By John W. Laundré

Laundré is in the biology department at Western Oregon University. He has studied cougars, wolves and coyotes in the U.S. and is the author of “Phantoms of the Prairie: Return of Cougars to the Midwest.”

Hunters are worried. This concern comes from the recent 2016 national survey of outdoor activity of Americans by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. What has hunters troubled is the continue decline in the number of hunters. Starting in 1996, this periodic survey shows the percent of hunters in the U.S. population dropping from 7% to a current 4.5%. Hunter numbers have gone from 13.9 million in 1996 to 11.4 million, an 18.4% decline. Most significantly, fewer young people between 16 and 24 years old are becoming hunters, declining from 2.1 to 1.2 million, a 42.9% drop. These numbers make hunters concerned.

Why are they worried? First there is the obvious financial concerns. Hunters spend billions of dollars ($26.2 in 2016) in support of wildlife through hunting them. Their math is simple, fewer hunters, fewer dollars in support of wildlife. What will happen to those poor animals if there are fewer people spending money trying to kill them??

However, more importantly, they rollout the myth that hunters know best about wildlife. Why? Because they spend more time than others (16 days a year) “out there” observing, learning how to kill wildlife. Their logic is simple, fewer hunters, fewer knowledgeable people being concerned with wildlife. What will happen to the poor animals if there are fewer people knowledgeable about how to kill them??

What they are insinuating is that fewer hunters mean Americans are losing touch with the natural world. We are less knowledgeable of nature. Less able to wisely manage wildlife.

But are we?

Unfortunately, hunters fail to consider another section in this report on outdoor activity, “wildlife watching.” People who go to watch wildlife without the intention of killing them! How many of them are there? Do they support wildlife with their spending? Do they learn about wildlife? Could they be knowledgeable enough to have a say in how wildlife are managed? Should they have a say?

The answer to the first questions is easy. The 2016 survey reports 86 million of us watch wildlife. This is 7.5 times more than there are hunters, represents 33.7% of the U.S. population, and is a 36.9% increase from 1996. This includes young people with 7.1 million of them, 5.6 times more than young hunters, and have increased by 49.4% since 1996!

Hunters need not worry, there are not fewer, but more Americans interested in wildlife! They are just more interested in observing them through binoculars rather than a rifle scope.

Do they support wildlife with their spending? In 2016, wildlife watchers spent $75.9 billion, almost three times more than hunters. This money directly supports parks and wildlife areas through fees and generates taxes to support agencies dedicated to protecting wildlife. Hunters need not be too concerned that fewer people are paying to kill wildlife. They are amply being replaced by those willing to pay to watch them…alive.

Are they learning about wildlife? In 2016, wildlife watchers spent an average 16 days in the field, the same amount as hunters. They not only observe wildlife but learn about the ecosystems in which wildlife live. Hunters need not be concerned that fewer hunters go afield to learn how to kill animals. They are amply being replaced by people learning not just about the animals but how nature works.

This is why I conclude that the hunters’ contention that we Americans are becoming less attached, less attuned to nature is indeed a myth. The binoculars are amply replacing the rifle scope and Americans are increasingly becoming more knowledgeable about nature.

Lastly: Should they have a say in how wildlife are managed?

Despite 20 years of data showing more of us wanting to see animals alive and paying considerably more for that opportunity, state game agencies remain hunter agencies, whose goal is to manage nature as the personal slaughterhouse of the 4.5% of us that hunt. Though we all own the wildlife, wildlife watchers are still marginalized. Agencies may dialog with us, pretend to listen but in the end ignore us. This has to change.

We, the other 95.5%, must demand that wildlife are managed, not just for the rifle scope but also for the binoculars. To do this, we need to demand that these agencies be primarily funded by reinvesting a small portion of the general funds wildlife watching generates. Only then will these agencies be truly responsive to all of the citizens of a state. Only then will the conservation of wildlife, not their management for hunting, be the dominate role of wildlife agencies.

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