Hunt's on for recruits to a sport in decline

Hunting: With the woods far from alive with camouflage suits, people in the game are scrambling for answers.


December 03, 2003|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

HAGERSTOWN - On the first Tuesday of each month, Steve Palmer is busy making new hunters.

Youngsters gather at the Izaak Walton League clubhouse and range to sharpen their shooting skills and learn about safety and ethics.

"They go to soccer. They go to T-ball. They go to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. This is just another activity," says Palmer, president of the Washington County Federation of Sportsmen's Club. "We like to show them that hunting and shooting and fishing are things they can do their whole lives."

This year, nearly 200 youngsters attended outdoors skills courses taught by Palmer and his volunteers. Forty women attended similar classes.

As the popularity of hunting continues to decline in Maryland and elsewhere, the future of the sport may rest in programs such as Palmer's.

U.S. and Canadian wildlife officials are meeting today in Houston to discuss ways to revive the sport, which has lost more than 3 million participants over the last 20 years. In 2001, 32 states sold fewer hunting licenses than in the previous year.

"We're in a state of change and transition, and I'm not sure of the outcome," said Vernon Bevill, a game manager for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and coordinator of the symposium. "There's not a silver bullet, but we have to put some more silver on the bullet we have."

Texas is a strong indicator of the sport's problems. With nearly 1 million licenses sold each year, the state ranks No. 2 nationally, yet it has an annual dropout rate of 20,000 to 50,000. In addition, about 200,000 license holders have yet to renew this season.

"We don't know why that's happening," Bevill said.

Preserving the sport is seen as urgent for environmental and economic reasons. In Maryland, for example, the September-January deer season culls a third of the state's herd of nearly 300,000 white-tailed and sika deer, helping keep the population in check.

"If you think you have a problem now with deer-vehicle accidents, deer eating shrubs and the number of Lyme disease cases, imagine what it would be like if we didn't have hunting at all," said Paul Peditto, head of the wildlife program for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

U.S. hunters spend $25 billion annually on licenses, equipment and trips. Maryland's economy benefits by $126 million, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service figures for 2001.

Through their license fees and excise taxes on equipment, hunters and anglers provide direct revenue to state wildlife agencies, something other outdoors users, such as hikers and birders, do not. In Maryland, hunters pay for more than 80 percent of the wildlife management budget.

Fading tradition

The state had 75,000 licensed hunters during World War II. The number peaked at 194,000 in 1975 and has since declined to about 146,000.

"There are a lot of elements at play here," said Peditto. "Maryland hunters have always been in the minority and the rate of participation here has always been lower than both the national and regional average. As the state has become more highly suburbanized, the participation level and opportunities have dropped."

Nationally, surveys conducted over the last decade have found four reasons for the decline: family and job obligations, lack of public hunting land, no one to go hunting with and poor behavior by other hunters.

But other factors are involved, as well. Increases in license fees can reduce participation. Moratoriums, such as the six-year ban imposed on Eastern states to protect the goose population, keep hunters away, as does a health scare, such as chronic wasting disease in deer.

States have responded by selling licenses on-line or by phone. Many have also increased opportunities to hunt. Maryland, for example, approved two days of Sunday hunting this year, raised bag limits on antlerless deer and widened the use of crossbows.

For hunters under the age of 16, the state added youth-only hunts and offered free one-year licenses with bow and muzzleloader stamps upon successful completion of a Hunter Safety and Education course.

The effort seems to have paid off - at least temporarily - with the number of Maryland junior licenses rebounding to nearly 10,000 from a low of 7,000 in the early 1990s.

In recent years, Pennsylvania - which sells more licenses than any other state - has added seasons for bobcats and elk and expanded seasons for deer and resident Canada geese.

Despite those efforts, the number of licenses dropped from a peak of 1.3 million in the early 1980s to slightly more than 1 million, said Jerry Feaser, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Elusive targets

State wildlife officials hoping to target their audience with a systematic advertising campaign won't have an easy go of it, said David Case, owner of D.J. Case and Associates, an Indiana-based research group.

Case has just completed a study of six years of license purchases in Texas, and will present preliminary findings at the symposium tomorrow.

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