How Many Hunters Are There, Really?

There are three times more hunters in the U.S. than commonly published. Nearly 45 million people in the U.S. have hunted and form part of its support. The National Wild Turkey Federation issued a press release in July that quotes the experts. The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) is an appropriate sportsmen’s conservation organization to call these facts to attention. The number of wild turkey hunters in the U.S. has doubled from 1.3 million to 2.6 million since the NTA was founded in 1973. We repeat the NWTF points here, the quoted experts and add some need-to-know analysis from our own files. 

The NWTF press release states that “[m]any people believe that reporting there are thirteen million hunters in this country is at least misleading and at worst, a gross underestimation of their actual numbers.” “That number only represents how many people over the age of sixteen hunted during a one year period… It does not include hunters under the age of sixteen nor does it take into account those people who consider themselves hunters but for whatever reason, didn’t hunt in 2001.”

The release quotes Mark Damian Duda, executive director of Responsive Management that “[a]ccording to our research, about twenty-eight million Americans consider themselves hunters, even though they don’t hunt every year and some haven’t gone for several years.” Emphasis ours. The NWTF press release also quotes Rob Southwick, president of Southwick Associates that “[t] he National Survey shows there are 43.7 million people in the United States who have hunted in any previous year. That number is three times more than the number of people reported as having hunted in 2001. That’s significant.” The NWTF release adds that researchers have “found that many people subscribe to the idea that once a hunter, always a hunter.”

Now for our thoughts. The Survey everyone is citing is the 2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation completed once every five years by the U.S. Census Bureau. First, the thirteen million figure can be misleading. When the 1.74 million hunters in the six to fifteen age class are added, the number of hunters is 14.7 million. It is also wholly incorrect to compute hunters in 2001 as a percentage of the U.S. population as the antis do unless the six to fifteen age group of hunters are included. One fifth of the total U.S. population was in the six to fifteen age class at the time of the survey. Certainly hunters in that age class should be considered as well. That age group is particularly important because of the life time impression hunting can make on children that naturally yearn to hunt and experience the greater outdoors. The same is true for the 13.145 million six to fifteen year olds that fished that year. They remember.

The National Survey does conclude that 43,745,000 persons in the U.S. hunted in 2000 or before. That does not include those that hunted in 2001 for the first time. It only includes those that hunted in 2000 or before. If the previous year’s number of first time hunters was used as an estimate of the number of new hunters in 2001, that adds an additional 1.24 million hunters. When totaled, it raises the number of people who reportedly have hunted by the early Fall of 2001 to 44,985,000. We round off that to 45 million, which it misses by only fifteen thousand.

We must also add that the terrorism of September 11, 2001 did not affect the results of the survey according to the surveyors. Nevertheless, much of the Survey was conducted in October, the next month. Many hunters we know cancelled hunts and booking agents were complaining. The survey of 2006 should tell.

Readers may recall that Conservation Force and Dallas Safari Club contracted with Mark Damian Duda of Responsive Management and published a brochure on the significant growth of big game hunting in America. It is still true. Thought the 2001 National Survey showed no growth in big game hunting, virtually all other activities declined. Big game hunting continues to stand out for that. Ninety-one percent of all hunters hunted big game. It is the most popular kind of hunting and has had the highest growth rate of any popular outdoor activity for more than half a century. One survey showing no growth does not change the long-term trend.

The anti-hunters raved when the 2001 National Survey was published, but there was little for them to rave about. They like to compare America’s hunting and fishing to wildlife watching. We do not agree that wildlife watching activities are opposite and opposing poles as the anti profess. Nor do we agree that hunting and fishing are declining in comparison to wildlife watching. They absolutely are not!

The activities are not opposites. Hunters and anglers pay the largest share of wildlife conservation, which is far more than all others combined. Moreover hunters and anglers are more likely to be “wildlife watchers” than others in the general public. Sixty-two percent of hunters and fifty-eight percent of anglers participated in wildlife watching in 2001. In fact thirty-three percent (33%) of wildlife watchers also reported hunting and/or fishing during the year.

But that is not all. Wildlife watching has never been what it is held out to be in popularity, growth, or revenue. The number of wildlife watchers declined in every survey before 2001. In 2001 its growth was not enough to offset its decline over the decade. “Participation in wildlife watching (observing, feeding, and photographing wildlife) decreased from 76.1 million in 1991 to 62.9 million in 1996 (17%), but it increased to 66.1 million from 1996 to 2001 (5%),” according to the survey. That is a ten million decrease over the decade! That was preceded by a similar decrease in participants in both five year surveys the decade before. Nothing has faired worse than wildlife watching in the past two decades, since 1980. Before 1980 wildlife watching was not surveyed. Overall “the number of wildlife watching participants who took trips away from home to observe, feed, or photograph wildlife decreased nineteen percent from 1980 to 2001. The number of people who fed wildlife around their home decrease by eighteen percent.” (2001 National Survey Summary of Findings) Wildlife observing and photographing decreased by five percent in 1996 and thirteen percent in 2001. The component of wildlife watching that increased in 1996 was residential wildlife watching while feeding wildlife and visiting parks maintained their 1996 participation levels. Watching wildlife at one’s residence is the “preeminent type of wildlife watching,” but does little to support America’s wildlife conservation system. 

The longer trends of hunting and fishing should also not be ignored. From 1955 to 2001, hunting (all kinds) increased thirty-one percent (31%) and big game hunting more than tripled. Angling increased by one hundred thirty-percent (130%) during the same period. 

Sportsmen and women also remain the paradigm because they pay the bills. The perception that wildlife watching is ushering in a new conservation era has proven dead wrong for two decades. Even the Teaming With Wildlife campaign of our state agencies would have placed the greatest burden on sportsmen and women. Some agencies have lost sight of the fact that they are wildlife agencies, not tourist bureaus. They are spending sportsmen’s dollars to lure general tourist into the states. Those general tourists contribute little to wildlife conservation and add to management costs. Those added costs are political as well as financial. Their prejudices, biases, and urban beliefs pose problems. 

From 1996 to 2001 nonresidential wildlife photography declined twenty-two percent (22%), nonresidential observing of wildlife decline twelve percent (12%) and nonresidential wildlife feeding declined twenty-nine percent (29%). The declines over the full decade from 1991 to 2001 were 30, 34,and 47 percent, respectively. Even visiting public parks and areas in one’s own state of residence was down 29 percent from 1991-2001.