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Wanted: More hunters in the field

Herald editorial board

A report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't bode well for hunting and fishing. Released in August, it shows participation in hunting and fishing dropped by about 2 million people from 2011 to 2016, to about 11.5 million. Expenditures by hunters decreased as well, by about 29 percent.

Numbers in the region mirror the national trend.

In Minnesota, small-game hunters fell from 2015 to 2016, continuing a downward slide. While more ruffed grouse hunters went afield in 2016 than the previous year, waterfowl and pheasant hunter numbers declined. There were 76,200 duck hunters in Minnesota in 2015, but 67,301 in 2016. Also in 2016, there were 59,965 pheasant hunters in Minnesota, down slightly from 2015 but down drastically from the nearly 120,000 hunters in 2007.

In North Dakota, resident hunters of all game declined from 110,000 in 2007 to 96,000 in 2014.

In South Dakota, where pheasant hunting is a big-dollar industry, resident pheasant license numbers fell from 91,000 in 1991, to 69,000 in 2011 to 61,746 last year. It's important to note that in South Dakota, the pheasant population has fallen, too—from nearly 12 million in 2007 to about 8.2 million last year. Fewer birds equals fewer hunters.

Still, hunter numbers are down. It's bothersome to us because of our region's strong hunting heritage. It's also troubling because of traditional revenue tied to the sport, and because fewer hunters means less funding and political attention to wildlife and habitat conservation.

Very disappointing.

Yet, we're heartened by efforts that may help. For example, North Dakota saw a jump in participants on high school trapshooting teams. More than 900 students from 38 teams participated in the state clay target league in the spring; that's up from 565 students on 23 teams the year before.

How that translates into hunters in the field is yet to be seen, but it's a good start because programs — from youth leagues and mentorships all the way up to congressional support — are the only way to help the process along.

And last month, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke signed Secretarial Order 3356, which seeks to improve wildlife management, increase access to public lands for hunting and push for recruiting new conservationists — specifically young hunters, veterans and minorities.

Zinke's order was applauded by notable outdoors groups, including Ducks Unlimited and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

More hunters in the field isn't a bad thing for wildlife. Hunters help fill a vital role in game management, and the dollars they spend on licenses and sport-specific taxes fund all sorts of conservation and habitat efforts. Hunters are an important piece of the overall wildlife puzzle.

That's why more programs and effort must be initiated to improve hunter numbers in the future.