In the December 2005 issue of Bowhunter, I wrote about “hunter replacement ratios,” indicating that for every 100 hunters who died or dropped out of hunting, only 69 new hunters replaced them. In fact, only Missouri had a hunter replacement value above 1.0, and Michigan, one of our biggest hunting states, had a replacement value of .30.
I also pointed out that one of the leading causes of the low number of kids coming into hunting was restrictive hunting regulations, especially regulations that do not allow kids to hunt until they are 12 years of age. The truth is that by the time kids reach 12, they’ve already turned their interests to other activities.
Safety has always been a concern in lowering the mandatory hunting age, but in my August/September 2007 Know Hunting column, I updated you with facts showing almost no safety issues with kids in hunting. In response to the above situation, 18 states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Mississippi, have created less restrictive hunting regulations over the past few years. Some made changes in when an individual can take the hunter education course, while others lowered the minimum hunting age (with adult supervision, of course).
At the same time this was happening, other programs aimed at getting kids into the shooting sports have had great success. The National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP) is a prime example. Started in 21 public Kentucky schools in 2002, it has grown to 4,000 schools in at least 43 states (probably more now, as new states are added almost every month). Eleven states have more than 100 schools involved, and 2.3 million kids have taken archery in school since 2002. NASP expects another 750,000 kids to take the course in 2007-2008. When you consider that 27 percent of the students who took the course bought their own archery equipment, you start to understand the potential for increasing the number of bowhunters via NASP.
Even so, hunter participation continues to drop, and although the number of kids involved has increased, that increase doesn’t come close to replacing hunters who have left hunting. Why? What else is going on?
At the Southeast Fish and Wildlife Conference held in West Virginia in the fall of 2007, researchers presented several papers on this subject. Dr. Val Geist, retired Canadian wildlife professor, discussed the fact that hunting isn’t part of our culture as it is in Europe. We have no songs, poems, or plays illustrating hunting. Dr. Geist noted that in Europe, religion elevates hunting by blessing the guns before the hunt and having prayer stations in the woods. A ceremony honors harvested game as well. Even the Eur-opean military is linked to hunting — the first snipers in uniform were German hunters. If hunting were more of our culture, perhaps more people would hunt, including kids.
The Public Trust Doctrine signifies that the public owns wildlife in our country. Gordon Batchelor noted that the erosion of this doctrine is leading to reduced hunting. Increasing privatization of wildlife is leading to decreasing opportunities for hunting and an increase in elitism. In other words, hunting is gradually becoming something that not all members of the public can afford to do. Privatization, commercialization, and special interests are slowly but surely taking wildlife from the public trust. Thankfully, the wildlife profession strives to keep hunting under the Public Trust Doctrine, and they are looking at legal ways to strengthen this doctrine, including examining public access, ownership of wildlife, and the question of whether state wildlife agencies supersede others in managing wildlife in their state.
Gordon Robertson of the American Sportfishing Association reported that fishing (the same as hunting) declined by 12 percent in the past five years, a huge loss. During the same time, bike riding decreased 33 percent, waterskiing 15 percent, and tennis 10 percent. These are family activities. As an aside, only two outdoor recreational activities have in-creased in the past five years: Golf is up 6 percent, skateboarding 106 percent. Note that skateboarding is peer taught, not family taught. Gordon listed four main reasons for the declines in outdoor sports: Competition from indoor media, the fact that America is aging, fuel prices, and urbanization.
That brings us back to my original question: Why do fewer kids hunt and fish? How about the fact that kids, ages 8-18, spend an average of 6.5 hours a day on computers and watching television? How about the fact that two-thirds have televisions in their bedrooms and half have videogame players in their rooms?
Gordon declared that fishing has tremendous value in helping kids mature into adults, and the same can be said for hunting. In fact, if parents fully understood the values kids get from hunting, they would insist that their children participate. But it isn’t happening.
That’s why the effort to lower the hunting age is so critical. It doesn’t matter whether a kid who hunts has a television in his or her room, but it does matter if a television keeps a kid out of the woods. It doesn’t matter if a kid who hunts also plays videogames, but it does matter that videogames keep a kid from getting outdoors.
How can you help? Start your children’s interest in the field and streams at an early age. Take them on walks when you go scouting. Take them for nature walks after church on Sunday. The key isn’t to force them to hunt. The key is to expose them to the wonders of the woods before electronic diversions capture their minds and lead to “nature deficit disorder.” How important is this? The future of hunting depends on it.