New hunter numbers increased in 2020, reversing a decades-long declining trend.
“We haven’t seen these trends before. More millennials, more younger-generation people, more people of color, women are embracing hunter and field-to-table movements, filling their freezers with fresh meat, embracing safety and self-resiliency,” Chris Metz, the CEO of Vista Outdoors, told FOX Business.
Hunter numbers in the United States peaked in 1982 at close to 17 million, and since have declined every year. By 2016, there were only 11.5 million hunters–just 4% of the U.S. population. Less hunters means less resources for conservation, as most state wildlife agencies depend on hunting license sales for funding.
Last year, these trends pivoted suddenly. Hunter enrollment grew in almost every state in 2020, ranging from modest increases to unprecedented spikes. Many states reported booms in hunter safety class attendance.
Take Michigan for example, where the number of new hunters who bought licenses jumped 67%. Michigan has a program for apprentice licenses that allow first-time hunters to pay less and hunt with a mentor’s supervision; these increased by 46%. Like many other states, Michigan also saw a diversity trend, with the number of female hunters growing 15%.
Nevada sold 30% more hunting licenses and saw 50% more attendees in hunter safety classes. Idaho sold 28% more hunting and fishing licenses to first-time sportsmen. Washington doubled its hunter safety class graduates over the previous year. Maine broke its record for deer permits sold, with young hunters and women making up the fastest-growing hunting groups.
It’s welcome news for hunting and conservation researchers who have long raised concerns about the future of a sport dominated by Baby Boomer-era white males. A 2019 article in Outdoor Life Magazine addressed waning enthusiasm for hunting and bemoaned monolithic hunting culture. Over 90% of hunters are white, and more than 70% are men. The future of the sport didn’t look promising in an era of changing demographics (the U.S. population is predicted to to be less than 50% white by 2044) and shrinking rural populations.
“If you watch the demographic shift of license purchases by age, what you find is that when people hit their late 60s and early 70s, regardless of how much you incentivize them, they stop hunting and fishing,” Matt Dunfee, a director at the Wildlife Management Institute (WMI), told Outdoor Life. “There’s nothing we can do. They just get too old.”
But that was before 2020. The COVID pandemic shook up American culture and accelerated trends, from urban relocation to increased work-from-home opportunities to shifting political alliances. There was a mass exit from urban areas and blue states, as many Americans expressed a desire for self-sufficiency and freedom from overregulation, made particularly onerous by some local COVID policies. Gun sales went through the roof in 2020, many by new gun owners. A survey from the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) found over 40% of gun sales last year were by first-time buyers. The demographic group with the largest increase was non-white Americans.
Hidden in the data is a political story. Hunting is a stereotypically conservative domain; gun owners and rural Americans are more likely to be right-leaning. The trending parallels are stark: Gun owners and new hunters trend younger and non-white, while NBC exit polls show Democrats have been losing support from black male voters since 2008, and millennials in almost every state have moved more Republican from 2008 to 2020.
Whether Americans felt like picking up a new hobby or trying something they’d always wanted to do but never had time for, the COVID shutdown certainly played a role. Across the board, interest in outdoor sports and recreation skyrocketed in 2020. Vista Outdoors says their outdoor brands have seen 25% growth or better since last year–and the publicly-traded company’s shares are up 385%.
The hunting boom means more fees for conservation. Thanks to a 1937 federal law, states are required to use hunting license revenues for wildlife restoration and protection. The same act implemented an 11% tax on gun and ammunition sales toward conservation, followed later by similar law taxing fishing gear.
“It’s difficult to license birdwatchers or hikers and so forth in the same way that hunting and fishing can be regulated,” birdwatcher Neal Deunk told NPR in a 2018 piece about the future of conservation funding.
Most hunters would agree. Hunting is a uniquely American tradition and an essential piece of our public lands story. In the Old World, hunting was a hobby for the rich, a game for landowners and men of leisure. Robin Hood was an English folk hero for killing “the King’s deer” with his bow and arrow to feed the poor. Theodore Roosevelt, one of the early fathers of the conservation movement, believed it essential to the spirit of America that hunting should be accessible to all, not merely wealthy property owners. He believed in a model of “conservation through wise use.”
“In a civilized and cultivated country wild animals only continue to exist at all when preserved by sportsmen. The excellent people who protest against all hunting, and consider sportsmen as enemies of wildlife, are ignorant of the fact that in reality the genuine sportsman is by all odds the most important factor in keeping the larger and more valuable wild creatures from total extermination.”Theodore Roosevelt
For many sportsmen, hunting is not just a pastime. It’s an ancient tradition that ties them to the land in a manner more profound than hiking or recreational sports. While hunters might dream of less competition and more wild spaces, those dedicated to the future of their sport understand the importance of outreach in communities outside traditional hunting demographics and new generations.
“Through almost all of human existence, huntable land and huntable wildlife have preceded the hunter. They caused the hunter. But in the future this must be reversed. It is the hunter who must cause huntable land and wildlife, and a world worth being young in.”John Madison, Great-Grandfather of President James Madison