Pennsylvania lags in sales of hunting licenses

Pittsburgh — While the number of licensed hunters rose nationally by 9 percent over the past five years, they dropped in Pennsylvania, according to a preliminary report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In fact, hunter participation throughout the Midwest – traditionally a hunting stronghold – remained level from 2006 to 2011, while southern states gained new ground, said Richard Aiken, the report’s lead statistician.

“The center of wildlife recreation was always in states like Wisconsin, Iowa the Dakotas,” Aiken said. “Now the numbers in those states are basically flat.”

What’s new, he said, is that states such as Mississippi and Alabama are licensing more hunters.

The total increase in hunters in all 50 states went from 12.5 million in 2006 to 13.7 million in 2011. While it is still below the 55-year high of 14 million in 1991, it reverses a downward trend since the 2000 to 2005 census, Aiken said.

Pennsylvania, which once counted more than 1 million hunters, has seen license sales drop from 945,892 in 2006 to 933,208 in 2011 – a decline that Aiken said “amazed” him, given the state’s strong hunting tradition.

Pennsylvania’s numbers include junior license buyers, ages 12 to 16, whereas the national census is limited to hunters age 16 and older.

Aiken said many factors determine hunter participation, from access to time constraints, a perspective Pennsylvania Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser points to as well.

Feaser called Pennsylvania’s declining license sales statistically insignificant, and said it’s unfair to look at Pennsylvania in the context of a national average, when factors vary among states.

He said he’s encouraged by the increase in hunting participation nationally, and said his agency’s own findings indicate that about 2 million Pennsylvanians consider themselves hunters, even though they don’t buy licenses every year.

“We call this the churn rate,” he said. “Our job is to figure out how to get them interested and involved in hunting again.”

Feaser said every time the commission adds new hunting opportunities, such as approving crossbows and expanding the bear season, license sales improve.

For Randy Santucci, president of the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania, the most impactful change the commission could make is in how it manages white-tailed deer.

Santucci said the latest figures confirm what he has long contended – that hunters are turned off by deer management in Pennsylvania.

“I know a lot of things affect whether people buy licenses,” he said, “but in Pennsylvania, the strongest factor, no matter whatever else, is deer management.

“I talk to hunters in the large sportsmen’s clubs. Someone from the Sinnemahoning Sportsmen’s Club told me just 20 of their 5,000 members entered the buck pool last year, and just two deer were measured.”

Santucci said he and seven other hunters at his own 156-acre camp in Warren County saw a total of just eight deer last fall. “I shot my deer in Allegheny County and my boy shot his in Washington County,” said Santucci, who lives near Pittsburgh.

As a member of the Governor’s Council on Hunting, Fishing and the Outdoors, Santucci said he also talks to  the proprietors of hunting-related businesses in counties such as Potter, Cameron and Clinton.

“They tell me business has dropped way off, and they relate it strongly to the way deer are managed.”

That, too, would seem at odds with the national trend, since the census shows that hunting-related sales have increased significantly over the past five years, and hunters spent more time out of doors, Aiken said.

“Hunters nationally spent about 30 percent more money on equipment and the number of days they hunted jumped from 18 to 21.”

And while rural participation stayed roughly the same, the number of urban adult hunters climbed by 1 percent, owing in large part to school-based shooting sports programs, Aiken said.

The fish and wildlife service is expected to release more state-by-state data in coming weeks. The census is funded for game management agencies with revenues from the tax manufacturers pay on sporting equipment.

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