DULUTH — As the Minnesota firearms deer hunting season winds down, and the Wisconsin season cranks up, another color is dominating the woods other than orange.
In 2000 there were 35,994 hunters age 65 or older in the Minnesota deer woods. By 2018 senior citizen hunters had nearly doubled to 69,728.
As baby boomers reach well into their 60s and 70s now and are aging out of hunting, and with far fewer young people entering the sport, the number of hunting licenses sold in Minnesota, Wisconsin and across the U.S. is plummeting. The trend is a sign of trouble ahead, not just for the future of hunting but for how wildlife agencies and conservation are funded.
In 2012 Minnesota sold 521,951 deer hunting licenses. By 2019 that dropped to 462,095, down nearly 12% in just seven years. Even amid the pandemic rush to get outside, 2020 deer license sales have been flat with 2019.
State resource agencies and conservation groups have known for decades that the bubble was going to burst when baby boomers got too old to hunt. That’s why they've been pushing the ‘’three R’s” — hunter recruitment, retention and reactivation — working to get new hunters active and keep existing hunters in the sport.
But in just the past few years the situation has worsened even faster than expected, with a steeper decline in overall hunters and far fewer new people coming in. More people living in urban areas, declining access to huntable land, lack of adult free time, video games and year-round sports for kids — are all dropping hunter numbers. But the most serious issue right now is aging.
The average age of a Minnesota deer hunter in 2000 was 38.78. By 2015 that had jumped to 40.82. By 2018 it had jumped again to 41.77, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The graph of Minnesota deer hunters buying licenses by age group tracks aging baby boomers perfectly. In 2015 the largest age group of deer hunters was about 53. By 2019 it had jumped to 58, the tail end of baby boom births.
As this bubble of by far the most ever hunters ages it means not just older hunters but fewer hunters. In 1960, Minnesota had a total of 535,698 hunters of all types, according to data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That went up as more baby boomers got into the sport, then started dropping as they get out. Peak hunter participation in the state came in 2015 at 592,125 total hunting licenses sold (of all types). But then it started dropping, hitting 550,087 last year, an 8% decline over just four years. At first it was mostly waterfowl and small game hunters leaving, but now deer hunter numbers are dropping, too.
Wisconsin hit peak hunting license sales about 1995, at 784,000, and had dropped to 680,733 by 2019, according to data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Michigan had 1.2 million hunters as recently as the 1990s. But by 2018, less than 675,000 people had at least one hunting license in the state.
“The older baby boomers are aging out of hunting now,’’ said James Burnham, who heads hunter recruitment and retention efforts for the Minnesota DNR. “Unfortunately that doesn't just mean fewer hunters. Baby boomers are the bubble that we built our wildlife funding system on. And now the piper is coming to call.”
It’s why Burnham’s job was created. Some 90% of the funding for the DNR’s Fish and Wildlife Division comes from license and stamp sales. Nationally, 60% of all conservation funding comes from licenses and federal taxes on guns, bows and other sporting goods.
This pay-to-play system for wildlife program funding was once the envy of the world. Now, it’s starting to unravel. And the money hunters paid in didn’t just go to deer and ducks. Wildlife management efforts — from research to population modeling to habitat restoration — benefits many non-hunted animals, including endangered species. A 2016 report from the national Blue Ribbon Panel on Sustaining America’s Diverse Fish and Wildlife Resources found that more species are likely to fall into the endangered category as hunting declines and wildlife funding dries up.
And among the outdoor recreation activities seeing increasing participation — birdwatching, hiking, biking, paddle sports — almost none require the user to pay to participate, to buy a license. Even among the few outdoor endeavors that do require an equipment license — such as ATVs, snowmobiles and nordic skiing — the money goes almost entirely to trails, not to conservation.
Pipeline of new hunters closing
The recent trend of old hunters aging out has been especially troubling as the pipeline of new hunters slows to a trickle. In 2000, some 37,324 kids age 15 and under purchased deer hunting licenses in Minnesota. By 2018 that number dropped to 26,135, a nearly 30% decline.
Meanwhile keeping senior citizens engaged has proven difficult. Even if states offer seniors reduced license fees, or even free licenses, or the chance to shoot a doe in bucks-only areas, most of them still don’t stay in the sport.
“They start to drop off dramatically after 65,’’ Burnham said. “It’s hard to drag a deer when you are 40, let alone 65 or 75 or 80. A lot of guys just don’t feel comfortable climbing up into a deer stand in their 70s. And a lot of guys friends have aged out and they don’t have the same group to go with ... There are certainly lots of fit 70-year-olds and even 80-year-olds who are hunting, maybe in a heated blind. But most hunters just don’t keep hunting that long.”
Looking at Minnesota deer hunters ages 45 to 54 — a key demographic in their ability to have time off to hunt and money to spend — shows 120,860 in that age group hunted as recently as 2008. But by 2018, there were only 84,170 deer hunters ages 45-54, a more than 30% decline.
The one bright spot among Minnesota hunters in recent decades have been women. In 2004 just 43,335 women purchased deer hunting licenses in the state. By 2015 that jumped to 69,548. But even that number started dropping in 2017 and fell to 63,824 by 2018.
“We think women are here to stay in hunting now. It's in part driven by the interest in local food sourcing … And the good news is that women are more likely to bring other new people in, like their children, than men are,’’ Burnham said. “It’s good to see now that there are several lines of women-specific hunting clothing, and even gear, bows and guns, being designed specifically for women.”
Minnesota has actually held on to its hunters longer than many states. Nationally, hunting participation peaked in 1982, when nearly 17 million hunters purchased 28.3 million licenses. By 2016, just 11.5 million people hunted in the U.S. That's less than 4% of the national population. The nation lost 2.2 million hunters between 2011 and 2016 alone, according to the National Survey of Hunting, Fishing, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, a report issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In order to keep conservation funding flowing wildlife officials are scrambling to find a fix. It’s been a two-pronged effort. They are spending more money and effort trying to recruit and retain hunters. But they also are looking at new sources of funding that all residents pay into, noting wildlife conservation benefits the entire public, not just hunters.
In Minnesota and nationally, the hunter recruitment effort at first was aimed at teenagers. But even those teens who participated in mentored hunts tended not to keep hunting, often because their family had no hunting tradition, and the effort showed no real blip in overall hunter numbers. Even the explosion of high school trap shooting leagues, which now have more participants than hockey in Minnesota, hasn’t helped much.
“We haven’t seen a correlating increase in hunting license (sales) from the explosion of interest in youth trap leagues,’’ Burnham said. “It turns out most of those families were already hunting.”
Field to table, locavore, foodies recruited
In recent years, hunter recruitment efforts have refocused on young adults. The Minnesota DNR’s adult hunter mentoring program has worked with people ages 21 to 63 in recent years — offering expert tutorial and field experience for participants. Burnham said up to 70% of those new adult hunters stay in the sport, and many of them are non-traditional hunters — women, minorities and urban residents.
“They have the time and a car and the money to buy a gun and ammunition and aren’t dependent on their mom or someone driving and going with them,’’ Burnham said.
But the DNR program, now in its sixth year, recruits only 25 or so new hunters each year due to funding limitations. Other groups, such as the National Wild Turkey Federation, also offer mentored adult hunts.
“But you can’t just go out and sit them down and call a turkey in so they can shoot it. That might be a start, but it’s not the fulfilling experience they are looking for. A lot of people say they don’t feel like they were really hunting,’’ Burnham said. “You have to stay with them, bring them back for a second season and gradually get them the experience… Now we have people who went through the program who are mentoring new people. That’s great to see.”
Meanwhile interest in hunting seems to be growing among people interested in local, sustainable food sources — locavore movements, field-to-table, field-to-fork-type movements — people wanting to know where their food comes from.
In 1996 the Wisconsin DNR launched its first Learn to Hunt program aimed at teens and also found poor results. Either kids were already from hunting families, or those from non-hunting families had no support network to continue hunting. So in 2011 the state redirected its recruitment efforts to young adults, including people looking to source their own meat. Now the DNR offers “Hunt for Food” programs as well.
“We’re getting a more non-traditional, urban audience now. We reached out through clubs and organizations, like the Boys and Girls Clubs, and local technical schools, to offer classes in hunting for food,’’ said Eric Lobner, director of the Wildlife Management Program of the Wisconsin DNR. He said the key to keep people hunting is offering mentoring and support beyond the first hunt and into ensuing seasons.
Lobner concedes the effort isn’t making up for the loss of traditional hunters aging out of the sport. But he said it’s helping slow the tide.
“We’ve seen some success. It’s not changing the world, but it is bringing an entirely new audience into hunting, helping them see what it’s all about, and that’s a good thing,’’ Lobner said.
Wisconsin DNR also is expanding “learn to’’ programs beyond the hunt to include learn to cook, and process, wild game. Even traditional hunters are flocking to programs that teach people how to process, smoke, cure and cook their wild game.
“Part of it is CWD (chronic wasting disease in deer) and people wanting to make sure their meat is safe and it’s for sure the animal they harvested,’’ Lobner said. “But another part is people are getting more into quality good and gourmet food and realizing wild game is about as organic and great tasting as it gets, if it’s done right.”
Lobner said the biggest challenge with the decline in license sales continues to be funding. Every dollar, 100% of his division’s funding, comes from license and stamp sales even though the staff and programs benefit all sorts of non-hunted wildlife.
Lobner said he hopes Wisconsin can develop non-traditional funding sources, such as Minnesota’s natural resources and cultural trust fund. Minnesota voters in 2008 overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to raise the state’s sales tax by three-eighths of one percent and dedicate the money to protect and preserve natural resources and cultural heritage in the state. The new “Legacy Amendment” tax began in 2009 and continues until 2034 and allows Minnesota resource agencies and groups to continue to purchase wildlife habitat, acquire hunting land, study wildlife populations, rehabilitate land and other programs even as hunting license revenue declines.
“It’s going to take a grass-roots effort in our state to push that kind of solution. It’s going to take people realizing there are benefits to conservation beyond dollars,’’ Lonber said. “It’s harder for people to see that when you spend a dollar to restore a wetland that it doesn't just help ducks and hunters, it helps filter water, prevents floods, gives habitat to endangered species. Our whole society benefits. Now we need people to see that and be willing to help pay.”
Going down: Minnesota deer license sales
2012 - 521,951
2013 - 512,628
2014 - 488,288
2015 - 494,479
2016 - 499, 241
2017 - 489.546
2018 - 475,854
2019 - 462,095
Learn to hunt options
Interested in hunting but don’t know where to start? Most state natural resource agencies offer programs to mentor and support new hunters:
Minnesota’s learn to hunt program: dnr.state.mn.us/gohunting/index.html
Wisconsin’s learn to hunt program: dnr.wisconsin.gov/Education/OutdoorSkills/lth