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By the Numbers: Whitetails vs. Wild Turkeys

Both generate big bucks, but one is king!

By the Numbers: Whitetails vs. Wild Turkeys

Although whitetail deer and wild turkeys rank first and second in game-animal popularity, there is a huge gap between them in terms of hunter numbers and economic impact. (Photo by donaldmjones.com)

Whitetails are the most popular game animal in the United States and generate the most revenue, by far. Wild turkeys come in second place — though it’s a distant second. With spring turkey seasons upon us, I thought it would be fun to take a closer look at how these two species stack up in the battle for hunting supremacy.

In addition to being a ton of fun, hunting in the U.S. is big business. In 2016 (the most recent national data available), 11.5 million people ages 16 and older hunted in the U.S., and they spent $26.2 billion — with a “B” — doing so! Of that total, big-game hunting accounts for $14.9 billion, or 57 percent of all hunting expenditures, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. Further, the report clearly shows whitetails are the most sought-after big-game animal. As a result, whitetail hunting results in a significant economic contribution. When viewed from the lens of a business valuation, based on how much money whitetail hunting generates, whitetails in your state could produce more economic activity than your favorite NFL franchise or college football conference. Now, there’s some context for you!

To compare the valuations of Whitetails Inc. and Turkeys Inc., I’ll look at several metrics, including the number of hunters who pursue each animal and the dollars those hunters spend annually.

Market Share

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service conducts its extensive National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation roughly every five years. The most recent report was published in 2016, and an updated report revealing findings from a new survey conducted in 2022 is due this summer. It takes researchers a long time to collect and publish their extensive findings. Although there will be much to digest when the 2022 figures are released, I am confident about one thing: Whitetails will continue to dominate market share in all metrics, including dollars spent and number of days spent afield pursuing America's No. 1 game animal! I should note the USFWS lumps mule deer and whitetails into the “deer” category, but I’ll also point out that there are four subspecies of wild turkeys.

What did the 2016 report reveal? Among big-game species (deer, turkey, elk, bear, etc.), deer are the most pursued animal in America, with 8.1 million hunters investing 115 million collective days annually in pursuit of backstrap and bone! Putting these numbers into context, you might be wondering where wild turkeys rank. The same study reports that 2 million turkey hunters invested 13 million collective hunting days cutting and running after an old limb hanger. That’s right; whitetails are four times more popular than wild turkeys. For those wondering, elk drew 712,000 hunters for 6 million collective hunting days, while 1.2 million duck hunters spent 9 million days afield.

Regardless of the valuation system you use, sales are king in business! When comparing the economic value of various game species, whitetails win on all accounts. For example, depending on where you live, whitetails may be responsible for upwards of 80 percent of the hunting license sales in your state. Another key difference between whitetail hunters and those who pursue other species centers around land leasing and ownership. Research shows that not only are whitetail hunters more likely to lease and/or own land for hunting than any other game species, they spend more than twice as much on land purchases and three times as much on land leasing compared to non-whitetail hunters!

Case Study: Mississippi

Some of the best research demonstrating the whitetail’s market share dominance was conducted by researchers from Mississippi State University. In a 72-page thesis, Micah Whiteside sought the economic impact of whitetail deer in Mississippi. While national economic impacts of hunting and specific game animals are regularly investigated, few research-based economic impact studies are available on the state level. Whiteside and his colleagues found the total annual sales impact from whitetail hunting in Mississippi was $951.1 million (in 2006 dollars), supporting 43,964 full-time and part-time jobs and $479.5 million in employee income.

In a recent email correspondence about this topic, MSU’s Dr. Bronson Strickland noted, “In Mississippi, deer have a $1 billion annual economic impact. When you add in all the other hunted species (turkeys, ducks, doves, small game) that economic impact increases to $2 billion.” While these numbers are impressive, imagine how they scale up in more popular “whitetail destination” states, such as Kansas, Iowa and Texas, or those with significantly more licensed hunters, such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

At $1 billion, Whitetails Inc. generates more annual revenue in Mississippi than the entire Southeastern Conference (SEC) college sports league generates annually among all sports at its 14 member universities, a figure that sits right at $777.9 million. But wait, maybe you are a Big Ten fan. Sorry, Whitetails Inc. has you beat too, as your entire conference is only generating $679.8 million annually. Even in the NFL, there is only one team — the Dallas Cowboys — that generates more than $1 billion in annual revenue. The New England Patriots are second at $651 million.

And as far as other forms of hunting are concerned, well, it’s simply no contest. Authors of the Mississippi whitetail study placed the economic impact of turkey hunting in the Magnolia State at $16.6 million and waterfowl hunting at $27.4 million, both a mere drop in the bucket compared to whitetails.

The Bottom Line

Even though I’m supposed to be the “whitetail guy,” I’m glad whitetails are pursued in the fall and turkeys in the spring. That’s because as far as I am concerned, listening to hair-raising double gobbles in the spring woods outweighs just about any experience in a fall whitetail stand. I’ve always admitted I’m a whitetail manager and a turkey hunter. I’ll also propose (just to gain some friends back) that maybe, just maybe, Turkeys Inc. is “less popular” because an old, call-shy longbeard is exponentially harder to kill than a rut-crazed buck!

You hear an awful lot in the media about the negative impacts high whitetail populations have on various industries, such as auto insurance, agriculture and forestry. However, there isn’t much coverage on the positive impact from the billions of dollars and millions of jobs whitetails generate in our national, state and local economies. Opinions and feelings aside, while thundering gobbles from an old strutter are undoubtedly some of the best sounds in the spring woods, it’s the fall grunts and polished headgear of mature bucks that pay the bills!

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