February 05, 2018
By Tony J. Peterson
Well, Wyoming, I'm tapping out. It wasn't too long ago that I thought I'd draw a once-in-a-lifetime moose tag in my home state of Minnesota, but our DNR shut the season down due to a dwindling population. In response, I started buying nonresident preference points in Wyoming at $75 a pop. Currently, I've got nine points built up. This year, point cost is doubling and the worst part is, even with the points I have, I'll never beat the creep considering there are about 4,000 folks ahead of me in the draw.
Unless I somehow find my way to Alaska or draw a Shiras tag randomly, I'm not going to hunt moose in my lifetime. Sheep, and probably mountain goats, are out as well. I'll still find a way to hunt elk, but I'm less excited about that as I have been in the past. The over-the-counter units in some states, like Colorado, are overrun with hunters just like me frantically looking for a place — any place — to hunt elk.
The western game is getting tougher and tougher to justify, price-wise. That's a shame, because it means fewer and fewer hunters will experience it. I know quite a few bowhunters who believe that's just fine, and that states should gouge nonresidents when it comes to license price and opportunity. There are solid arguments for that, I'll concede, but if you turn an eye toward the future I'm not so sure that's the best plan.
The problem we are facing with the rising cost of bowhunting is that it's contributing to the overall decline of our numbers. If you don't like crowded public hunting spots, that might sound like a blessing. It's not. We are already a tiny demographic of this ever-changing society, and what power we have to preserve our favorite pastime diminishes as our numbers dwindle.
"So what?" You might say. After all, no one is entitled to a moose hunt or an elk hunt. And just about anyone can find a place to hunt whitetails or turkeys. That's true, and also not. Access to land of any sort is subject to a pile of variables. If you grew up in northern Missouri, you probably don't have too many problems finding deer ground. But what about the person who lives in the suburbs of the Twin Cities? It's not so simple.
So we knock on doors, or hunt public, or ever-increasingly explore leasing as an option. I've never leased a piece of ground, but I have started looking. It's inevitable I suppose, but what I've found is crazy. There are properties in the middle-of-nowhere Nebraska listed for $50/acre, and others that are priced pretty high in my stomping grounds of northern Wisconsin where the hunting is as close to terrible as I've seen it anywhere. Anyone paying for those spots is likely to weigh the cost versus the value, and a certain percentage of them will decide it's not worth it. Then it's time to sell the bow for a set of golf clubs.
That attrition is happening right now, and it's going to get worse because anyone who drops out now is unlikely to get their kids — or any youngsters — involved. When a lack of recruitment reaches an impossible-to-ignore level, our numbers will reach a point where all of us will start losing opportunities. It may take 10 years, or it may take 50, but it will happen.
I don't know what the answer to this is. I do see more and more states offering youth licenses at highly discounted rates. This is a great option, but only if mom or dad can afford to take the youngsters hunting. If not, what good does it do?
Some of you may be thinking devil's advocate types of thoughts right now, like "Well, everything has gotten more expensive in recent years. Just look at bows or arrows or broadheads or you-name-it." You'd get no argument from me on that point, because it's true. Flagship bows almost all cost well over a grand these days, but the good thing is, you don't need one to kill anything. There are budget bows and used options that will perform nearly as well as any bow out there. A value-conscious shopper can find equipment that works with their pocketbook and their needs. That's not the case, generally speaking, when it comes to nonresident licenses or leases.
I'd like to say that we could send a message to some of these states by voting with our dollars, but it won't help. At least not yet, anyway. I'm still going to do that just out of principle. I'm done with Wyoming moose. After I draw my next Iowa deer tag, I'm done there too. Spending $700 overall to hunt the same caliber of deer I can find in the Dakotas or Nebraska or Missouri or even Oklahoma is simply not worth it.
Will that change anything? No, not likely. Enough demand will still be there to justify the prices. But I'll have more money in my pocket and find other states that aren't trying quite as hard to bend me over the proverbial barrel just because I reside somewhere else. Or I'll find a lease. Who knows?
What I do know is that we are on dangerous ground here, and eventually something is going to give. If we don't find a way to recruit and retain enough hunters to replace the baby boomers who are giving things up, we are in serious trouble. Not now, but soon. Sooner than we probably care to admit.
I know that this trend toward a rich-man's sport isn't the sole reason for our atrophying numbers, but it certainly is a contributor. A big, undeniable, unlikely-to-change soon, contributor.