Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Bleak Outlook for Virginia Hunters As Hunter Numbers Recharge in Most Other States

A similar demographic makes up Virginia's hunting population.
Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison
Several months ago, I wrote an article after preliminary US Fish and Wildlife Service numbers were posted for hunting license sales in the United States (9% increase nationwide, 5% decrease in Virginia).

USFWS looks at this data periodically to try and gauge where their priorities should lie for funding conservation and carving up (sometimes literally) federal lands and (less literally) federal funds for state wildlife projects.   To put it bluntly, fewer hunters = less federal interest in maintaining,  restoring, and preserving habitat that primarily focuses on game species.  Less government investment in game management, coupled with overly restrictive hunting, firearm, and even archery regulations means that hunter recruitment will by necessity plummet.   At some point, the decision-makers will stop listening to the hunting community, currently clocking in at 9% of the American population.  That's the truth, and we each need to admit that to ourselves.

Prominently featured in that data is a somewhat surprising 5 year, 9% nationwide increase in the number of licensed hunters nationwide.  A quick study of the data shows that this rise has corresponded temporally with efforts to increase hunter access and recruitment in several heavily populated states such as Maryland, New Jersey, and New York.   Their market research (yes, those states spend money on this stuff) shows not only that hunters spend money when they travel, but often, they bring non-hunters with them, who spend even more money!  

More sparsely populated states whose state and local economies depend heavily on hunting-related tourism have also shown a recent willingness to "try new tools" to encourage hunters to visit their states.  Not surprisingly, states who are working the hardest to increase hunting access are having significant gains in hunting license sales (40% in one case!).  One of their not-so-secret tools: liberal sunday hunting.

Why sunday hunting? Almost no one under the age of 50 (when our kids are now graduating from high school) can regularly hunt on Saturdays.  And according to a study by New York University, 30-45 million American children (40-50%) participate in out-of-school sports, which almost always include Saturday games and practices.  I'm not against team sports.  My brothers and I all played (one of us at the college level), and in fact my three year old son has his first-ever soccer practice this week.

Why else sunday hunting? Because like all blue laws, it specifically violates  the Constitution's Establishment Clause, and in so doing, violates the 14th Amendment by not allowing groups like observant Jews to hunt on weekends at all.  Sidenote: hunting is a state constitutional right in Virginia.

Here's Virginia's recruitment trend:

Why Not Sunday Hunting, Or, Ward Cleaver Turns Back the Clock
There are still those in the state legislature and in lobbyists' offices in the Commonwealth who believe "fewer hunters means less competition for 'my' deer."  This is 1950s thinking at its finest, and falsely assumes that those few dozen individuals will have the legal and logistical ability to gobble up hunting lands vacated by hunters who have left the sport.  As I've written before, another group of people is ecstatic about this declining trend of Virginia hunters:  anti-hunters and gun control advocates.  The Rural Ag Lobby Republicans and the rabid, overly pierced anti-hunters can't both be right on this topic.   And if this trend continues, I strongly believe the anti-hunters will win out.  USFWS has clearly indicated in the past that they are willing to make wildlife funding and management decisions based on more vocal interest from anti-hunters.  We've seen it in the same management unit (USFWS Region 1) that oversees Virginia-related decisions.  Anti-hunters matter to them.  Folks, this is not complicated.

The Path Forward
As our nation's most liberal and most conservative states simultaneously embrace Sunday hunting as a method of recruiting the next generation of hunters (and with a notable and well documented lack of increase in hunter-nonhunter conflicts or hunting accidents), it's hard to understand why supposedly conservative Virginia Republicans so loudly vote against one's right to harvest food on their own land, and teaching their children to do the same, in the way that our ancestors taught us.

It is equally baffling that the embattled Democratic Party is leading the way into the future while so many Virginia Republicans are willing to risk high political stakes by opposing Sunday hunting based on polls that were never taken, surveys that were never written, distributed, collected, or analyzed, and based on lobbyist position papers agreed upon by "senior membership" of certain groups.   Dozens of times, Republican leaders and supposed conservative lobbyists have been asked to produce the data they claim to have, and yet no information, data, or survey showing purported "strong opposition to sunday hunting" has ever been brought into the light.  Why not?   It's inexcusable that elected Republicans are divided on this topic.

Sneaking Out the Back?
A rather silent party in this Classic Commonwealth Debacle has been the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.  Their Board of Directors has recommended that the state legislature approve expanded Sunday hunting, but elected Virginia Republicans in leadership roles have actively and intentionally prevented this from happening, so I largely have given VDGIF a "pass" in the many lines of this blog dedicated to Virginia's fight for expanded sunday hunting.  

 I'm rethinking that now, and in the next entry in this series, we're going to look at how hard VDGIF has actually worked to stop the loss of hunters from Virginia's ranks.  Have they really worked to the edge of their legal ability to support the demographic that provides THEIR TOP TWO FUNDING SOURCES (license sales and matching federal taxes, stamps, and grants like NAWCA) for their agency's operations, projects, and mission?

Does VDGIF know that they have a hunter problem that fully translates into a potential 66% decrease in their operating budget?  And have they fully employed the tools in their programmatic toolbox to right the ship?
We've taken a look at what they're looking they paid to have analyzed....and we look forward to telling you about it.


Wayne Hay said...

Couldn't have said it better. And the sad thing is, it's Republicans in the Virginia House who are blocking access to SH.

Anonymous said...

Remember that things are not always what they seem. First, VDGIF cannot voice an opinion during the General Assembly until the Governor takes a position; which he usually doesn't. Therefore, they can only answer questions that are asked of them from floor when a bill comes up. Second, until government stops playing games with numbers and allows VDGIF to hire the Conservation Police Officers and dispatchers necessary to staff a 24/7 operation, then Sunday hunting cannot occur. People that claim they want reduced "government" need to understand that along with that, they receive reduced services.

Kirk Mantay said...

Thanks for the comment - but that's not entirely true. VDGIF cannot voice an opinion on specific pieces of legislation during the GA unless asked directly.

However, VDGIF can, and should, be advocating for a wide variety of "tools in the management toolbox" when it comes to managing agency customers (anglers, hunters, boaters) and managing the Commonwealth's deer herd.

To your second point - the lack of CO's is a nationwide problem, for sure. However, Virginia currently has a Sunday poaching problem, and millions of Sunday boaters and anglers. Conservation officers are already deployed every sunday of the year. There's no data to support the theory that expanded legal Sunday hunting would increase the number of incidents that game wardens must respond to. If someone has that data, by all means, I'll write about it. But yes, we need more CO's. One of the factors in hunter "dropout" is the lack of support from CO's when a conflict occurs afield. I certainly (in Virginia) have spots I no longer hunt because the neighbors "don't approve" and harass us until we leave (which is always before the CO shows up).

You are also right about fiscal conservatism on this issue. Less tax means less service, not necessarily less waste.

But again, I have seen no data from no state (and I've looked) to support that Cons. Officers would need to be INCREASINGLY deployed on Sundays for private land still hunting to occur on that day.

And of conservatism, doesn't that also include the right to engage in constitutionally protected acts (like hunting during hunting season) on one's own private property?

Then why don't Republicans support expanded sunday hunting?

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