The number of hunters declined nationally by more than 1 million in the 1990s because of rampant development, cost increases and family priorities, say two federal agencies.
According to the Census Bureau and the Fish and Wildlife Service, the number of people hunting dipped from 14.06 million to 13.03 million, or 7.3 percent, from 1991 to 2001. The drop was greater in the West — 9.8 percent, from 2.46 million to 2.22 million.
Hunting has survived through generations, as parents have passed on the tradition to their children and families have bonded during hunting trips. But many people have given up on hunting or never tried it at all.
The decline in Western hunters came even as the population jumped. California had the largest drop — from 446,000 to 274,000, or 38.6 percent — followed by Colorado, Arizona and Nevada. Washington, Wyoming, Oregon and Hawaii had slight declines.
Most hunters said in the 2001 Census Bureau survey and in the Fish and Wildlife survey that they did not hunt as much as they would have liked because they were too busy or had family or work obligations. The reasons were the same for those who gave up hunting altogether, another study found.
“If we think about how the country was explored and developed, it was hunters, it was trappers,” said Steve Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “If we lost that, I think in some way we lose part of the American character.”
As the West becomes more urban, with new residents flocking to cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix, development inevitably leads to fewer hunting lands.
“A generation or so ago, it was still possible to take a son and daughter out to the country, knock on a farmer’s door and be out in the field hunting in pretty short order,” said George Cooper, spokesman for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
Those who rely on private land often find they must pay for the privilege, and it can be expensive. Duck hunting for the season can cost $10,000 on a private hunting preserve.
Eventually, it will be up to children to carry on the tradition. But a study by Responsive Management, a public opinion research firm for natural-resources issues, found that if people are not exposed to hunting before they are 16 or 17, they likely will not hunt as adults.
“That’s how young people got into hunting. Loss of habitat due to sprawl and landowner worries about liability have made that sort of old-fashioned access hard to come by,” he said. “That’s the big, broad demographic trend that’s taken its toll on hunting.”
It’s a delicate relationship that hunters and state agencies share. States depend on hunters to help fund their conservation projects and to control animal populations.
California is suffering the worst. The game warden staff has been cut by 25 percent in the past few years, budgets for wildlife managers have been slashed, and maintenance is lacking.
“We had counties where we didn’t even have a warden present,” said Lorna Bernard, spokeswoman for the California Department of Fish and Game.