The Future of Hunting in America

By Dan C. Johnson

The problems facing hunters are many and complex.
What can the average sportsman do to preserve
the sport he holds dear?

This story is not specific to Wisconsin but I think it reminds us we
need to get involved in protecting our right to hunt.

We all know the story of the first Thanksgiving. It's told that the Native Americans saved the Pilgrims from starvation that first winter and taught these newcomers to the wilderness how to reap the harvest of nature’s bounty. There is likely some truth to the tale -- especially if you consider the country those first settlers left behind. They were mostly poor and left a place where hunting was a sport of kings. So it reasonable to assume they had little skill at taking game. They learned quickly, however, and started a tradition of freedom and self-reliance based on one’s abilities to live off the land. For two centuries, many of America’s heroes were hunters -- strong, independent men who led a simple life. Most weren’t wealthy. They were common people with uncommon skills and courage. Times have changed. Hunting has changed. And now, as we face an uncertain future, we are compelled to give some serious thought as to what that future might bring, and more importantly, what we can do to preserve the sport we hold dear. Hunting is increasingly becoming a sport for the wealthy, or at least the upper class, and if this trend continues, it could well contribute to the end of hunting in America. Think about it. We live in a democracy where public opinion and political votes can be swayed by the slightest shift in sentiment and a narrow edge in polls. We already have in place a leftist media, and those mainstays of popular culture, TV and movies, are decidedly anti-hunting. The only hope we have of negating and maybe even changing these forces is a broad base of hunters. We need a large pool of voters to hold the antis at bay, and we need responsible men and women across the country to pass on a hunting legacy to future generations. But hunting is increasingly becoming too expensive for many low- to middle-income Americans. There is the cost of equipment, but most of this is on a par with inflation and not really a major factor. Firearm manufacturers continue to offer good-quality equipment for the budget conscious. The real problem is in finding a suitable place to hunt, and in many cases, acquiring the license to do so.

Over-the-counter big-game permits are quickly becoming a thing of the past in much of the West. In order to hunt big game, residents of most Western states have to depend on the luck of the draw and must compete with sportsmen from all over the country for those limited tags. The odds of drawing are increasingly stacking against them. The well-heeled businessman in a distant city can apply in several states and have a good chance of drawing one or more tags. He also has the option of purchasing a landowner permit and enjoying any number of high-quality hunts during the fall season. The local hunter, without the free time to travel long distances to hunt or the financial resources to invest in a landowner tag, has one chance to draw a public-land permit. If he fails to draw for several years in a row, it’s easy to understand how he might become discouraged and turn to another pastime. Once this hunter turns from the sport, he is less likely to be involved in the key political battles we face. Another ally is lost. But states like Colorado that have tried to shift the balance more in the resident’s favor have been met with widespread criticism by out-of-state hunters, some of whom happen to be outdoor writers. Coverage of Colorado’s efforts in the hunting press has been mostly negative, including the state’s most recent decision to limit lottery tags to residents in the Ranching for Wildlife program. Most of the remaining 90 percent of the RFW tags will still end up in the pockets of non-resident hunters. We hunters are very quick to protest any move that hampers our hunting opportunities, but we should also consider the hunting opportunities of others. If hunting is to survive, it may be necessary to sacrifice a bit personally for the good of all, and ultimately, the good of the sport. East of the Rockies the problem is not so much obtaining a license, but gaining access to lands on which to hunt. Whitetail deer populations, for example, have escalated to a point they are reaching near varmint status in some areas. In much of the heavily populated East, though, finding a place to hunt can be challenging. Subdivisions and strip malls are eating up open farmlands, and even where hunting lands are not diminishing, gaining permission to hunt is becoming more difficult.

Most states have game management areas with low-priced access fees, but many of these are so crowded, it's hard to find a vacant tree to climb. The frustrations of hunting overcrowded public lands has turned many a hunter away from the sport. To compound the problem, we are losing much of what little public access land is available. In the Southeast, large timber companies are removing acreage from the public access system in favor of leasing to hunt clubs. Previously, hunters could gain season-long access to these lands for a relatively low fee. Landowners from giant paper companies to mom-and-pop farming operations are finding it good business to lease to hunt clubs. Not only are there profits to be made, more control is maintained over the land as well. Landowners know exactly who's on their property and who to hold responsible for any damages. The only loser in this arrangement is the low-income hunter who cannot afford to lease. If the hard realities of economics facing hunters aren't enough, we also have an increasingly vocal and active anti-hunting movement. At a time when more money is needed from the states to increase hunting opportunities, anti-hunting groups are suing states to stop what efforts are made on behalf of the sport. These groups have high-profile support from Hollywood celebrities and major news outlets. Which brings us back to a question of money. In order to overcome the obstacles facing us, we must stop aiding and abetting the enemy by continuing to put money into the pockets of those who create anti-hunting propaganda. We must take the time to find out who the enemy is and boycott their productions. We can do this by contacting the producers of movies and TV programs with an obvious anti-hunting content and, perhaps more important, by contacting their sponsors. It's easy to become discouraged when these companies answer with either a form letter defending their position or don't respond at all. However, if enough hunters contact them, they will be forced to take heed for financial reasons.

Many hunters feel that as long as they vote for pro-hunting legislators they have done their share to protect the sport. But the battleground is diverse and it will take much more than a few minutes in a voting booth to win the fight. Also, our political choices are not always clear. Most direct threats to hunting do come from the left side of the political spectrum, but there are those on the far right worthy of our concern. Terry Anderson, public lands advisor to George W. Bush, has advocated some downright scary proposals in the past. The most radical was to sell off the majority of public lands to private concerns. He has also suggested managing wildlife on public lands for profit by charging trophy fees as is common on private land. The problems facing hunters are many and complex, but there are some hopeful signs. Hunting license sales have increased in the past couple of years, largely due to efforts by some states to provide improved hunting opportunities. Some of the increase might also be attributed to Internet talk forums and TV hunting programs, which tend to motivate people to get off the couch and into the woods. But getting into the woods isn’t enough. We must get into the fight and into the faces of those who oppose us. A whitetail hunter in Mississippi may not care if Maine bans the spring bear hunt any more than a Maine hunter cares if Washington state bans trapping. But they'd better care, because the anti-hunting groups care about each of these little battles in the war to end hunting. They use national muscle and money to regularly win battles against local and largely unorganized hunters and trappers. Like most inroads on freedom, the losses are gradual.

Any blanket approach such as a referendum to end hunting in any state would certainly fail now. The antis know this. So they chip away at our perimeters. They divide and conquer and take their victories where resistance is least. And they have powerful allies. Eight years of the Clinton Administration has shown us just how susceptible our rights are to the stroke of a president’s pen. Without consent of Congress, Clinton has undermined the solvency of firearms manufacturers, nullified the Constitutional rights of thousands of gun owners, and limited hunter access to tens of millions of acres of public land. The recent election has demonstrated clearly how equally divided this country is between conservative traditional values and more government control of our lives, our land and our time-honored way of life. The future of hunting is teetering on that balance, and any hunter who thinks he can afford to be apathetic is only fooling himself.