Regardless of political inclination, social status, or community, no one probably disagrees that the pandemic caused significant and rapid societal change.
Among these, “work from home” is far more common, increasing 140% since 2015. By 2023, 25% of all professional and data-entry jobs will be remote representing the largest societal change since World War II. This new reality is facilitating the movement of urbanites to suburban and rural settings (since remote jobs aren’t tied to specific geographic locations).
These demographic changes have implications for wildlife conservation and consumptive use (hunting, trapping, fishing), a kind of “long COVID” effect that could affect hunting and management.
Toward the beginning of the pandemic, agencies and non-governmental organizations expressed cautious optimism because COVID seemed to be encouraging outdoor activities of all kinds. Sales of licenses and registrations increased nationally for the first time in a decade, and in Michigan, for the first time since 2015. In 2020, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources recorded a 6% jump in base license sales, a 7% jump in deer license sales, and a 9% increase in the number of fishing licenses purchased.
Unfortunately, the “COVID bump” on R3 (recruitment, retention, reactivation) proved only temporary. As society re-opened to pre-pandemic activities, license buying trajectories resumed year-over-year declines. For example, in Michigan in 2022, total unique hunting customers (the number on which state Pittman-Robertson allocation is based) declined 1.3% compared with 2021. New customers were down 2.3%, female hunters were down 1.2%, deer hunters were down 1.2%, and total unique fishing customers were down 3.8%.
But not all COVID-related trends have reversed. Remote work is allowing an increasing number of formerly urban residents to improve their quality of life by moving, and it shouldn’t be surprising that they’re taking their urban values with them. What that means is that COVID may be accelerating persistently shifting attitudes towards hunting, trapping, and fishing in former strongholds of traditional outdoor pursuits (i.e., rural areas across the U.S., and sometimes far from cities).
A mountain of surveys demonstrates that people from urban backgrounds are less likely to approve of firearms and more likely to disapprove of hunting. The implications for access and tolerance for traditional rural pursuits (like hunting and trapping) are obvious.
The take-away message is that changing the attitudes of urban migrants is more important, regardless of whether they ever hunt, trap, or fish themselves.
Now more than ever, it seems prudent (and in the self-interest of hunters, anglers, trappers, and state natural resource agencies) to explain and market the benefits of consumptive use to the non-hunting public (perhaps with emphasis on suburbanizing areas). Because new residents in rural areas are fleeing urban areas and seeking new more desirable places to live, there is an opportunity (and a need) to promote awareness that license dollars not only benefit game species but also provide more and better opportunities for birding, hiking, biking, kayaking, and other non-consumptive recreational activities.
In this context, the messaging promoted by the Colorado Wildlife Council, Michigan Wildlife Council, Nimrod Society, NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum, and the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation may be as (if not more) important as the traditional emphases on recruitment, retention, and reactivation (R3).
From now into the foreseeable future, wildlife conservation of all kinds will continue to depend on revenues generated by the sale of licenses and federal excise taxes. Unless the newly relocated (and relocating) public understands and appreciates this essential relationship, intolerance for hunting, trapping, and fishing is likely to accelerate, threatening the conservation achievements of the past 150 years.
Editor’s note: Russ Mason, Ph.D., is the DNR executive in residence and adjunct professor in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University.