape and population levels that shouldn’t really be present, diseases are more likely to spread. This includes things like Chronic Wasting Disease, which is a big threat to deer herds today, which a lot of hunters and agencies are rightfully concerned about. And so the more deer you have concentrated in a small area, without any mechanism control, the more likely you are to experience these impacts to people and to ecosystems that lead to negative consequences.
What motivates people to hunt?
LINCOLN LARSON: We know, studying new hunters, that they tend to be motivated by conservation for conservation reasons: reducing ecological footprints, helping with over-abundant wildlife, or for local food connections. And very rarely do you see that side of hunting presented in the mainstream media. And that’s a huge communication problem for hunting when they try to make it a more inclusive activity that appeals to different types of non-traditional hunters.
How can individuals and organizations respond effectively to this decline in hunting?
LINCOLN LARSON: There’s no doubt that deer hunting is in decline and will probably be in decline for an extended period of time due to demographic change. There’s no doubt that this is going to cause—it has significant consequences for ecosystems, for conservation funding. The question is how we respond. And again, I think the two things we can do is try to make hunting more welcoming and inclusive to diverse populations. And hunting has not done that very well for a hundred years or more. We can do better on that front. And I think we also have to think about alternative funding mechanisms to make our conservation model 21st century versus 19th century, in terms of how it’s constructed. And that is going to be a critical piece of the puzzle. And the onus is on us as citizens, as potential hunters, as outdoor recreation enthusiasts, and also decision-makers and policymakers to move that debate forward and figure out what options are going to help to create a more equitable and sustainable future for wildlife conservation in this country.
How are reporters doing covering hunting issues?
[Posted October 19, 2022 | Download video]
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