Our Take On The Decline of Waterfowl Hunters – It’s Real

By Travis Thompson

By now, everyone has seen this piece from Delta Waterfowl.

If you haven’t, it’s definitely worth a download and read.  I’ll wait here if you want to knock it out, but make sure you come back.

A Lot of takes are being bandied about the internet right now.  I’ll also give you a moment to read Cyrus Baird’s take on the situation . . . Cyrus is the Programs Director at the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sport, and knows his way around Policy and Conservation . . .

I’ll also allow for one of the spokesmen among waterfowl guides, Tony Vandemore, to offer his 2 cents here . . .

At this point, if you’re not suffering from information overload, let’s dive in and see if we can make heads or tails about what this means . . .

Are There Really Less Hunters?

Yes.  This is not #fakenews.  I spend a fair amount (read: too much) time on waterfowl forums and groups, and I’m amazed by how much this FACT is disparaged.

Simply put, just because you’re seeing more hunters vying for the lands you hunt does not necessarily mean there are more hunters.

The numbers do not lie – in 1970, there were over 2 million duck hunters in the US.  In 2015, there were less than a million.  I realize it may seem like that million were all at your boat ramp, but what you’re seeing isn’t an actual representation of what’s happening.

Overcrowding is real

This is what I (and many of my peers) have experienced.  There are limited places to hunt, which means even though there are less hunters, they’re vying for MUCH LESS habitat.

This leads to the perception that Duck Dynasty and Social Media have ruined your lake or field.  In reality, liability lawyers, inconsiderate hunters, private companies, and suburban sprawl have ruined your lake or field.

The days of property owners allowing hunters to use their property for affordable prices and a firm handshake have gone.  The few that are willing to embrace the liability risk are looking for compensation commensurate with the risk, which puts this land outside the fiscal abilities of many waterfowlers.

Without access to huntable habitat, newer hunters are more likely to get discouraged and move to other pursuits.

In South Florida, where many of my hunts occur, quality hunts on public land are very hard to come by.  The State offers several quota areas, but these typically require a Master’s Degree in Technology as well as ownership of several Leprechauns just to enter the sweepstakes.  For the most hardcore of waterfowler’s, these are just part of the bumps and bruises that come with the opportunity.  For newbies, this can be foreboding at best, maddening at worst.

So why aren’t my license/stamp dollars providing me with more access?

This is a hard question.

Federal Duck Stamps are bound to a law that requires 98 cents out of every dollar be spent on habitat preservation.  According to the Delta article, there were 50 million visits to National Wildlife Refuges last year, 2.43 million of which were for waterfowling.

According to the National Wildlife Refuge’s own website, this program (Duck Stamps) have produced over $800 million which has been allocated to set aside “over 6 million acres of wetland habitat” . . .

Pause.

Based on this data (this is the author speaking), there are 6 million acres of wetland habitat set aside, and (nationally) less than 1 million duck hunters.  And there’s an access problem?

Unpause.

Yes.  I understand the implications of rest areas and sanctuaries.  I also know that all 1 million of those hunters were not restricted to public land only, and that not all of them were hunting on every available day of the season.  Just making an observation about the math.  One that I’m sure is at the crux of the public outcry of “what do you mean there are less hunters!”

Let’s continue.

As we’ve delved deeper into this issue, I stumbled across these minutes from The Federal Duck Stamp Task Force meeting in September of 2015.  You’re welcome to dig through them at your leisure (bring coffee), but here is something interesting I extrapolated from their reports:

Wait.  First – the FDSTF is made up of a cross section of members representing various interests, including Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy, USFWS, and several policy makers from notable flyway states.  Okay.  Back to what I found interesting:

Beginning on page 26 of these meeting minutes, you’ll find a survey where actions are scored and then prioritized.

Only the top 15 items are addressed in the recommendations portion.  I’ll cut to the quick and let you know that “Importance to waterfowl hunting access if stamps used for land” is priority #9.

Meaning there are 8 things prioritized above access.

Moving on.

Why would I want more duck and goose hunters?

You do.  Trust me.

Tony Vandemore goes into detail about the death of a heritage in his post, and he’s right, but that’s not the only reason.

To me, the biggest reason is actually hidden amongst the previous 800 or so words.  You want more hunters because they stand with you in protecting your interests.

Perhaps even more importantly, they stand with you in protecting the waterfowl itself.

Set aside for a moment the public access issues – the simple fact is that there are more waterfowl than at any point in recent history.  The indisputable reason there are more waterfowl is because of waterfowl hunters.  National and local non-profits, Federal duck stamp sales, State license sales – much of this money is poured back into the ducks.  That’s why there are so many of them.

We need more hunters because without them, what does the waterfowl population look like in 20 years.  This is not a short game.  This is a stewardship issue.

Baird and Delta talk about recruitment of new waterfowler’s being a necessity.  Mention this on any public forum or Facebook group and you’ll be met with scoffs and “that’s just what we need” . . .

I get it.

I’m out there every day, in it.  Working my ass off to produce for my clients.  But I see the problem.  And it’s only going to get worse unless people stand up.

Rather than grumble about skybusters and inconsiderate setting up too close, why not have a real conversation?  Why not take young or new hunters under your wing to show them the right way to do this, to allow birds to work, to appreciate what we do have.

There’s this crazy analogy.

My kids are school aged.  My daughter is now 17, and my son is 11.  And I want them in the best education possible.

When it comes time to vote, I always feel like it’s important to vote for a candidate who will build great schools.  Schools where every kid is valued and education is exceptional and kids come out as scholars.

But I can’t wait for them to fix my kids’ schools.  So when an opportunity arises at a magnet or charter, I jump.  Because every kid is important, but mine are more important, because they’re mine . . .

I’m not alone.

The point is, we all want great duck hunting.  We all want access.  And by keeping newbies and rookies on the sidelines, we’re ensuring our hunt.  We’ll get the best.

Meanwhile, less people are showing up.  Funding for the Ducks Unlimiteds and the Deltas and NWR’s will begin to slip.  There are a ton of ducks now, but what happens in a dry year, or when a disease hammers a species.  Who makes the sacrifice to ensure this resource is here for our kids and grandkids?

We do.

I want to quickly go back to the meeting minutes about prioritization of Federal Duck Stamp funds.  Any guesses on where “How important is the task of identifying initiatives/actions to use the Federal Duck Stamp to support hunter recruitment and retention” showed up on the priority matrix?

Thirtieth.

Out of 35.

Decisions are made by those who show up.  Join your local non-profit(s).  Attend Wildlife Commission meetings.  Voice your concerns.  And enjoin the next generation on your hunts.

This is our chance, our opportunity, to bring waterfowlers into the fold and teach them the correct way to enjoy our sport. It may seem counterintuitive to some, but the data doesn’t lie.

Because, ultimately, Vandemore was right:

“The glory days are indeed now, but this article doesn’t paint a very pretty picture for the future.  Obviously, the less hunters we have, the less people we have pulling for our sport.  This makes it that much easier for our heritage, that of which our fathers, grandfathers, great grandfathers have taught us – that of which has been going on since the beginning of time – to be altered, or bypassed altogether.”

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