Hunting numbers surge during COVID — but will the sport's popularity last?

Hunting numbers surge during COVID — but will the sport's popularity last?
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In many parts of the U.S., hunting is an honored tradition. Even so, no culture is immune from change, and the number of hunters across the nation has been dwindling for years. But in another strange twist of 2020, COVID-19 appears to be pushing the pause button on that trend.

It’s not shocking that hunting has become less popular in recent years. Digital and online activities keep many people occupied now, our view of the outdoors has been heavily Disneyfied, and much of our food comes already prepared and sealed in plastic. Older hunters are aging out of the sport and fewer youths see the need to step in to take their place. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Survey of Fishing and Hunting details the decline, noting that the number of American hunters dropped from 13.6 million in 2011 to 11.4 million in 2016.

More recent numbers in Michigan show hunting license sales to “total unique customers” dropping from about 450,000 in 2015 to just over 390,000 in 2019. 

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Those shrinking numbers have been a problem for state agencies charged with managing wildlife populations. As the Colorado Wildlife Society noted in its “Hug a hunter” campaign, the fees hunters pay for licenses go directly to protecting wildlife populations, restoring forests and preserving public lands. So fewer hunting licenses sold means state agencies struggle to manage rising wildlife populations with decreasing funding. 

Enter COVID-19. A month out from the opening day of Michigan’s whitetail deer firearm season, hunting license sales have surged to almost 446,000 — 13 percent higher than 2019. Deer tags sales are up 16 percent over last year.

According to Kristin Phillips of the Marketing and Outreach Division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, there are several other encouraging signs in 2020. State shooting ranges are seeing unusually high use, she said, reaching levels normally not seen until the days just before hunting season.

Michigan’s DNR also noted a 92 percent increase in “new customers” — hunters who have not purchased a license in at least five years. There’s also been a 141 percent increase in licenses purchased for hunters ages 10-16, a key demographic if we are to revive interest in the sport.

Phillips did caution that the department will have to wait until final numbers are tallied at the end of the season before celebrating a revival of hunting. More importantly, we’ll have to wait to see if the heightened interest continues in the following seasons, as COVID concerns diminish. 

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But early reports across the nation are promising, and are being attributed to the following reasons:

COVID lockdowns: Whether lockdowns are regulatory or self-imposed, people are isolated, bored and looking for activities that won’t expose them to the coronavirus. Outdoor activities fit the bill. In fact, many small businesses that supply outdoor recreation markets report having trouble keeping their shelves stocked. Boating equipment, hiking and camping gear, firearms, and ammunition are all being snapped up as fast as toilet paper was in April.

Restricted options: Some activities, such as going to movies, sporting events, or bars and restaurants, have been curtailed by COVID restrictions. But hunting is an outdoor (and typically) solitary sport that provides participants little opportunity to encounter the virus.

Unsettled work conditions: People facing unsteady business conditions are questioning how they can provide food for their families. Harvesting a deer provides 50 to 70 pounds of fresh, free-range, wild meat at between $1.50 to $4 per pound. By contrast, meat purchased at a grocery store will run $3 to $20 per pound, depending on its cut and quality.

Tradition: Many families, especially in rural areas, have a history of hunting. They have invested in firearms and hunting gear, so returning to these traditions is easy, inexpensive and natural. 

Ethics and health: Millennials may not be the expected default option when looking for avid hunters, but many in this age range are avid consumers of sustainably and ethically harvested, locally produced protein options. Considering the cost of organic, free-range meats at boutique butchers, it’s not surprising to see the growing popularity of hunting show up in media outlets. For example, “The Meateater” — available in podcast format and on Netflix — shares hunting videos and stories, tips and recipes for preparing game meat.

This year’s surge presents an opportunity for hunters and wildlife managers to revive the sport. An influx of new and returning hunters will provide additional resources to manage state lands and wildlife populations. And a good experience in 2020 could mean they help reverse hunting’s long-term decline in the years to come.

Jason Hayes is the director of environmental policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute based in Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @jasonthayes.