Conducted every five years since 1995, the latest national survey shows a 20% drop in big game hunters since 2011.
The US Census Bureau at the request of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies has performed the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation Report every five years since 1955. Preliminary findings of the 2016 National Survey were issued in August 2017. The final, more detailed report of estimates will be available online in December at http://wsfrprograms.fws.gov/home.html
. Conservation Force has always monitored the reports closely because of misrepresentations and misinterpretations of the reports. This time there seems to be reason for concern that big game hunting, which hit a high point in 2011, is now in decline.
The new report estimates that in 2016 there were 11.5 million hunters as a class who spent an average of 16 days pursuing wild game and expended $25.6 billion hunting at an average of $2,237.00 per hunter. The reported 20 percent decline in the number of big game hunters, a decline of 2.362 million, is the focus of this article. Analysis of expenditures, time in nature, fishing, and the broader wildlife-associated recreation will better come from the "final" report in December.
No one spends more time afield or money on their nature-related activity than hunters. So a decline in the number of hunters is concerning. The number of hunters has gone from 13.034 million in 2001, down to 12.510 million in 2006, up to 13.674 million in 2011, and now down to 11.5 million in 2016. The surprise increase from 12.510 million to 13.674 million from 2006 to 2011 has now dropped off to 11.5 million in 2016. That is 2.174 million down from five years ago. It can be viewed as a smaller loss of 1.310 million in 10 years if one prefers to compare this new survey with 2006 for the longer 10-year trend.
The most popular form of hunting continues to be big game hunting (like deer, elk, moose, bear, and wild turkey). Until recently, it had a long history of growth. That important category has shown a decline in participants in three of the four most recent survey periods, whereas it had never before decreased. Of the 11.5 million hunters, 9.2 million are big game hunters (80%), 3.5 million are small game hunters, 3.5 million hunt migratory birds, and 1.3 million hunt "other animals" such as coyote, groundhogs, and raccoons. When all added, the total sum is greater than the total number of hunters (11.5 million) because many hunters hunt more than one category of game. Overall hunting participation declined 16% largely because its biggest component, big game hunting, declined 20%, but also because small game hunting participation declined 27%, and the "other animals" category declined 39%.
Big game hunters continue to spend more time in nature and more money on average per participant than any other category of hunter, angler, or wildlife watcher. They are the largest segment of hunters and the greatest participants in activities in nature when measured by expenditures and time afield in nature. The percentage of big game hunters to hunters was 76% in 1996, 84% in 2001, 85% in 2006, again 85% in 2011, but down to 80% in 2016. The estimated number of big game hunters were 11.288 million in 1996,10.911 million in 2001, 10.682 million in 2006, up 8% to 11.570 million in 2011, and now down to 9.208 million in 2016. In short, the 2016 report estimates there are 2.362 million fewer big game hunters than in the prior 2011 survey. If we compare 2016 to 2001, the decrease of big game hunters is a reduction of 1.703 million over the past 15-year span.
Since big game hunting is the backbone of hunting and the greatest force for conservation of wild game (and even most non-game), this decline is a concern. Big game hunting has only declined three times since the surveys began in 1955. Those declines were 5% during the decade of 1996 to 2006 and a mere 229,000 (2%) in the five-year period 2001 to 2006. Still, the 2006 report concluded big game hunting was considered to be "stable," and it was again on the increase in the 2011 report.
The historic trend increase in big game hunting before the estimate methodology was changed in 1991 was 4.414 million in 1955, 6.277 million in 1960, 6.566 million in 1965, 7.774 million in 1970, 11.037 million in 1975, 11.047 million in 1980, and 12.576 million in 1985. The trend was positive each reported period and nearly tripled from 1955 to 1985 but those estimates are not statistically comparable in absolute numbers to survey results after 1985.
I have been fond of pointing out that in 2011 there were more big game hunters than any time in recorded history. Though that was true in 2011, it is no longer true today after this record 20% decline. Big game hunting is still the most popular hunting by far, 80% of all hunters in America. In summary, the number of big game hunters grew for decades, stabilized and is now in decline.
It is important to appreciate that the "preliminary" report estimate is not the true total number of hunters or big game hunters. The reports in the past have expressly pointed out that the estimate excludes all those millions of hunters that hunt every second or third year. It also excludes the nearly two million hunters from six to fifteen years of age (an estimated 1.8 million in the 2011 report). The final report in December will no doubt cite that information and perhaps provide an explanation for the decline in the most popular and most important form of hunting-big game hunting. We suspect big game hunters are aging and recruitment is not keeping up with that attrition.