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Forecasting the Future of Hunting

As Mark Twain pointed out, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” So let’s dig a little deeper.

Popular consensus asserts hunting is a perishing pastime. And at first glance the numbers in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (USFWS) "2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation" seem to validate this viewpoint. The survey, which is conducted every five years, found that about 12.5 million adults hunted in 2006, which is down from about 13 million in 2001 and from about 14 million in 1991. However, as Mark Twain pointed out, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics." So let's dig a little deeper.

First of all, the USFWS' number is an estimate of the number of Americans over the age of 16 who said they hunted in 2006; it's not the number of hunters in the United States, as is often reported. As a result, it leaves out a lot of people. Anecdotally, I personally know two self-described hunters who spent last season serving in Iraq, one who was too sick to hunt and a handful of others who didn't have time because of unforeseen circumstances. The 12.5 million statistic doesn't count them. It also doesn't include the 1.7 million youths between the ages of 6-15 who the USFWS estimates hunted in 2005. These are just two of the reasons why surveys conducted by other organizations have come up with much higher numbers of hunters.

For example, a survey commissioned by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) and conducted by the independent firm Responsive Management in 2007 found that there are 20.6 million active hunters in the U.S. (those who hunted more than once in the past year). And the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA) did a comprehensive survey much like the USFWS' and found that 17.8 million people hunted with firearms in 2006, which was down from 19.2 million in 2001. However, the NSGA doesn't speculate that 1.4 million hunters threw away their camo and pawned their Remingtons; rather, the NSGA's survey found that the number of bowhunters grew from 4.7 million in 2001 to 5.9 million in 2006 and the number of hunters using a muzzleloader went from 3 million in 2001 to 3.7 million in 2006. As a result, the NSGA survey indicates that some hunters might be leaving the sport, while others might be switching to using only bows.

As you can see we're already speculating, because deciphering surveys is always problematic. However, doing something more concrete like counting licenses sold isn't a solution. According to the USFWS, in 2005, hunters purchased 35,609,605 licenses and tags-this figure vastly exceeds everyone's estimated number of active hunters. Then there is the fact that some hunters have lifetime licenses, resident landowners in Virginia don't need a license to hunt their own land and active-duty military personnel (depending on the state regulations) often don't have to buy licenses. Meanwhile, others hunt only out of state, and if you count nonresident hunters, you risk counting the same hunter several times-I hunted in six states last year. This is why the USFWS uses a survey to estimate only active hunters.

So the 12.5 million estimate is, at the very least, a conservative number. However, the USFWS five-year survey is telling; after all, with a sample size of 85,000 people contacted, it dwarfs the largest of the presidential polls. As a result, it's a well-respected survey-when it's not misunderstood. For example, statisticians agree the USFWS surveys are accurately measuring a trend. So let's look closer at the trend.

The overall USFWS number of hunters declined 7 percent between 1996 and 2001, and then fell 4 percent between 2001 and 2006 (a slip that's actually within the survey's 5 percent margin for error). The explanation for the decline is remarkable: Of the types of hunting, big-game hunting has remained stable since 1991 and fell just 2 percent from 2001 to 2006-well within the margin for error. Meanwhile, the number of small-game hunters declined 12 percent and migratory-bird hunters fell 22 percent since 2001. A myriad of factors is adversely affecting these segments of hunting, but before we dig into those let's get the big picture.

At this point it would be beneficial to step even further back in time to judge the long-term trend. However, due to changes in methodology, the USFWS surveys done from 1991 to 2006 aren't comparable with the surveys performed before 1991. But a comparison of estimates from the past 25 years of USFWS surveys reveals that though the number of sportsmen (hunters and fishermen) fell from 40 million in 1991 to 34 million in 2006, their expenditures nevertheless increased from $60.6 billion (adjusted for inflation) in 1991 to $76.6 billion in 2006. Now, although during this same time period the number of hunters declined by 11 percent, the number of big-game hunters has stayed about the same and, after being adjusted for inflation, hunting expenditures increased by 24 percent from 1991 to 2006.

So once again we find that hunting's overall number has declined because the number of small-game and migratory bird hunters has fallen dramatically. Why is this happening?

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