People & Places

Margolis: Why hunting and fishing are giving way to Wi-Fi and channel surfing

Deer trophies in Chelsea. VTD/Josh Larkin

Deer trophies in Chelsea. VTD/Josh Larkin

Who’s fault is it that the Department of Fish & Wildlife needs more than another million bucks to get through the fiscal year?

Yours, you sedentary bum. Get off your duff, get away from that wretched computer, and get outdoors.

OK, that’s both unfair and oversimplified. Don’t feel guilty.

But unfair and oversimplified does not mean entirely wrong. And because the allegation is not entirely wrong, the apparently mundane request for more money from F&W Commissioner Patrick Berry is not so mundane. It’s a warning about the future. It’s also an indication that Americans – and yes, that includes Vermonters – may not be the people they think they are.

F&W needs the money largely because revenue from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses was below expectations, Berry said. Some of the shortfall stemmed from recent peculiarities – the weather, the flooding, the snowy late winter that killed enough deer to discourage some would-be hunters.

But there’s another, more basic, trend here: Even in Vermont, where hunting and fishing seem central to the local culture, not as many people fish and hunt as in the past. “We were issuing about 125,000 hunting licenses a year back in the ’80s,” Berry said. “Last year it was about 80,000.”

If this trend continues – and it probably will – hunting and fishing might end up being peripheral to the local culture. Not that the hullabaloo and hype attending the 16-day November buck season is likely to vanish any time soon. But in a decade or so, it might have become a shadow of its former self.

Elsewhere in the country, the decline in hunting and fishing is even steeper. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, from 1991 to 2006, the number of anglers fell from almost 36 million people to less than 30 million, while the hunting population dropped from 14 million to 12.5 million.

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These national results affect F&W’s budget. Like its counterparts in other states, it gets a share of the federal excise on the sales of hunting and fishing equipment. As fewer Americans hunt and fish, these revenues fall.

(Well, not always. Some folks buy guns for reasons other than hunting. After the 2008 elections, gun and ammunition sales – and the ensuing excise tax revenue – spiked because some people believed reports that President Barack Obama wanted to take away their guns. That this belief was totally bonkers apparently rendered it no less influential).

Despite the insistence of some hunters and anglers – and despite their best efforts to generate interest in their pastimes – there’s no reason to think that the decline in fishing and hunting will stop. More likely, for the reasons outlined below, it will accelerate, posing a real fiscal problem for state conservation agencies.

Commissioner Berry and Game Warden Greg Eckhardt on the Lake Bomoseen ice. Photo by Dennis Jensen.

Commissioner Berry and Game Warden Greg Eckhardt on the Lake Bomoseen ice. Photo by Dennis Jensen.

It already is, Berry said.

“Every state is trying to handle this issue,” Berry said, noting that two states have allocated a small percentage of their sales tax revenues to their wildlife departments. “There is certainly a lot of thinking going on about how to create a more stable funding mechanism.”

But Americans aren’t just doing less just hunting and fishing. In general, and perhaps contrary to popular belief, Americans seem to be spending less time outdoors, at least in pursuit of what is commonly regarded as “outdoor recreation.”

Between 2004 and 2007 (the latest figures available), visits to the national forests dropped from 204.8 million to 178.6 million, a 13 percent decline. In the national parks, visitation rose 3.9 percent in 2009, to 285 million. But that was still below the 287.2 million in 1987, when the population was somewhat smaller. Many states report similar declines in park use, especially among hikers, back-packers and anglers.

There are a few obvious reasons for these trends, and some not so obvious. Americans are older, leading inevitably to a net decline in physical energy. More precisely, white, Anglo Americans are older, and the traditional outdoor recreations – hiking, camping out, canoeing, skiing, even hunting and fishing – have not been as central in the subcultures of the African-American and Latino communities, which are increasingly urban.

Actually, everybody is increasingly urban, or perhaps suburban. Either way, only 16 percent of Americans live in rural areas, which is where many young people learn to hunt and fish at an early age. Even that 16 percent overstates the case; many rural residents are retirees or other refugees from metropolitan life who did not grow up in rural areas.

Furthermore, outdoor recreation has gotten more expensive. Back in the mid-’90s, Congress allowed federal public land managers to charge fees for certain “amenities.” So in some national forests, hikers who park their cars at a trailhead have to leave money in an envelope deposited in a box. Some decide they can’t afford it. Others rebel, believing that with their taxes they have already paid for the resource.

One possible solution for the funding problem is to put the license and excise tax revenue into the General Fund and appropriate money to F&W as to any other agency. The non-hunting/angling taxpayer majority might complain, but hunters and anglers have been subsidizing those taxpayers for years. The department deals with conservation of non-game species and their habitat, also, doing, as Berry said, “an awful lot of work that benefits every Vermonter.”

But this outcome appears unlikely. Taxpayers might still complain, and so would the organized sportsman community. The department, if funded out of general revenue, would no longer be “theirs.” It would be everybody’s, diminishing the clout of the rod and gun clubs.

Hunters walk alongside a corn field in Derby Line.

Hunters walk alongside a corn field in Derby Line.

This doesn’t mean there’s nothing Vermont can do to increase license revenues. The two big reasons for the decline in hunting, Berry said, are age and loss of hunting habitat through both development and the increase in posted land.

“When hunters don’t have access,” Berry said, some “hang up their shotguns.”

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Most of the recently posted land, he said, is owned by newcomers and out-of-state landowners who seem not to share Vermont’s traditional respect for hunting. All this posting may not be wise land management.

With the extirpation of the catamount and the wolf in these parts, the hunter (well, along with the occasional motorist) is the only deer predator left. Areas with lots of posted land could end up with too many deer, and become over-browsed. In today’s Vermont, Berry said, hunters are a vital tool “in the proper management of the wildlife population.”

If more people understood this, fewer might post their land. Better farming and logging practices could revive some of the trout streams which have become degraded over the years because of erosion from denuded forest hillsides and pollution from fertilizer runoff. Better fishing opportunities would lead to more people fishing.

So how is any of this your fault?

Well, there’s another reason for the decline in hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities. There’s all that competition – most of it indoors and electronic – for recreation time and money. At least some young people seem to prefer the “virtual” challenges of computer games to the actual challenge of trying to fool a trout or camping out in the back country. Some prefer pastimes with no challenge at all – hanging out at the mall, channel surfing.

It’s no doubt premature to pronounce America a nation of couch potatoes and computer nerds. But it’s not premature to wonder – perhaps even to suspect – that such is the case. In this Wi-Fi’d world, more people do seem to be spending much of their spare time texting, messaging, streaming and surfing.

Yes, that includes you. So (now that you have finished reading this article), get out from behind that infernal computer. Go outside. Not much to hunt or fish right now, and not even enough snow to snowshoe through. But split a few logs. Take a walk in the woods. Check out the forests and streams for their potential in the coming year. It’ll be good for you.

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Jon Margolis

About Jon

Jon Margolis is the author of "The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964." Margolis left the Chicago Tribune early in 1995 after 23 years as Washington correspondent, sports writer, correspondent-at-large and general columnist. He was previously the Albany Bureau Chief for Newsday and has also been a reporter for the Bergen Record in Hackensack, N.J.; the Miami Herald and the Concord Monitor (N.H.). A native of New Jersey, Margolis graduated from Oberlin College in 1962. He served in the U.S. Army.

Email: [email protected]

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