Why hunting's on the wane

A successful deer hunt is actually a huge hassle

My kids, along with many of their rural Minnesota peers, enjoyed a half school day on Friday followed by a day off on Monday. The reason? The start of the state’s deer hunting season, and an acknowledgement that if they don’t shut down many kids (and teachers) will simply end up skipping class anyway.

Hunting’s a big deal around here. In the weeks leading up to the season opener the hills ring with rifle blasts from the local shooting range as hunters dial their gear in. Drive through town during the season, which typically runs for an extended week near the beginning of November, and you’ll see dudes in camo and blaze orange running around everywhere and deer carcasses strung up from trees in many of the yards. In addition to the regular rifle hunt there are dedicated seasons for archery and black powder shooting, as well as a special hunting period for kids as young as 10. The front page of last week’s Red Lake Falls Gazette was given over to photos of ruddy-faced elementary schoolers beaming with their first kills.

But we’re something of an outlier on that front: nationwide, hunting is on the decline as new generations turn toward other outdoor pursuits, like hiking, team sports and Pokemon Go.

Quick look at the numbers: each year the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service tallies hunter permit data from all 50 states to get a sense of how many hunters there are. The implied number of hunters — around 15 million each year — hasn’t changed much since the 1970s even as the overall population has risen by more than 50 percent. As a result fewer than 5 percent of Americans now typically hunt in a given year. Back in the early 1960s that number was up closer to 8 percent.

These numbers are also a bit of an overcount — they’re tallied at the state level, and avid hunters who get permits in several states will show up in these figures multiple times. Separate survey data by FWS has found that the actual number of annual hunters might be closer to 11 million annually, and that as a group hunters are 90 percent male, 97 percent white with most being over age 45 — not exactly the demographic face of the future.

So what’s stopping younger generations from getting into it? If you’ve ever gone deer hunting you’ve probably got a pretty good idea already: a successful hunt is actually giant pain in the ass. If all goes well you’ll find yourself in the middle of the wilderness, probably thousands of yards away from the nearest road or car, with a large dead animal that weighs 150 pounds. You’ve typically gotta start taking its internal organs out immediately — “field dressing” it, in hunting parlance — to keep the meat from decomposing. It’s horribly messy and every bit as disgusting as it sounds.

Once you’ve field dressed your kill you’ve got to figure out a way to get the 100-pound carcass from the field to wherever it’s going to get chopped up for meat. Folks around here often use ATVs to bring their kills back to their pickups for transportation elsewhere. But what if you have neither an ATV nor a pickup? Are you going to drag the corpse all the way back to the road? Stuff it into the backseat of your Honda Civic to drip all over the upholstery?

Alas, your work has only just begun. You still have to remove the hide, head and lower leg sections — backbreaking work requiring saws and large blades. Then you’ve got to properly butcher the rest, separating meat from bone and turning the remainder of the body into cuts that are usable in the kitchen. You can pay someone to do all this work, of course, but the cost can run into the hundreds of dollars, yielding a price-per-pound of meat that may be comparable to buying steak at the grocery store.

The reward at the end, of course, is hard to beat — fresh, locally-sourced meat that you’ve provided for yourself, free of the ethical compromises of factory farms and the modern ag-industrial complex. But boy does it take an awful lot of work to get there. As a guy I know in town likes to say: “Hunting would be a lot of fun if it weren’t for the damn deer.”

Another way of putting this is that hunting, as a recreational activity, has a lot of infrastructure requirements: land, vehicles and specialized equipment. You also need a fair amount of human capital — folks who can tell you where to hunt and how to dress a deer, and who ideally can help you do those things. It takes a village. For a typical person living in the suburbs somewhere it’s a lot harder to start hunting than it is to take up, say, running, which basically just requires you to buy a pair of shoes and head out the door.

The decline in hunting is something of a challenge for conservationists, as taxes and fees from hunting licenses and permits pay for the upkeep of parks, wildlife management areas, and other public lands. A given tract of land, for instance, may be used by hunters, hikers, mountain bikers, campers, and other recreational groups. But hunters might be the only ones contributing financially to the stewardship of that land if nobody else is paying trail or use fees.

If current trends continue — and there’s no reason to suspect they won’t — states will have to get creative about how the fund public spaces in the coming decades.