September 28, 2021
Open a deer hunting magazine from 1970. Then read one printed today. They won’t look the same. Throw in digital content and it gets even more disparate. Deer hunters have changed. In some ways, it's clearly for the better. In others, well, that can be put up for debate. But what are these changes? We spoke with several industry professionals to find out.
Reduced Land Access
Hunting grounds. They aren’t making more. That which is still available is rapidly shrinking. This continues to procure a reduction in land access. That’s no secret. The real secret — how to circumvent it.
“For many, deer hunting was a hobby,” said Nick Pinizzotto, CEO of the National Deer Association. “There was usually a place to go, and nobody cared how big or old your buck was. Now, land is harder to find due to leases and those buying up large tracts that only a few hunters go on. There’s also pressure to not shoot deer that are too young or don’t have high-scoring racks.”
The commercialization of deer hunting helped create this problem within the last quarter century. Lower- and middle-class hunters are the ones sacrificing because of it.
“Access, or lack thereof, is often cited as the No. 1 reason participants (license buyers) quit hunting,” said Bee Frederick with the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. “Access to private land is much harder to come by these days than it was 50 years ago. This is a significant policy issue, especially east of the Mississippi River where there is less public land hunting. There are a number of state-specific access programs designed to provide public access to private lands.”
Walk-in-Hunting Areas (WIHA) and other state-driven programs are becoming more popular. Third party organizations are making a difference, too. Still, non-profits such as the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), Whitetails Unlimited (WU), and others, are making an impact. Hunters just have to utilize them.
Shifts in Consumer Habits
Hunters of today and those from the 20th century are two completely different animals, especially in terms of spending habits.
“How many friends do you know that has a bow more than three years old?” Pinizzotto said. “I’m guilty of this, too. Even guns are being purchased more often. I know hunters who have so many trail cameras that they’ve lost track of some of them. Not too long ago, I spotted a trail camera hanging on a nearby tree. I walked over and realized it was one that I hung two years prior.”
It’s true. Most things hunters buy today weren’t common purchases 30-plus years ago. Trail cameras. Binoculars. Rangefinders. Calls. Land management tools. Deer minerals. The world of hunting retail has changed. Drastically. It no longer consists of just weapons and ammo.
Increases in Technological Usage
The hunting scene, while slower to move than most niches, has finally joined the tech world. Cellular trail cameras. Long-distance rangefinders. Scopes with built-in computer systems. These aren’t things your granddaddy took to the deer woods.
“The most obvious ways deer hunters have changed over the course of the last 50 years is through their use of better technology, equipment, and ultimately, their knowledge of deer and deer hunting,” Pinizzotto said.
Brita Turbyfill, with the Gray Loon Marketing Group, also believes technology is one of the biggest ways hunters have changed. Hunters are using hunting apps, such as HuntStand.
“Smart phones have changed the game for hunters,” Turbyfill said. “An example — people use apps to find pinch points, identify private and public land, and more. Technology also allows for trail cameras to send photos to phones in real time.”
It’s also changed how deer hunters check in their game. See check-in stations today? Not many. Many states no longer have them. Instead, most people are checking deer with their cell phones.
It’s even gone as far as selling the location of known public-land big game animals. That’s right. There’s an app service that allows you to purchase “scouting packages” that someone has pulled together regarding a specific animal. You download the contents and get all of the information pertinent to that particular buck. Then you go hunt. Personal thoughts on legality and ethics aside, hunters weren't doing that — couldn't do that, in fact — until very recently.
More Access to Better Information
Another significant change is access to better information. And because of it, many long-held myths have been disbanded. Such as:
- Myth: Buck-to-doe ratios get way out of whack. Truth: The science shows it’s biologically impossible for pre-season ratios to be more skewed than 1:5.
- Myth: Deer are colorblind. Truth: Thanks to research, we now know they see in shades of blue and yellow.
- Myth: The October lull is real. Truth: Radio-collar research completely destroys this and proves that deer activity — including daylight — gradually increases from summer until the peak of the rut, and then begins to decline.
The list goes on. We could talk about dozens of once-popular myths that no longer hold water. And you can thank technology for that.
“I think back to the things the old timers would tell me,” Pinizzotto said. “I’ll bet at least 75 percent of them turned out to be wrong. No offense to them, but there wasn’t nearly as much information as there is now.”
We know so much more because of the research being conducted by universities, non-profits and private parties.
“Modern hunters are much more knowledgeable about deer biology and management than hunters at any point in our history,” said National Deer Association Biologist Matt Ross. “Some of our forefathers had exceptional hunting skills, but as a group, today’s hunters are in the honor society with respect to deer knowledge.
“The modern deer hunter is a passionate, knowledgeable and engaged deer enthusiast who views his or her role as more than just a deer hunter, but rather an enlightened deer manager and a necessary contributor to the future of wildlife management and conservation,” Ross continued. “Whether you’re a QDM advocate or not, all hunters should rejoice in the fact that we’re more knowledgeable in our deer hunting and managing endeavors. This fact is not surprising, as public surveys indicate deer hunters have slightly higher average education and income levels than the general public. It is logical that this segment of our population is also more knowledgeable about their favorite pastime.”
Navigating the Political Science of Deer Management
Today, life is simpler in many ways. But it’s become more complicated in others. Politics and deer management fall into the latter category.
“Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) outbreaks are happening more often and further northward than ever before,” Pinizzotto said. “The spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is more prominent when there are too many deer. Simply, they can pass it along more easily.
“As I recently testified in a congressional hearing, think about what we’re asking hunters to do to help control CWD,” Pinizzotto said. “We’re asking them to kill more deer, way more than they’re comfortable with, and to not let younger bucks walk. This isn’t a message you want to hear after you’ve been conditioned to pursue only older bucks for the last two to three decades. Imagine how the person might feel who emptied their life savings to buy their dream property to shoot big bucks. No wonder hunters not only refuse to hear about CWD but also pretend it’s not a problem and fight state wildlife agencies that are trying to preserve the very traditions they love.”
Deer management is hard enough. Toss in controversial diseases and things get even saltier. Although CWD (and other diseases) have been around for decades, they’ve only recently become a hot-button issue. Deer managers, whether public or private, as well as deer hunters themselves, are struggling to navigate an unsteady sea of politics.
That’s something that won’t change anytime soon. We must learn to overcome it.
Hunters pay for conservation. That’s in part thanks to license sales. But more importantly, it’s due to the Pittman-Robertson Act — which collects excise taxes on hunting and shooting sports goods. But that began in 1937. It's not new. All said, while there are fewer hunters today, the money trail shows those who still partake are more invested than ever before.
“Whether you’re from a state agency, conservation organization, hunting group or other discipline, we need to acknowledge that hunters are the most important piece of the puzzle,” Ross said. “They drive the industry by contributing nearly $68 billion annually to the U.S. economy and supporting 525,000 jobs. Without hunters, and deer hunters in particular, wildlife conservation and management would cease to exist. We should embrace the fact that the modern deer hunter has arrived and thank him/her for their support, commitment and service to the resource. State and federal wildlife agencies should further engage their hunter constituents as partners in the management and decision-making processes.”
This is a good thing. More invested hunters are generally more willing to do the right thing for the resource, whatever that might be.
“Modern hunters are interested in being a part of the management process, and state agencies aren’t the only ones recognizing this,” Ross said. “Many publications and outdoor media are as well. Deer hunters must adapt to current deer management issues and be accountable. There was a time when state agencies could dictate policy to hunters without being questioned. However, many contend those days are gone forever as more and more hunters understand the principles of deer biology and management. They’re asking their state officials to explain or defend their management recommendations.”
“The regulatory approach to deer seasons has changed considerably,” Frederick said. “Fifty years ago, we were still working to recover the deer population. We still had a lot of states in the East that were buck-only. Now, there is significant focus placed on antlerless harvest and controlling population growth, or even limiting it, in some areas. Rather than just prepping for the hunt a few weeks before the season, today’s hunters have mostly shifted to a more year-round lifestyle by using trail cameras, planting summer and winter food plots, mineral supplements, etc.”
Expressions of More Selectivity
Hunters are more selective than ever before. That holds true in many ways, but especially for pulling the trigger.
“Some of the most compelling numbers are days spent afield by deer hunters,” Pinizzotto said. “According to a 2018 National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) report titled Hunting in America: An Economic Force for Conservation, deer hunters accounted for 115 million of the 184 million days hunting all species. That’s 63% of all hunting and 70% of all hunters pursue deer. In the earlier days, most hunters traveled to camp with a group of friends for a day or two of hunting. Today’s hunter is much more selective and puts in significantly more time.
“Hunters are a lot more selective, and most don’t reach bag limits,” Pinizzotto said. “That’s unfortunate. I think population management is suffering as a result. A higher percentage of hunters focus on killing particular mature bucks and pass on opportunities at does. Outfitters who consume significant areas of good hunting land struggle with getting clients to participate in broader population management. This led to the Buffalo County, Wisconsin, Deer Advisory Council calling for a moratorium on killing bucks for the 2019 season. Ultimately, the idea didn’t fly, but those are the types of conversations happening around the country. That’s a long way of saying I believe hunters are under-consuming the resource. I recognize we all enjoy seeing a lot of deer while hunting, but if you’re seeing a lot of deer every time out, there are likely too many.”
In other words, we’re shooting less deer. As Pinizzotto said, that can be attributed to more selectivity. But it’s also because there are fewer of us.
Hunters Are Fading Away
The saddest — and most sobering — change is that there are fewer of us. According to the NDA, hunter numbers peaked in the early 1980s (17 million) and have been declining ever since.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service produces a comprehensive report every five years that shows hunting participation has, unfortunately, been declining since the 1980s,” Frederick said. “As you know, hunting license sales produce critical funding each year for wildlife conservation and habitat restoration (supporting game and non-game species). Hunter expenditures generate billions of dollars annually for the national economy and support hundreds of thousands of jobs — all of which supports conservation efforts.”
Hunters are leaving in droves.
“According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there were about 14.1 million hunters in 1991. There were 11.5 million in 2016,” Pinizzotto said. “In 1991, 7.3% of adults hunted. Now, it’s down to 4.4%.”
How to we reverse this? Effort. And that’s something most hunters aren’t giving enough of. We have to do more.
“There is a significant R3 effort (recruitment, retention, and reactivation) from state agencies and NGOs around the country to help reverse this trend,” Frederick continued. “Many state legislatures and state agencies are also taking strong measures to reduce various impediments to recruiting or retaining new hunters (lessening minimum age restrictions, increasing length of hunter apprentice licenses, increasing Sunday hunting opportunities, etc.). Additionally, there is a growing movement focused on providing healthy and organic food through the Locavore movement.”
These are all great things. But it takes grassroots-level dedication to make a true impact. We all must introduce new people to hunting, and we must do that every year with commitment and tenacity.
If we don’t, we won’t have to worry about how the deer hunter has changed for much longer because there won’t be any left.