After years of falling participation, hunting saw a massive resurgence in popularity in 2020. Hunters returned to the fields and forests in larger numbers than in decades. But can the increase last?
COVID-19 was the biggest catalyst for the increase, data shows. The pandemic pushed hunters back into their blinds, something wildlife officials across the country have been unable to accomplish.
“I’ve been working on this issue for 15 years,” said Matt Dunfee, the director of special programs at the Wildlife Management Institute. “All I needed was a pandemic.”
Hunting has been declining in popularity for a while. The reasons are varied, but, put short, younger generations had less time and were less interested in the sport. In 2016, only 11.5 million Americans hunted, according to the National Survey of Hunting, Fishing, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. That’s less than 4 percent of the population. Compare that to 17 million in 1982.
A 2017 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Society survey found the average hunter was middle aged and getting older.
“The decline in hunting has stemmed from the decline in participation in the Baby Boomer generations who are aging out of hunting and make up the largest cohort of current hunters,” Hank Forrester, director of the Alabama-based Hunting Heritage Foundation, told Fox News. “Later generations weren’t recruited into hunting at the same rate as the Boomers, and a lot of that probably has to do with the urbanization in the U.S.”
All that changed this past year.
How the Pandemic Sparked Resurgence in Hunting
The coronavirus pandemic upset the balance of the modern world. Congested city streets were empty as people telecommuted to work. Families were asked to quarantine indoors. People felt trapped inside. Rather than doom-scroll bad news, a large number decided to reconnect with nature.
“We’ve also seen an uptick in emails, traffic, and sales of our Deer Hunting 101 online course. People are flocking [to hunting] this year as they have increased time and an opportunity to get outdoors,” Forrester told Fox News. “… Self-sufficiency, a connection with nature, and local, sustainable protein free of animal welfare concerns are all reasons why there are now more hunters.”
Sales of hunting licenses were up 12 percent nationwide in 2020. And more than 1 million new hunters joined in the sport last year. That’s according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms trade group. Gun sales were also up. And these new hunters weren’t the middle-aged white men that are usually associated with the sport.
Women and young people more than ever found themselves looking down the sights of a rifle last year.
“I’d say that the pandemic definitely played a role in getting me out in the woods,” Senna Redin told Pew Trusts. The Minnesota resident said she harvested a deer this year after hunting for the first time in 2019.
But it was more than just a hobby. People picked hunting for practical reasons as well.
The disruption of the supply chain was a concern for many. Runs on grocery stores gave rise to fears of food insecurity. For example, despite the increased number of hunters, the amount of surplus meat donated to food banks actually declined in 2020 compared to previous years.
Hunters Are Vital for Conservation Efforts
State and federal wildlife officials need hunters back in the field. They provide the cash and catalysts for necessary conservation efforts. So maintaining this increase in hunting will be critical in completing those jobs going forward, said Jared Wiklund, a spokesperson for the nonprofit conservation group Pheasants Forever.
“Hunting is important on multiple levels, but none more so than the funding it provides to fuel wildlife and habitat conservation efforts throughout North America,” he told Fox News. “From license and stamp purchases that support state natural resources agencies and habitat projects to Pittman-Robertson Act funding — an excise tax on guns, ammunition and other equipment that provides hundreds of millions of dollars per year for wildlife management — hunters remain the nation’s most dedicated conservationists.”
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hunters have contributed $14 billion to conservation efforts through taxes since 1937. More than just filling coffers, hunters also help wildlife agencies with population control. They also report what they see while in the wilderness, helping rangers keep up with disease outbreaks and potential crimes.
This puts an emphasis on finding younger people as they’ll continue to participate for decades to come.
The boost in 2020 helps state and federal agencies in the short term. Long-term prospects are hopeful, but there are no guarantees.
“This buys us one more year where we can feel safe and continue doing conservation and population management,” said Ian Malepeai, marketing manager at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. “It positions us well to continue our efforts, but we’re not resting on our laurels.”
What Does This Mean Going Forward?
Sustaining this level of participation will be difficult, but industry experts believe they can survive the COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, some say 2020 was only a springboard. They expect even more growth in the sport in years to come.
American Outdoor Brands CEO Brian Murphy said they’ve seen a major uptick in sales. And now that people have made the investment and taken a trip into the field, they’re more than likely to continue.
“Obviously, there’ll be some return [to indoor activities] once a vaccine is widely distributed,” Murphy told Fox Business, “but it’s people, at least, again, what we’re seeing, intend to continue this, now that they have this newfound activity that a lot of times, they didn’t have the time for before or to even try.”
Others are less rosy about the future but are still hopeful. However, both sides believe the future of the sport will depend on a few factors. Most importantly, long-time hunters must welcome in new hunters and teach them.
“Hunting’s resurgence is going to depend greatly on the existing hunters continuing to embrace these newcomers and showing them the way,” said Chip Hunnicutt, a representative for the Washington D.C.-based Safari Club International. “The growth pattern of hunters is to enjoy the experiences in their immediate locale or state, then explore opportunities in other states or pursuing other species, and becoming more involved in the conservation aspects of hunting that help support wildlife and its habitat.”
And there will be a short window of time to make that good impression, experts warned.
“They need to know they are the new, welcome face of hunting in America,” said Matt Dunfee of the Wildlife Management Institute. “People rarely try something once and then adopt it without additional support. We get people to try it but then we drop them cold, and we see these high desertion rates. If we let them go next year, they’re not going to be coming back.”