Case: Drop in hunting a cause for concern

An Eastern gray squirrel surveys the dense grass of the Hamilton County Courthouse in May. Pursuing squirrels as game was once the introduction to hunting for many young people, writes outdoors columnist Larry Case.
An Eastern gray squirrel surveys the dense grass of the Hamilton County Courthouse in May. Pursuing squirrels as game was once the introduction to hunting for many young people, writes outdoors columnist Larry Case.

You could say mathematics wasn't my favorite subject in school. I believe I have told people more than once that was one reason I went into law enforcement. When I enrolled in college, I decided to major in criminal justice because they told me there would be little, if any, math involved. At least that is how I remember it.

If you throw too many numbers at me, I start to glaze over.

However, sometimes there are numbers we have to face. According to a release from the U.S. Department of the Interior this month, a new report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows 101.6 million Americans - 40 percent of the U.S. population age 16 and older - participated in wildlife-related activities (such as hunting, fishing and watching wildlife) in 2016. The USFWS has released this report about every five years since the 1950s, and it is a good way to watch trends in the outdoors world and get a handle on what is going on out there.

The report seems to give an optimistic view of the numbers of people involved in hunting and fishing, but I am not as hopeful about all of this (as usual), and in a minute I will tell you why.

photo Contributed photo / Larry Case

The survey shows the most substantial increases in participation involve watching wildlife - observing and photographing animals. The report indicates these activities surged 20 percent from 2011 to 2016, from 71.8 million to 86 million participants during that time. Expenditures by wildlife watchers also rose sharply - 28 percent - between 2011 and 2016, from $59.1 billion to $75.9 billion. Participating in the activity around the home increased 18 percent, from 68.6 million participants in 2011 to 81.1 million in 2016. More modest gains were made for the activity away from home, with a 5 percent increase, from 22.5 million to 23 million.

More Americans also went fishing. The report indicates an increase of 8 percent in angling participation, from 33.1 million to 35.8 million. The greatest increases - 10 percent - were seen in the Great Lakes area. Total expenditures by anglers nationwide rose 2 percent, from $45 billion to $46.1 billion.

Hunting participation dropped by about two million participants, but still remained strong at 11.5 million. Total expenditures by hunters declined 29 percent, from $36.3 billion to $25.6 billion. However, expenditures for related items such as taxidermy and camping equipment experienced an uptick of 27 percent, and expenses related to hunting trips increased 15 percent.

I am glad we have more people out there watching wildlife. The reported rise in angler numbers is also good to see. What concerns me is a drop in hunter numbers; any decrease in these numbers is not good.

One reason I say this is the decrease in hunting-related expenses. Most of you know about The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, also known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, which is a law that puts an 11 percent excise tax on firearms, ammunition and other hunting equipment.

This money is doled out to the states by the USFWS, and it must be used solely for projects related to wildlife conservation. The fishing side has an equivalent in the Dingell-Johnson Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act, which works much the same way: A tax on fishing equipment goes to fund conservation efforts to benefit fisheries.

I know this will endear me to a lot of wildlife watchers, but my problem is this: As usual, hunters, as they have throughout history, are paying all of the bills. Buying hunting and fishing licenses every year and paying federal taxes on hunting and fishing gear funds all of the conservation and wildlife management endeavors.

Remember, when your state game department does a project to help turkeys, deer, rabbits or waterfowl, most of the nongame species - song birds to chipmunks - will profit as well. Wildlife watchers don't buy hunting licenses; wildlife watching doesn't feed the bulldog.

Reasons for the drop in the number of young hunters have been much discussed for the past few years. Lack of hunting ground, too many video games, emphasis on organized sports and fewer fathers taking their kids hunting have all been mentioned. I would offer one possible solution to bring more young hunters into the fold.

We need a resurgence of interest in hunting small game, and especially squirrels.

Time was when most hunters started out on squirrels. It taught us the essentials of hunting any game and prepared us for pursuing big game later. Squirrels taught us woodsmanship, how to read sign and to look for the food sources of the animal we are pursuing.

The bushytails also encouraged us to be good marksman. If a kid grew up hunting squirrels with a .22 rifle (even more so if they learned with open sights), I will guarantee you they were deadly when they graduated to deer and turkeys. Learning to skin and prepare squirrels for the table gives the young hunters their first lessons on cleaning and preparing game.

Squirrels can usually be found almost anywhere, including public land. With a long season, this allows for many hunting opportunities. I would like to see state fish and game departments show some more emphasis on all small game, including squirrels.

I am sure you are not as mathematically challenged as I am, but I can offer one part of the equation I know will help with our hunter numbers: Take a kid hunting!

"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at

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