End of the line

Blog Post - New Years Eve

Sport hunting has been in decline throughout my lifetime, and its demise is not long away. For those who live in an urban society and culture, sport hunting is increasingly more expensive and time consuming, an activity made more and more difficult because of decreasing opportunities, disappearance of places to hunt, and the competition of less demanding and more easily accessible entertainments.

End of the line

Decades from now, after guiding their doddering old Great-Grandpa Coot through the hallways of their elementary school building, my great-grandchildren will steady my walker and help me into a comfortably padded seat at the front of their classroom. I will have been invited to speak to students, in the style of the Foxfire oral history memoirists, about a curious cultural phenomenon that was widely practiced in the long-ago days of my youth but has vanished in the 21st century: sport hunting.

Some of the questions posed by students will be awkward, perhaps even painful, to answer.

Q. “You kept hunting dogs in kennels so that you could use them to hunt pheasants?”

A. “Yes, and quail and grouse and woodcock and other game birds. But my dogs were in my house more than in their kennels.”

Q. “You hunted deer with a bow and arrows, like the prehistoric Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota?”

A. “Sort of. But they were much better hunters. I used a compound bow, which I wanted to show you. But I wasn’t allowed to bring it into the school.”

Q. “So you killed animals, and ate them?”

A. “Yes. Wild game was a regular part of our meals.”

Q. “Ewwww! What did it taste like?”

A. “It tasted much better than the meat you get at McDonald’s.”

Then the most discomfiting questions of all.

Q. “Did your children hunt? Do any of your grandchildren or great-grandchildren hunt?”

A. “No, they don’t. A dozen generations of my family hunted, first for subsistence and then for sport. But I’m the end of the line. After me, there were no more hunters.”

That scenario is probably too far-fetched. Hunting will still be a viable outdoor sport fifty years from now, but in all likelihood it will be a pastime of the wealthy, a recreation pursued on pay-to-hunt game farms, fly-in hunts to remote wilderness areas, or guided hunting excursions to distant places on the globe. Remnant populations of wild animals, some would say token populations, will be maintained through careful management by government agencies or private entrepreneurs, and the expensive shooting permits required to hunt them will be purchased by the affluent, much like the hunting lodges and preserves of Europe or the trophy big game safaris in Africa today.

Sport hunting has been in decline throughout my lifetime, and its demise is not long away. For those who live in an urban society and culture, sport hunting is increasingly more expensive and time consuming, an activity made more and more difficult because of decreasing opportunities, disappearance of places to hunt, and the competition of less demanding and more easily accessible entertainments.

If someone had told me, fifty years ago, that golfers would soon outnumber hunters two-to-one, I would have been incredulous. This year, about 30 million people will play golf, more than twice the number of hunters who will go afield.

That number of hunters, 14.5 to 15 million, does not at first glance appear to be a species headed for extinction, but consider the significant decline in the percentage of the population that hunts.

In 2015, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the total population of the United States was about 321,500,000. About 14.8 million people last year bought at least one hunting license, permit, or tag, according to data compiled by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The current percentage of hunters in the population is therefore about 4.6 percent.

In 1965, fifty years ago, the total population of the United States was about 194,300,000 people. About 14.3 million people bought hunting licenses, permits, or tags that year: 7.3 percent.

Even in my North Country home state of Iowa, where hunting is more a part of the culture than in more populous and urban states, the numbers are startling. In 1965, about 311,000 of Iowa’s 2.74 million residents were hunters: 11.3 percent. In 2015, there were about 220,000 hunters among a total population of 3.12 million: 7.0 percent.

Other states where I hunt are experiencing smaller declines. South Dakota seems to buck the trend of decreased numbers of hunters: 163,477 in 1965 (23.6 percent of its total population of 692,000) compared to 244,182 in 2015 (28.8 percent of its population of 859,000), an increase of almost 81,000. But I note that South Dakota’s sales of non-resident tags, permits and stamps jumped from 48,295 in 1965 to 138,034 in 2015, up more than 89,000, so the gain in numbers over the past fifty years may be attributed to the state’s success in marketing and advertising to out-of-state hunters rather than the growing interest of South Dakota residents.

Minnesota, where the hunting tradition and culture is strong, has gone through a lesser decline. In 1965, there were 425,400 hunters among a population of 3.59 million people: 11.8 percent. Fifty years later, when total population had grown to about 5.49 million, there were about 592,124 hunters: 10.7 percent.

Nationally, the slow decrease in the number of hunters and the sharp decline in the percentage of people who hunt are exacerbated by societal trends that promote participation in “urban” sports (golf, tennis, bowling, volleyball, soccer, softball, bicycling, etc.) and discourage participation in hunting. Anecdotally, anyone who has tried in recent years to gain permission to hunt on private property will attest to the difficulty of finding places to hunt, and the ever-increasing price of hunting licenses, stamps, permits, travel, and equipment makes a golfing weekend appear more rewarding in regard to time and money spent.

There is also a growing disassociation with the blood sports. I seldom encounter anyone with a staunch anti-hunting attitude, but I frequently meet outdoor sports enthusiasts who simply have no interest in hunting. Not all the blood sports are losing participants; the number of people who fly fish continues to grow. But you cannot “catch and release” a whitetail deer or a ring-necked pheasant, and compared to hooking trout from state-operated fish hatcheries the appropriateness of shooting pen-raised game birds (let alone big game animals) is questionable – even for me.

My casual observation is that hunters, as a group, are getting significantly older, aging out of the sport. A 2009 report by the National Shooting Sports Foundation does not support this observation, stating that the age of people who buy hunting licenses increased only slightly over the four-year period 2005-08, from about age 41 to age 42. But if that trend has continued, the average age of hunters is now about 44, and I do not see a flock of youngsters being brought up in families with hunting histories and traditions.

This all bodes ill for the future of hunting, as my generation has known it. Over the course of the next quarter century sport hunting may wither away and become a curious relic of America’s history, like flights in biplanes at the county fair or cattle round-ups on dude ranches.

On the other hand, as a curiosity I may be of much greater interest to my great-grandchildren. Bringing an Old Coot to school for “show and tell” could enhance their reputation as descendents of an eccentric family and at the same time get me out of the nursing home for a day.

Q.  “When was the last time you hunted?

A. “This morning. I hunted an hour for my eyeglasses. Bagged a pair and then took a nap.”

In the meantime, my dogs and I will keep at it as long as our aging bodies are able.


More stories about wildlife, outdoor ventures, hunting, fishing, and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition at the North Country bookstore Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.

About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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2 Responses to End of the line

  1. Mike Rainone says:

    Have hope. You never know when an aberrant gene will pop up. My son-in-law, raise in the urban jungle of Royal Oak, Mi. by a father who only hunted the VC as a Marine and never picked up a weapon to shoot anything after that, is an avid hunter in Montana. He simply picked it up on his own in a place that is very hunter friendly. He is already teaching my grandsons to shoot and hunt. I think that the real issue is locale. Here in Texas everything is lease hunting and I am sure that discourages those non hunters by tradition from picking up the sport. So if you want to blame something for the demise of hunting, blame greed.

  2. Jessie says:

    I was trying to compose a slightly witty response involving carrying population of wild areas in terms of hunters and being thankful that many people choose urban living… but I just don’t have it in me today.

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