The slow and steady drop in hunter retention and recruitment continues year after year. For example, New Jersey is down 40 percent over the past 40 years. Pennsylvania had 1.3 million hunters in 1982, but only 890,000 by 2004. Wisconsin resident deer gun hunters dropped from 645,000 in 2000 to 603,000 in 2010. Iowa dropped 20 percent from 1991 to 2001. And so it goes. State after state is losing hunters.
One probable reason is that the youth get involved in soccer, computers, and other activities before the legal hunting age. Another obvious reason is that the majority of people now live in big cities, where they are not involved with the outdoors. To offset all this, some states have initiated programs. For example, Kansas has a "Pass It On" program "to reverse the decline in hunter numbers," and in 2014 Pennsylvania launched their GoHuntPA program. The results are not in yet, but in general such programs have not yielded a noticeable growth in hunter numbers.
It's fairly obvious that since the average age of hunters gets older every year, unless you recruit and retain young hunters, hunting will continue to decline.
If young hunters are the key, then knowing more about their desires, and what makes a quality experience in the field for them, is critical. I'm a firm believer that hunters under 35 are different than older hunters. It should be no surprise that young hunters don't view the total experience as older hunters once did, because the world has changed. Everyone has a cell phone. That will not change. Social media overwhelms society. That will not change. Most young hunters look for information and buy gear online. That will continue as well. For those of us over 45, we had none of the above when we started hunting.
With the idea to learn more about their hunters and how they feel about hunting and regulations, Michigan contracted a private firm to conduct a study that was just released (Google "Understanding the Barriers to Hunter Retention in Michigan"). It provides some interesting information relative to what older hunters versus younger hunters think about their time in the field.
First, the researchers conducted six focus groups with three target audiences: 1) young men who were frequent hunters; 2) young men who were intermittent hunters; and 3) women who hunt. Then they did an online survey with 32,000 respondents who answered questions about where and when they deer hunt, their experiences with regulations, and their suggestions for changing regulations.
From these data, two issues rose to the top of the list — antler-point restrictions, and lowering the buck limit. Since these two issues are growing issues in many states, the results from Michigan are revealing. Note that Michigan has antler restrictions in some areas, but not in others, and this allows them to do some interesting comparisons.
Results showed that in areas with antler restrictions, nine percent hunted more often, six percent less often, and the rest the same. Does age play a role here? Apparently it does, because where there are antler restrictions in Michigan, 13 percent of the hunters between the ages of 18 — 28 hunted more often, while only six percent hunted less often. For ages 29 — 35, 15 percent hunted more, while only five percent hunted less. For hunters between the ages of 51 — 65, six percent hunted less, and only seven percent hunted more. Thus, antler restrictions appear to have stimulated younger hunters to hunt more. My guess is that hunting more may well lead to higher hunter retention.
In addition, respondents who said they hunted "more often" said they did so because there were more bucks and bigger antlers. Whether there really are more and/or bigger bucks in such areas is debatable. The fact is that young hunters tend to believe there are, and this gets them in the woods more. For the respondents who hunted in areas of Michigan that did not have antler restrictions, 20 percent said they'd hunt more with antler restrictions and 10 percent said they'd hunt less. Again, does the age of the hunter matter? The answer is "yes."
For hunters 18 — 28, 34 percent said they'd hunt more if there were antler restrictions, but only five percent said they'd hunt less. For hunters 29 — 35, 35 percent would hunt more, and only four percent would hunt less. For those 65 and older, seven percent would hunt more, and 15 percent would hunt less. Clearly, young hunters are different.
From the focus groups, there were 14 major topics among the open-ended responses. The one issue that was mentioned the most was support for a one-buck limit. Antler restrictions was second.
Age was also a factor in rating the importance of deer hunting. Forty percent of hunters aged 18 — 28 said deer hunting was the "most important" activity, while 34 percent of hunters aged 51 — 65 said it was "most important."
What about land-management education? Again, age was a factor. When asked if deer hunters were interested in land-management classes, 58 percent of hunters aged 18 — 28 said they were either interested (34 percent) or very interested (24 percent), while 48 percent of hunters aged 51 — 65 said they were interested (31 percent), or very interested (17 percent). Clearly, the age group you want to encourage to stay in hunting is different than the age group that is dying out.
The Michigan study also looked at what hunters thought about the complexity of their regulations, and concluded that those were not an issue. The consulting firm that did the survey also concluded that antler-point restrictions were a draw for younger hunters, but noted cautions about implementing a one-buck limit and antler-restriction regulations before further data was collected. However, they did suggest that there were differences in hunters based on age, and suggested that "the DNR should regularly survey deer hunters to see if/how (these) attitudes change over time."
There are many variables that affect hunter recruitment and retention, so it's hard to know if implementing antler restrictions or lowering the buck limit will affect hunter numbers. The world is changing and retaining hunters may well involve some of those changes.