Sitting in a blind surrounded by dense fog and the sound of feeding waterfowl is a feeling I will cherish till the day I die. Connecting with mother nature as a part of her, as a hunter and a gatherer is best way to truly understand and protect her.
I know I am not alone in my thinking, yet the world moves further and further from this truth each year. The lost connection with the land will come back to bite us all.
From Alaska to rural Alabama, the passion for hunting is still bright. You just have to look a little harder for it these days. A new survey by the USFWS shows that today, only about 5 percent of Americans, 16 years old and older, actually hunt. That's half of what it was 50 years ago and the decline is expected to increase over the next decade.
Meanwhile other wildlife-centered activities, like bird watching, hiking and photography, are rapidly growing, as American society and attitudes towards wildlife change. While it's positive that more people are venturing outside to experience nature, it's the shift in activity that's leading us down a dangerous and broken road.
When you ask a bird watcher where funding for wildlife conservation comes from, they'll probably tell you the government. Or perhaps they'll note conservation organizations as a whole, as if somehow all our local clubs push millions of dollars into wildlife health and monitoring surveys annually.
What they don't realize is that state wildlife agencies are the backbone of our country's wildlife conservation system, and they are heavily dependent on sportsmen for funding. year in and year out. Money generated from license fees and excise taxes on guns, ammunition and angling equipment provide about 60 percent of the funding for state wildlife agencies, which manage most of the wildlife in the U.S.
This user-play, user-pay funding system for wildlife conservation has been quietly funding wildlife conservation in the United States for decades and it's expanding around the world. It's this system that has been incredibly successful at restoring populations of North American game animals, some of which were once hunted nearly to extinction.
So if the program has worked so well over the years, what's the trouble?
It's the shift in user participation that has us worried. When one relies on something for basic life needs, they are more likely to learn it, study it, and protect it. If it's just a hobby, it comes and goes with the wind. There may be a deep and romantic love for something, but if it's not core to one's existence, it will always fall short of being a priority throughout one's life.
With the slide in hunting participation expected to speed up in the next 10 years, there's a growing sense of urgency in the wildlife conservation community to broaden the funding base. Funding must not only be significant, but it must be steady. Congress is looking at tapping oil and gas revenues. Some states are adding general sales taxes, while others are looking for ways to tweak the user-play, user-pay model to better represent how today's society interacts with wildlife, monetizing activities like wildlife-viewing.
Those efforts are running into a larger question: Is the greater public willing to pay more to protect wildlife?
In Alaska, non-consumptive users can already purchase a Conservation Stamp for $20, but sales figures are lack-luster at best. If one doesn't have a vested interest in the long-term conservation of local wildlife, they most likely won't step up to pay year after year.
In Wisconsin, a lack of funding has prompted the state's Department of Natural Resources to leave staff positions unfilled and cut back on habitat management. Colorado's wildlife agency has cut tens of millions of dollars in expenditures and trimmed programs that deal with invasive species. Vermont's fish and wildlife department, which manages more than 25,000 species and nearly 2,000 native plants, is cautioning that even though the state leads the nation in wildlife viewing, that activity "provides no significant revenue stream to the department that would allow for the management of the resources viewed."
A panel on sustaining America's fish and wildlife resources recently warned: "Without a change in the way we finance fish and wildlife conservation, we can expect the list of federally threatened and endangered species to grow from nearly 1,600 species today to perhaps thousands more in the future."
Increased urbanization, restricted access to huntable areas, lack of free time, and the rise of social media, video games and all-consuming youth sports are all dropping hunter numbers.
Another issue we're facing is the rising age of our hunting population. Nearly a third of all hunters in the U.S. are baby boomers. They hunted like no other generation since. But the oldest Boomers are already aging out of the sport and the youngest, at 54, are only about a decade away from joining them.
To fully understand the connection between hunting and conservation, you need to go back to when deer and geese weren't viewed a public nuisance, but as the rare wildlife they were.
In the late 1800s, American wildlife was in a bad place. Market hunting, trapping, invasive species and American's rapid expansion westward had pushed many wildlife species to the brink.
All of this over-hunting got the attention of a couple of other hunters – one who would go on to found the Audubon Society, another who would become the 26th and youngest president of the United States. George Bird Grinnell and Theodore Roosevelt, along with others like John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, helped establish the American conservation movement around the idea that wildlife and other natural resources, belong to all Americans – current and future. As such, they needed to be preserved or conserved.
The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, or the Pittman-Robertson Act, as it's more commonly known, requires that states use their revenues from hunting license fees for wildlife management. It also took an existing 11 percent excise tax on guns and ammunition and directed that money to state wildlife agencies for wildlife restoration and protection. A similar act was later passed to tax angling equipment. More than $19 billion has since been apportioned to state wildlife agencies from funds generated by those taxes.
To access those federally apportioned funds, states have to put up matching funds - 25 percent or more of the total they're looking to get back. No match, no money. As license sales wane, so do dollars needed for this match.
Many states have increased license fees for out-of-state hunters to compensate for the decrease in license sales, but Lobner says there's only so far you can raise fees before you start pricing people out.
Nobody could anticipate 100 years later what society would look like. I think we can all agree that through our lifetime, we have observed issues rise and wane when it comes to importance or a sense of urgency. This swinging pendulum is ever present in the world of conservation. It doesn't have to be all or nothing though. It's in all of us to work towards some sense of middle ground.
The good news is that public support for hunting remains high across the country, even with fewer people participating. Public support for wildlife conservation is even higher.
Nationally, 74 percent of Americans believe the country should "do whatever it takes to protect the environment," according to the Pew Research Center.
But in most cases outside of hunting and fishing, that's not being translated into dollars. So what's the answer?
The two options we have is to go back to the hand that feeds us and double down on hunters with programs to retain hunters, reactivate those who have quit the sport and to recruit new hunters. The other option is to look for ways to increase the ranks, find new hunters that don't fit the traditional mold by advertising to women, in urban areas, and beyond.
In most states, new Becoming an Outdoors Woman programs are popping up offering classes from marksmanship, to archery, general hunting, field dressing, dutch oven and more. In other, there are free classes on college campuses, teaching hunter's safety and hands on butchering clinics, with the goal of capitalizing on the locavore movement and a renewed interest in wild meat.
If we fail to increase hunter numbers, it's not just the loss of a sport or a revenue source we're trying to stop, it's the loss of conservation, tradition and a connection to the natural world. You can watch all the birds you want on your lunch hour, but if you don't have a core underlying connection to the birds or their habitat - history show's that you'll do little to protect it for the long-term.
We're the only people that actually go to sit in the woods for the entire day, or week. If hunting didn't exist, who'd know that the squirrel population is down, that a windstorm knocked all these trees down, or that coyote numbers are down in one area but bustling in another? You can rely on various government or volunteer programs to track these things if you want.
Me, I choose to rely on hunters for most of my day to day knowledge about what's going on out there. The ones out here seeing all of it, and talking about why it's happening because it means something to us.
The latest numbers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show that 86 million Americans participated in wildlife watching in 2016. That was a 20 percent increase from just five years previous. The number of people enjoying outdoor recreation is increasing as well.
I agree we all need to work together for the long term, but for right now - don't forget who funds the sheep surveys, the transplant programs or the habitat renewal projects. It's hunters.
"Wildlife conservation has been at its strongest when hunters and non-hunters are allied together for wildlife," says Adena Rissman, an associate professor of forest and wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin. The passage of the Lacey Act, the nation's first - and perhaps most powerful - wildlife protection law is a good example, Rissman says. It prohibits the trade of wildlife, fish and plants that have been taken illegally.
A similar collaborative effort is needed to address the funding issues of today. If we don't find a way to keep wildlife dollars flowing, we won't have eyes on the ground and our populations will suffer.
If we work together and do what we can to bring new youngsters and young adults into the world of hunting, we can all play a role in maintaining a strong model of conservation now and into the future.
If you would like to get involved with a conservation program that's actively involved in maintaining and recruiting hunters, here are some great organizations to check out.