Sportsmen numbers down even as public support up

By Bob Frye

Capital Correspondent

Harrisburg – When biologists, conservationists, hunters and
others gather at a special session of the North American Wildlife
Conference next March, they’re going to talk about the future of
hunting.

And not a moment too soon, it seems.

It’s no secret that participation in hunting – as well as
fishing – have been on the decline all across the country for
decades. Fewer and fewer people are simply taking up guns and rods
to fill their leisure time.

There’s nothing to indicate that trend is changing either. The
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – which tracks participation in
hunting and fishing every five years – has released preliminary
results from its 2006 survey, and they show that while support for
hunting and fishing is on the rise, actual participation is
down.

For instance, the number of hunters nationwide dropped by 4
percent since 2001. Today, just 5 percent of Americans consider
themselves hunters.

Participation in fishing dropped by an even greater percentage.
There were 12 percent fewer anglers in 2006 than in 2001, according
to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The numbers are a little better in Pennsylvania. Here, 10
percent of state residents say they are fishermen, and 9 percent
say they’re hunters. Because there is a lot of crossover – some
people both hunt and fish – 14 percent of the total statewide
population does one or the other.

Pennsylvania sportsmen tended to spend more time afield and on
the water and spend more money while doing it than many of their
counterparts around the country, too.

Still, industry experts agree that the declines in participation
in hunting and angling have all kinds of impacts.

When fewer people fish, for example, local economies can suffer,
said Rob Southwick, president of Southwick Associates, a
Florida-based research firm that tracks sportsmen’s issues.
Appreciation for nature and America’s heritage, built on
self-reliance, decline.

Perhaps most importantly, when there are fewer anglers and
hunters, funding for conservation suffer.

&#8220Anyone who cares about conservation should care about
people who hunt and fish because they pay for most of the
conservation that goes on in this country,” Southwick said.

&#8220In terms of fishing, for example, anglers are the
number one source of conservation dollars for streams and fish and
aquatic resources, whether it be through license sales or taxes
generated by the sale of fishing and boating equipment.”

When there are fewer license buyers, agencies really have to
stretch to do their jobs, said Russ Schleiden, a Game Commission
board member from Centre County. No one knows – in an age when
agencies are being asked to do more for non-game species – how far
they can stretch without breaking.

&#8220I don’t know what that point of diminishing returns
is,” Schleiden said.

The ongoing, decades-long decline in the number of hunters and
anglers will impact who is running the country’s fish and wildlife
agencies in the future, too. According to Randy Stark, chief warden
of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ law enforcement
division, between 2004 and 2015, more than 77 percent of all
&#8220senior leadership” personnel in state fish and wildlife
agencies will retire. More than half of them will be gone before
this year is out alone.

Some of that is visible in Pennsylvania already. Forty-two
people have retired from the Game Commission this year already,
bringing the number of vacancies at the agency to more than
100.

And who will take their places? Increasingly, people who neither
hunt nor fish.

Penn State University has, in the recent past, taken fisheries
and wildlife science majors to a game preserve to introduce them to
hunting. Some had never fired a gun before; at least one was a
vegetarian.

That’s not unique to Penn State, either. All across the country,
from Syracuse University to Auburn, fewer and fewer fisheries and
wildlife science majors are sportsmen themselves, said James
Kennamer, senior vice president for conservation programs at the
National Wild Turkey Federation

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