Lost in the holiday fog and the lead-up to the 2020 presidential primaries was a consequential change to the way state wildlife agencies are funded. Called the Pittman-Robertson Modernization Act, it provides an allowance that your state game agency can use funds from federal excise taxes on guns, ammunition, and archery products to promote hunting. President Trump signed it into law just before the new year.
If that sounds underwhelming, consider that previously these excise tax funds (called Pittman-Robertson funds or P-R dollars) could be used only for approved wildlife-management purposes. That fund—and all the guns, ammo, and arrows that we hunters and shooters have paid into it—is partly responsible for the wildly successful wildlife restoration work that we routinely celebrate. It’s why we have deer and antelope and turkeys to hunt.
But you’ve likely heard that there’s one species that isn’t thriving. It’s the American hunter, who is getting older and fewer in number as the years go by. The issue is that unlike the elk or ducks we hunt we’re not doing a good job of population recruitment—ensuring that at least as many new hunters enter the arena every year as exit it.
Hopefully, that dynamic will change with these changes to agency funding and the manifold work that’s being focused on the issue. Already, a few imaginative efforts are underway to bring more hunters into the fold and to retain the hunters who are already regular (or semi-regular) license-buyers. You can expect to see more of these campaigns over the next couple years as agencies add marketing and outreach efforts to their established wildlife-management, law-enforcement, and hunter-education duties.
Here are a few examples of the work that aims to achieve the three Rs of the R3 program: hunter recruitment, hunter retention, and hunter reactivation, or convincing lapsed hunters to become regular license-buying participants in hunting seasons.
One of the strengths of our system of wildlife management is that the population that pays the bills for biologists, habitat conservation, and even recreational access in America is mainly hunters. But that system only works as long as the number of hunters keeps pace with needs. The system fails when hunter numbers decline or begin paying less for conservation.
The “leakage” in the system is that while we’re the ones paying for conservation, the funds we pay also benefit songbirds, wetland amphibians, and the whole spectrum of other critters—not to mention clean water and healthy landscapes where wildlife thrive that also benefit the non-hunting public.
Wildlife managers have tried for years to expand the base of funding in America. While hunters and shooters gladly pay extra for all the benefits we receive from state and federal agencies, other outdoor recreationists, including birdwatchers, hikers, and mountain climbers, have been reluctant to pay their own excise tax or even special-use licenses.
Kentucky has a solution to this user-pays dilemma. The state’s Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources this year launched a separate member-based digital community that educates and involves Kentuckians about the natural world and species that are not hunted, trapped, or fished. Called “Kentucky Wild,” members pay a subscription (costs range anywhere from $25 to $1,000) to be involved in the agency’s non-game work. Their membership “premium” is information about non-game management and invitations to participate in field work.
“As Kentucky’s population grows and the landscape changes, all wildlife face new challenges,” the department declares in its introduction to the program. “Income from hunting and fishing licenses is simply not enough to keep pace with the challenges our wildlife face.”
The solution: apply the same sound scientific management principles that have guided fish-and-wildlife management to non-game species and habitats. “Wildlife belongs to all of us,” says Kentucky Wild, including the 90 percent of wildlife that aren’t hunted or fished. Proceeds from Kentucky Wild memberships will fund survey and monitoring projects, purchase research equipment, and enhance habitats.
Pennsylvania’s Game Commission is among the most active agencies in the nation when it comes to thinking expansively about how to reach hunters.
“With over 800,000 licensed hunters in the Keystone State, we operate from a position of strength and yet are not immune from the same issues that are affecting hunting participation nationwide,” said Derek Stoner, Pennsylvania’s Hunter Outreach coordinator. Among the programs the Game Commission has pioneered was a first-ever female-only Hunter Education course offered at the sprawling Great American Outdoor Show in Harrisburg and a very well-received mentored deer hunt on the nation’s first urban wildlife refuge.
The hunt, which took place last fall on the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in urban Philadelphia in partnership with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Quality Deer Management Association, connected experienced mentors with first-time hunters. The idea was to introduce hunting into a controlled environment and to manage an overpopulation of whitetails on the refuge, which is hemmed in by the Philadelphia airport and Interstate 95. Prior to the hunt, the commission hosted archery and bowhunting activities at the refuge, then drew 20 names from a pool of more than 100 applicants for spots in the hunt. Over eight days of hunting, all participants had shot opportunities, and 12 deer were killed with crossbows. Stoner says the effort will guide additional hunting opportunities this fall in suburban state parks.
It’s not just hosted hunting opportunities that are turning the tide in Pennsylvania. The state reversed its decades-long ban on Sunday hunting last year and changed the season opener from a weekday to a weekend in order to boost participation. The result, according to Brian Burhans, the director of the Game Commission, was license sales are up, including the percentage of sales to women of all ages.
As state agencies look to build more constituents for their services, industry folks are redoubling their efforts to build new customers and retain existing hunters and shooters. You’ve probably seen some of those efforts, even if you didn’t recognize the intention behind them.
Take the way manufacturers package and promote ammunition. A couple years ago, Federal Premium Ammunition examined the way that its ammunition was sold and realized that the terminology to a new shooter or hunter could be confusing enough to thwart a sale. Few new hunters understand enough about shot size, equivalents of gunpowder, and even the length of a shell to make a knowledgeable purchase.
“Federal has recently completed a packaging rebrand which has added clear messaging to allow the consumer to easily determine which load they seek for certain species,” said Jon Zinnel, manager of Federal Premium’s Conservation and Youth Shooting Sports. “The new packaging includes a silhouette of the species the ammunition is most likely intended to be used for—for instance, deer, elk, turkey, or ducks.”
Zinnel is a Federal Premium representative to a number of boards and commissions dedicated to solving the hunter-recruitment issue, but he said the company’s commitment to bringing along a new generation of hunters and shooters extends beyond meeting rooms to product development.
“When our engineers and teams begin the planning process for new products, they’re thinking about recruitment of new hunters and retention of existing hunters and shooters,” Zinnel said. “The Tungsten Super Shot for turkey hunting is a good example. It allows for the use of sub-gauge shotguns to ethically harvest turkeys. These guns allow younger, smaller-framed, and new shooters the chance to shoot a lethal turkey load with a lighter-weight shotgun and less recoil—all considerations that should allow them to have a more positive experience in the field.”
REEVALUATING THE VALUE PROPOSITION OF LICENSES
A number of states are rethinking what it means to be a hunting or fishing license purchaser. What do you get for the license fee besides a carcass tag and the allowance to pursue game during designated seasons?
You get an exclusive membership in an organization with traditions, rites of passage, special dispensations, and exclusive offers, said Jenifer Wisniewski, communications and outreach chief for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Tennessee worked with private-sector partners to expand the value perception of a license and is working with neighboring Alabama to cross-market the value proposition of a hunting and fishing license in both jurisdictions.
Similarly, Oklahoma is working to increase the sales of its lifetime licenses as a way to retain customers but also to diversify funding for the agency. Because funds for lifetime licenses are usually paid at one time and in a lump sum, the agency is able to create a trust fund with these license dollars and then use interest for program fulfillment.
So which of these efforts is working, and how long will they need to run before we can adequately evaluate their success? That’s a question many R3 coordinators are considering, but Samantha Pedder, the director of business development for the influential Council to Advance Hunting and Shooting Sports, said that looking only at the number of licenses sold tells only part of the story.
“In the long run, the number of licenses generated aren’t the only metrics that matter,” she said. “It also matters if those new recruits find their fit in the American hunting culture. It might not be your or my culture specifically, but one measure of success is that they find their own fit and embrace it. Our goal is to have them stay, bring new people with them, and ultimately value the wild resources as other generations of hunters have done before them.”