As both human and beast are well aware, October’s frosty mornings bring America’s hunters back to the woods and wetlands to try to bag their legal limit, in spite of the disapproval of many who never touch a trigger or a bow.
Changing social mores and wider leisure preferences are eroding the hunting community, however. Older men in rural and exurban communities are abandoning the pastime faster than they are being replaced by younger men and, increasingly, women. Growing gender parity is not enough to offset the fact that the overall number of hunters in the U.S. continues to shrink. Data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicates that there were roughly 15 million American hunters in 2019, compared to 17 million in 1982. Professor Richelle L. Winkler of Michigan Technical University told the BBC that men born between 1955 and 1964 take part at the highest rates. Observers note that both changing attitudes and increased urbanization have contributed to fewer young people becoming hunters.
The trend has important implications for wildlife. Those implications are not uniformly positive, except perhaps for New Jersey’s bears.
As the nation’s most heavily urbanized state, New Jersey throws a spotlight on the national trend. Its annual bear hunt got underway this week in eight heavily wooded counties north or west of Newark. So did the annual controversy over the necessity and ethics of hunting the state’s estimated 3,500 black bears, who sometimes wander into suburban backyards and swimming pools.
Gov. Phil Murphy has said he wants this year’s hunt to be his state’s last. Murphy, who will be up for reelection next year, also said he wanted to end the hunt during his 2017 campaign. The hunt has continued, however, because it is the state’s Fish and Game Council – not the governor – who makes the rules in this area. State lawmakers could intercede, but if they do, it will be over the opposition of legislators whose districts include the bear habitat. Those lawmakers have warned that ending the hunt will increase the number of human-bear encounters.
Black bears are not, as a rule, a threat to humans. Unless you corner or molest one, or get between a mother and her cubs, a black bear will usually retreat rather than confront a person. As Dave Garshelis, a bear research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, told ABC News, “They’re kind of timid animals.” But if the bears become habituated to people as a source of food, problems can ensue. Hunting opponents argue that bear-resistant containers can control the problem as well as hunting can.
By the late 19th century, the clearing of Eastern forests and busting of prairie sod for agriculture had stripped large swaths of the nation of most big game. Some species, like bison, survived only because they were collected and preserved. Others, like elk and grizzly bears, retreated from the increasingly settled plains to redoubts in the mountains. Some, like the passenger pigeon, disappeared altogether.
Hunting brought some of these populations back. The license fees and excise taxes hunters paid allowed states to acquire and restore habitats. The money also supported professional management of game populations. State agencies established seasons and limits, keeping hunting pressure at sustainable levels. For much of the 20th century, more game and an expanding human population meant more hunters, which in turn provided greater resources for wildlife preservation.
You can see the results in communities across America. Often, you can see those results standing in the front yard, munching on the shrubbery.
Popular attitudes toward hunting have changed sharply in the last 30 years. While many people still support some amount of hunting – a 2019 National Shooting Sports Foundation survey found that 80% of respondents did – the hunters’ motivations have become central. Trophy hunting, in particular, has lost favor even among many in the hunting community. California not only banned hunting mountain lions in 1990, it also banned the importation of mountain lion trophies that hunters legally bagged elsewhere. Coincidentally or not, the state has also seen an increase in dangerous interactions between the large cats and humans – particularly children – in recent years.
Hunting for meat and fowl probably is not going to disappear any time soon. Still, it is hard to see it returning to the level of popularity it enjoyed in generations past. And events like New Jersey’s bear hunt, where trophies and wildlife management are intertwined goals, may not survive. (Yes, bear meat is consumable – I have had it, in sausage form – but it is not the reason most bear hunters bother.)
If management attention declines, the downfall of hunting may not be an outcome even the bears should celebrate. But we can expect to see more furry pool partiers in our backyards anyway.