MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Our next story is about a fading American tradition. New numbers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show that only 5 percent of Americans hunt. That's half of what it was 50 years ago. That drop is expected to accelerate as America changes and older hunters age out of the sport. And that's leading to a crisis in the way we pay for wildlife conservation. NPR's Nathan Rott has this look at the decline in hunting and its consequences.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Go to Wisconsin during deer hunting season and you'll still see gas stations decorated with blaze orange signs welcoming hunters. Driving down roads, you'll still see flashes of that blaze orange stalking across fields or climbing up into deer stands. But go into that gas station...
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JIM IRISH: $2.35.
ROTT: ...And ask Jim Irish about opening day when he came in early.
IRISH: Expecting a rush, I made a whole bunch of breakfast. And I really didn't sell anything.
ROTT: Go into a sporting goods store in northern Wisconsin and talk to Mitch Mode.
MITCH MODE: We don't sell as many boots. We don't sell as many blaze orange jackets as we did years ago.
ROTT: Or walk into one of the many remote hunting shacks dotting the rural center of the state and find someone like Tom Wrasse, who has a wall of fading photos showing how big the hunting parties out here used to be.
TOM WRASSE: I've tried to keep tradition going, but, no, they've all gone their separate ways.
ROTT: Do you think about that every time you drive up or is it just...
WRASSE: Oh, yeah.
ROTT: The reasons for the decline are many. More folks are living in cities than ever before. It's harder to find places to hunt. There are video games, all-consuming youth sports and Netflix to contend with. Meanwhile, the age of your average hunter...
KEITH WARNKE: Has got older and older and older and older.
ROTT: Keith Warnke, the hunting and shooting sports coordinator for the state of Wisconsin, would know.
WARNKE: I am your average hunter in Wisconsin - 50 years old, white male.
ROTT: Warnke, as he puts it, is a recovering biologist. So he tracks hunter demographics with the same intensity that he brought to tracking deer populations. Only now he uses ID numbers instead of ear tags.
WARNKE: So here are just some of the graphs and...
ROTT: And the data in front of him is pretty clear. Baby boomers hunted more than any other generation since, and now they're quickly aging out of the sport.
I mean, that line is pretty steady and...
WARNKE: Oh, yeah, that line is really steady. And it's expected. So we know there's going to be a decline in the number of hunters.
ROTT: A decline that's only expected to speed up over the next 10 years. Now, you might be listening to this and thinking, so what? I don't even like hunting. Maybe you find it morally wrong. Maybe you're one of the tens of millions of Americans who prefer to photograph wildlife or just see it while you hike, bike or float down a river. Well, the problem is that resource you're using, that trail or stream or the wildlife itself...
ERIC LOBNER: That's not funded by the purchase of a kayak or a paddleboard or a bike.
ROTT: Or in many cases the people doing those activities. This is Eric Lobner, by the way, the director of the wildlife division for Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources.
LOBNER: In many situations, the only individuals that really contribute to the management of a wildlife area are those people that are hunting or trapping, and some angling well.
ROTT: Let's take a quick second to break that down. While it's true that there are huge amounts of wildlife habitat on federal land, national parks and forests that we all pay for with our taxes, state wildlife areas like Lobner's talking about are just as important and generally free to the public. So if you go to one of those areas as a hiker, let's say, you can go on your hike, maybe see a deer or hear migrating birds, and that's not going to cost you anything outside of the gas money to get there and the worn tread on your shoes. Sure, you could always donate money, but you are not forced to pay anything.
A deer hunter, on the other hand, has to pay for a hunting license plus an excise tax of 11 percent on their rifle and ammunition, money that's earmarked for wildlife conservation efforts and state agencies like Lobner's. And that money adds up. Nationwide, state wildlife agencies, which manage tens of thousands of species, get about 60 percent of their annual budgets from hunting and fishing-related activities. Historically it's been far more.
LOBNER: So the issue really is that as the number of hunters declines, that revenue available to do conservation declines.
ROTT: And there's little relief coming from state legislatures already feeling a financial crunch. So cuts are having to be made.
LOBNER: Here with the Wisconsin DNR, over the last four years we've had to cut 16 different positions within our program.
ROTT: In Colorado, the state wildlife agency has cut back programs to deal with invasive species. In Wyoming, they're planting fewer trees.
MARY JEAN HUSTON: Conservationists need to be looking at, what is the next step to keep our conservation programs in places strong and healthy?
ROTT: Mary Jean Huston is the director of The Nature Conservancy here in Wisconsin. Now, what she's saying is the current funding model for wildlife conservation, which has been lauded as one of the most successful in the world, needs to change.
HUSTON: Things need to evolve.
ROTT: In some states that's happening - a handful of added sales taxes. Others have tapped lottery ticket sales to fund wildlife. Even Congress is looking at this with proposed bipartisan legislation that would bring in money from oil and gas revenues. But in most cases, it's hard to get voters or legislators excited about a new expense, so mostly states are doubling down and trying to get more hunters.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right, you guys ready?
ROTT: On a sunny, cold winter day, eight people in blaze orange fan out across frosty leaves into a wooded part of southern Wisconsin. They're here to hunt, but also to recruit. Emily Iehl and Beth Wojcik split off together, leaving a ridgetop trail to walk down a steep slope.
EMILY IEHL: This looks a little more open so that you might be able to get a shot.
BETH WOJCIK: More open?
ROTT: Iehl and Wojcik are friends from graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. As they settle into a spot, Wojcik looks a bit nervous. Iehl gives quick whispered words of advice. She has done this before.
IEHL: If it seems like it's going too fast, don't worry and don't try to shoot.
ROTT: Wojcik has taken a hunting class, but she has yet to pull the trigger on an animal. And sitting here, right hand on a rifle, she says she's still not sure that she wants to.
WOJCIK: So I'm actually a vegetarian. Studying wildlife ecology, though, I gained a better appreciation of how we're managing wildlife. And hunting is an effective way to do that.
ROTT: The meat, she says, she can always just give away to friends. The woods are mostly still. We settle in, watching the world wake up, as one of the hunters here likes to say. Then Iehl looks north. There's a distant crashing sound in the leaves.
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ROTT: Turns out the deer ran towards the hunters from our group posted up on the other side of the ridge. Two of them were on target. We pack up and hike out to meet the rest of the group. Hunter recruitment and mentorship programs like this exist all over the country, and in some places, they're having success keying in on the locavore movement and a renewed interest in wild meat. But it's not enough to stop the overall decline in hunting numbers. Here's Jim Wipperfurth, a volunteer in charge of this hunt who we meet up with at the top of the ridge.
JIM WIPPERFURTH: We're fighting the good fight, but I don't know. I think there's just so many factors involved that it's hard to just change it.
ROTT: So what does that mean for state wildlife agencies and the conservation efforts that depend on hunting for money? Wipperfurth says it means that other people are going to need to step up to the plate.
WIPPERFURTH: We all value the resource to different degrees. We - I mean, we put our money where our mouth is. We're involved. But, you know, for the general public, to get them to spend the money is the difficult part.
ROTT: They may value it in their mind, he says, but that doesn't mean they're willing to spend a dollar on it. Nathan Rott, NPR News.
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