Hunting > Small Game & Predators

The Decline and Fall of Small-Game Hunting

Where have all the small-game hunters gone?

Where have all the small-game hunters gone? Disturbing new statistics indicate New England's ridges have fewer boys hunting squirrels along their oak spines. Appalachian tangles of mountain laurel have less grouse hunters wading into them each autumn. Midwestern fields are traversed by a diminishing number of pheasant hunters. Southern bottoms echo less often with the bays of beagles dogging cottontails. Western drainages are now graced by fewer upland-bird hunters than they have in decades. Small-game hunting was once a right of passage to bigger game, even a path for new hunters to a reverent understanding of the natural world. But a Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) survey of nearly 10,000 hunters indicates the number of small-game hunters is at a record low, having declined 9 percent from 2006 to 2007 and 70 percent in the past 50 years. The report's author, Brian Frawley, a biologist with the DNR, says the number of pheasant hunters has fallen almost 90 percent since the 1950s.

The trend is national. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation determined that from 2001 to 2006, small-game hunting declined 12 percent and the number of hunters leaving migratory bird hunting fell by 22 percent. Even more startling, from 1996-2006 the number of hunters in the field after small game fell 31 percent, and the number of those after migratory birds dropped 25 percent. Big-game hunting, by comparison, has been more stable: its numbers fell an estimated 10 percent between 1996 and 2006.

Why? First, it must be conceded, the growth of big-game populations has pulled hunters away from small game-you only get so much vacation time. This is why the NRA supports legislative changes that would allow Sunday hunting in the states that forbid it; after all, parents need opportunities to take their children out into the fields and forests after small game. Seven states now prohibit hunting on Sunday; they are Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Jersey and Connecticut. All of these states have considered legislation to lift the bans in recent years. Four states allow limited Sunday hunting: Maryland allows hunting on two Sundays during deer season; South Carolina allows Sunday hunting on private land only; North Carolina allows Sunday hunting on some federal installations; in 2001 West Virginia enacted legislation that allows Sunday hunting on private land, but each county can hold a referendum to ban Sunday hunting, and currently 14 counties allow it.

Darren LaSorte, NRA-ILA's manager of hunting policy, says, "The NRA has been actively pursuing regulatory and statutory changes that will result in enhanced recruitment of new hunters in order to ensure the future of hunting in America; however, the greatest recruitment results are achieved by the hunters in the fields and woods. There needs to be a renewed focus on getting kids out pursuing small game like rabbits, squirrels and grouse, as we're in danger of letting America lose touch with the realities of nature and our true role in it."

Another reason for the decline in small-game hunting is access; urban sprawl into farmlands and leasing has made getting on land more expensive and difficult. The "Open Fields" bill and the growing number of state walk-in areas on private land are helping to increase access in some areas.

Poor forest management on public lands is also a cause, as fewer public tracts are logged or selectively cut to enhance upland bird and rabbit populations these days. Yet another is that Americans left the farm. In 1850 about 64 percent of Americans farmed, that number fell to 38 percent by 1900, to 12 percent by 1950 and to about 2 percent of the American population today.

Youth seasons are smart fixes to such demographic changes, but these shouldn't only be for big game, as small game offers more of the instant gratification this video-game generation knows and maybe needs; at least at first positive experiences are paramount. Turkey hunting is a bright spot: 2.6 million hunters went out after turkeys in 2006. Though not counted as small game, turkeys offer an interactive experience that a new hunter never forgets. Squirrels and rabbits also teach youngsters to shoot and hunt, which helps them when a deer pops into their sights.

Every youth's situation is different, but with the decline and fall of small-game hunting so apparent, it seems that many aren't getting a chance at their first right of passage. So get out this winter after rabbits or squirrels or upland birds and take a youth hunter with you if you can.


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4 Responses to The Decline and Fall of Small-Game Hunting

Daniel wrote:
April 11, 2012

Another thing not mentioned in this article is the ridiculous amount of laws regarding hunting. I grew up hunting the fields and forests of upstate NY, where nobody cared about a gunshot, and relatively little regulation on small game and plenty of places to hunt. I not live in MA. Even where you CAN hunt here (and your options are limited), people freak when they hear a gunshot. You are are more likely to see a cop than you are a rabbit. I wanted to start hunting here. Then I read the thanks.

Jd wrote:
November 28, 2011

My dad and I never hunted, but we sure could fish! Now with two young ones, i'd like to give them the opportunity, and agree that small game is perfect for them. I'm slowly learning the lingo, but most of my local wma's have either no small game season or one that coinsides with deer. Have one big one near that i think be perfect. But, for me, i can talk bout diesel motors like no tomorrow, but never have hunted and learning the regulations/options/availability has been pretty intimidating. But, we'll figure it out.

Rod KS wrote:
February 26, 2011

The rising cost of guns, ammunition, and necessary equipment was not mentioned in the article. I don't believe that the materials to manufacture these items are the only reason either.

AZ hunter wrote:
August 23, 2010

Hunters and game departments caused the decline because of all the big game youth hunts being offered these days. If you are a new driver and your dad says you can drive the Porsche, why would you ever want to drive the family Cavalier? Same applies to hunting. If you can hunt elk and deer when you are 10, why do you want to settle for squirrels and rabbits? Get rid of youth hunts and those kids that really want to hunt will hunt small game again. That means parents need to start hunting small game again, too.