- Associated Press - Monday, December 13, 2010

MADISON, Wis. | Classroom desks and office cubicles stand empty. Hunters in blaze orange stand out like drops of bright paint against brown fields. Pub parking lots are crowded with pickup trucks draped with deer carcasses.

This is Wisconsin’s gun deer season, a tradition as engrained in this rugged state’s identity as beer, brats and cheese. But as the years slide by, fewer people seem to care.

Hunting’s popularity has waned across much of the country as housing tracts replace forests, aging hunters hang up their guns and youngsters plop down in front of Facebook rather than venture outside.

The falloff could have far-reaching consequences, hunting enthusiasts say. Fewer hunters mean less revenue for a multibillion-dollar industry and government conservation efforts. It also signals what could be the beginning of the end of an American tradition.

“As paradoxical as it may seem, if hunting were to disappear, a large amount of the funding that goes to restore all sorts of wildlife habitat, game and nongame species alike, would disappear,” said Steve Sanetti, National Shooting Sports Foundation president.

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Hunting generates billions in retail sales and pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into government conservation efforts annually through license sales and federal taxes on firearms and ammunition sales.

But fewer hunters return to the sport each year. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates 33 states saw declines in hunting license sales over the past two decades. The sharpest drop was in Massachusetts, which has seen a 50 percent falloff in hunting license sales during that time.

Millions of Americans still hunt, of course, and some states have seen increases in license sales over the past 20 years. But the overarching decline has outdoor advocates worried.

Suburban sprawl has transformed prime hunting land, forcing many hunters to choose between driving for hours to get to the woods or staying home.

Gerald Feaser, a Pennsylvania Game Commission spokesman, said his state’s urban footprint has nearly doubled since the early 1980s.

“Whole farms turned into housing developments or shopping malls,” he said. “Once that land is lost, you can’t get it back.”

More children are growing up in front of computer screens rather than romping through the woods.

“Fifty years ago, a lot of kids would hunt and fish and be outside,” said Mark Damian Duda, executive director of Responsive Management, a Virginia-based natural resources research group. “Now it’s easier to sit in your playroom and play video games.”

Craig Hilliard, 65, runs the Pheasant Inn, a Briggsville, Wis., resort that doubles as a deer registration station. He said he knows about two dozen hunters who have retired from the sport.

“There are not enough of the young people taking up the sport to replace who’s retiring,” he said.

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