Fewer Hunters Raises Conservation Funding Concerns

Liberty Grove resident Tony Gonzales enjoys hunting for the peace and quiet.

“It gets you out into the woods,” Gonzales said. “You get to experience Door County in a different way and see different areas of the county.”

But Gonzales is part of a shrinking minority, according to a new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum (WPF). In the midst of the gun season, which ends on Nov. 25, WPF found total deer licenses have declined 5.8 percent since 1999.

“Exacerbating this trend, the hunters who do buy licenses are spending fewer days in the field and are growing older,” the report said. “The decline in hunting – traditionally a sport of rural white males – has been attributed to factors ranging from an increasingly urbanized and racially diverse population to the rise of electronics, the shrinking pool of adult teachers for youth, and the lack of access to hunting land.”

While the decline of hunters has obvious ramifications for deer management, the impact of the trend extends to the funding of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Revenue from hunting and fishing licenses – a gun deer license is $24 – makes up around two-thirds of the state Fish and Wildlife budget, which funds habitat management, warden patrols, invasive species control and more.

Between 1999 and 2017, WPF found there are 144 fewer DNR employees paid from the Fish and Wildlife account, a 21 percent drop.

The state remains one of the nation’s favorite places to hunt and fish. Wisconsin residents hunt at two-and-a-half times the national rate and the state ranks second in the number of out-of-state hunters. But the decline in the number of hunters is showing cracks in the sustainability of the state’s conservation funding. Adjusted for inflation, the decline in hunting licenses since 2006 has reduced revenue by $12 million.

Gonzales said he hasn’t noticed much of a change in Door County as he sees parents now taking their kids out hunting. In 2017 the state passed a new law eliminating the minimum age requirement to hunt, in part to drive youth interest and foster the next generation of hunters.

But the state has already started exploring other ways to fill the funding gaps left by the decline in hunting.

At the 2018 meeting of the Conservation Congress (a citizen pseudo-legislative body), voters supported a $5 annual fee for users of state fisheries, wildlife and natural areas. In Door County that would mean places such as Plum Island, portions of the Mink River Estuary, Mud Lake and the Gardner Swamp. This policy would follow the model of the state parks revenue system, where park fees stay in a segregated account earmarked for infrastructure and operations within the system.

But the Conservation Congress also rejected a proposal to register all non-motorized watercraft such as canoes and paddleboards.

“Ultimately, state officials will likely have to consider reaching out to other groups such as hikers or birdwatchers who enjoy Wisconsin’s natural resources but traditionally have not been asked to directly help fund state wildlife programs,” the WPF stated.

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