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Gun Shy 

Why is Vermont's hunter population dwindling?

Vermont’s young bucks gathered Sunday at the Neshobe Sportsman Club in Brandon for a barbecue celebrating the annual Youth Deer Hunting Weekend. Scores of young hunters toting rifles and gear bags emerged from parent-driven SUVs and pickups bearing bumper stickers like “Gut deer?” and “Hooked on quack.”

Each fall, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department opens rifle season one weekend early for deer hunters 16 and under. The goal is to give the young guns some time in the woods — and, presumably, away from their computers and video games — where they can stalk their prey without the pressure of competing against older, more seasoned sportsmen.

This year, an estimated 8000 youth participated in the hunt; at gun shops and mom-and-pop stores throughout Vermont, the kids could be seen sporting their hunter-orange and camo-green garb. It beats gray and white. To put it bluntly, Vermont’s sportsmen are getting older, and due to a variety of societal factors, fewer young people are taking up the sport.

Youth Deer Hunting Weekend is just one way the state is trying to reverse the slow but steady decline in so-called “consumptive” wildlife sports — that is, hunting, angling and trapping. This national trend, first noticed about two decades ago, has been confirmed by surveys done every five years by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The most recent results, just released this summer, found that the number of hunters 16 and older dropped by 10 percent between 1996 and 2006 — from 14 million to about 12.5 million. The decline was most dramatic in New England, the Rockies and Pacific states, where the total number of hunters was down by about 400,000 people.

Not surprisingly, state wildlife experts are concerned, on both economic and ecological grounds. State revenues from hunting and fishing licenses make up 38 percent of the Fish and Wildlife Department’s budget; federal excise taxes on the sale of guns, ammo and other hunting and fishing gear comprise another 36 percent; leases, another 6 percent.

But it’s not just their own paychecks that state wildlife experts are worried about. For decades, the lion’s share of all wildlife conservation efforts — from the restoration of peregrine falcons, to the purchase of wildlife refuges, to the preservation of moose and bear habitats — have been paid for by hunters and anglers. As a result, declining participation in those sports has serious ramifications for all Vermonters, hunters and non-hunters alike.

Make no mistake — hunting continues to be a significant economic force in Vermont. In 2006, 71,000 Vermonters and another 11,000 nonresidents spent a total of $189 million in the state. The timing of that spending is key, the experts say, replenishing coffers between leaf-peeping and ski seasons. And its geographic distribution is, too. Hunter dollars tend to be spent outside of the state’s usual tourist centers, i.e., Chittenden County and ski-resort towns such as Killington and Stowe. In fact, they’re fairly evenly distributed throughout Vermont, and have the greatest impact on small, rural communities such as those in the Northeast Kingdom.

Chris Saunders, the hunter education coordinator at Vermont Fish and Wildlife, has studied this historic decline in Vermont’s hunter and angler populations. Referencing Richard Louv’s 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, Saunders says that the reasons behind this national trend are by now fairly well-documented: increasing development and suburbanization, fewer places for people to hunt, and greater time demands on young people and their parents.

“People are less exposed to hunting as the areas around them become more developed,” Saunders says. “The problem these days is that most people don’t have any contact with hunting whatsoever.”

Bill Leipold, vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, agrees. He’s seen a similar trend throughout the Federation’s 50 or so sportsmen’s clubs; namely, that fewer young people are joining clubs and taking an active role in their leadership.

“When I look at the activities that were available when I was a kid and compare them to today, it’s just mind-boggling,” says Leipold. “Kids’ activities are so much more organized now. Unless there’s someone who’s going to take an active lead in getting kids outdoors, they’re not going to go there anymore.”

No doubt dwindling interest in “hook ’n’ bullet clubs” is a result of Vermont’s changing demographics, i.e., the influx of residents from urban and suburban areas who didn’t grow up around hunting. That influx has also increased the likelihood that people are “posting” their land — that is, putting up “no hunting” signs on their property — in a state with a long tradition of not posting property. Last year, town clerks recorded about 200,000 acres posted in Vermont, up from about 100,000 acres just a decade ago. Additionally, an unknown percentage of posted land isn’t even registered with town clerks anymore.

You might expect to find corresponding disapproval of hunting as a sport, but Saunders claims that the research doesn’t bear out that hypothesis. Ironically, approval rates for hunting, both in Vermont and nationally, are actually higher than they used to be, even among people who don’t describe themselves as hunters.

Thus far, no one has teased out the root causes behind these seemingly contradictory trends — that is, a growing tolerance for hunting while fewer people are participating in it. However, Saunders has a few theories. For one, he suggests that it may be due to the proliferation of wildlife in suburban areas and/or the encroachment of development into wilderness areas, which increases the likelihood of conflicts between animals and humans.

“I think if you asked a lot of people 30 years ago whether there’d be deer in suburban New York City now, they’d say ‘You’re crazy,’” Saunders says. “But I see more deer at my in-laws’ house in Connecticut than I do at home in semi-rural Calais.”

Likewise, other species such as black bear and Canada geese have proven to be far more adaptable to suburban areas than previously believed. Black bears, especially, are now moving into areas of New Jersey, lower New York State and eastern Massachusetts. Saunders theorizes that black bear hunting may one day be as socially acceptable in suburbia as deer hunting is today.

“By and large, the American public still looks at the wild world through their pets’ eyes, and you’ve got to have good reasons why you’re doing something that kills them,” he says. The conflicts between humans and wildlife are no longer “occurring with some farmer in some rural county you’ve never been in. It’s happening in your own backyard.”

Interestingly, while interest and participation in hunting is declining, Vermont’s wildlife populations are rebounding and getting more robust — and not necessarily because fewer people are shooting at them. Improved conservation efforts have brought many species back from the brink throughout the state, including three — peregrine falcon, the common loon and osprey — that were removed from the endangered list in the last two years.

John Hall is an information specialist with Vermont Fish and Wildlife, formerly Vermont Fish and Game — the name was changed in 1985 to reflect the department’s broader mission of preserving both game and non-game animals and their habitats. When he started there 40 years ago, many of the species that are in abundance today, both game and non-game animals, were only found in very small numbers, if at all.

For instance, snow geese were nowhere to be seen in the Green Mountain State in the 1960s. Today, Hall notes, between 10,000 to 20,000 touch down in the Champlain Valley each October, especially in Addison County’s Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area.

Similarly, wild turkeys were nonexistent in Vermont from the late 1800s until 1969, Hall says. That year, state wildlife biologists drove to the New York-Pennsylvania border, live-trapped 31 wild turkeys and released half of them in Pawlett and the other half in Hubbard-ton. “Our population, which numbers about 50,000 birds, all derive from those original 31 birds,” Hall says. Today, Vermont is considered one of the best places in the country to hunt wild turkeys.

One of the most popular wildlife success stories in Vermont is the recovery of the whitetail deer herds. Only 25 percent of Vermont was covered in forest in the mid-1800s, — today, it’s around 80 percent — and the number of whitetail deer had dwindled to alarmingly low numbers, resulting in a deer hunting moratorium between the mid-1860s and 1897. When hunting finally resumed, fewer than 300 deer were taken the first few years. Last year, between 8000 and 9000 deer were “harvested” out of a total population of between 120,000 and 140,000 animals.

“The abundance of game animals that’s available for people in this state is terrific,” notes John Austin, director of Vermont’s Wildlife Division. “Some people look back to the good old days. I think the good old days for hunting are right now.”

And yet, despite a minor uptick in registered hunters last year — in-state tags were up 2.6 percent over 2005 figures; out-of-state tags were up 4.6 percent— the experts don’t see this long-term downturn reversing itself anytime soon.

Needless to say, there are many people celebrating this cultural shift away from killing sports. Groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States emphasize that the most recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey also showed a steady rise in the number of people who are participating in “non-consumptive” wildlife sports, such as birding, wildlife viewing and nature photography. Nationally, their numbers jumped from 62.8 million in 1996 to 71.1 million in 2006.

Nevertheless, as a percentage of the U.S. population, both consumptive and non-consumptive wildlife sports are dropping, which doesn’t bode well for anyone working to protect Vermont’s wild things. Jake Brown is communications director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council. VNRC, a seemingly unlikely ally to hunters, has been partnering with various sportsmen’s groups as well as other environmental organizations to find a steady stream of state funding for the Fish and Wildlife Department. The goal, he says, is to make it less reliant upon hunter and angler revenues.

As Brown points out, hunters and anglers are often the first to spot signs of environmental degradation, such as problems with trout brooks, acid rain or other habitat destruction. Moreover, he says, when people are less involved in outdoor recreation, they start to lose their connection with the land, the role of nature in their lives and where their food comes from. Some people at Fish and Wildlife are investigating ways of “piggybacking” with Vermont’s growing localvore movement, since you can’t get much closer to home than Vermont-hunted fish and game.

For Saunders, the trend toward fewer people recreating outdoors bodes ill, regardless of whether it’s duck-hunting or snowboarding. “If you believe that we have a biophilia, that nature really is something ingrained in who we are, no matter how we choose to express it,” he says, “taking that out of the human condition is very troubling.”


Open Season: The Hunting Issue

Intro by Paula Routly

Of Elk and Men: A Northeast Kingdom "farm" fights for the right to raise fenced game

by Mike Ives

Killer Instinct: News editor Patrick Ripley confesses his oft-taboo passion

by Patrick Ripley

Picture Book Helps Kids Prepare for Opening Day

by Margot Harrison

They Got Game: In the fall dining is a little wilder

by Suzanne Podhaizer

DIY Deer: A mini course in gutting and cutting

by Suzanne Podhaizer

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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