by Ron Lyon - Sunday, December 23, 2018
Hunting and hunting-rights advocates like me are always on alert for positive news in the press. Sometimes it can be hard to find. A recent news article from News Channel 9 out of Chattanooga, Tenn., proved to be one of those positives. It led to an enlightening study on the current state of the hunter participation numbers that have been in decline in the United States since the mid 1980s.
The story was about how the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) had hired a new chief of outreach and communications in an effort to boost hunter participation through social media and diverse marketing. As it turns out, the new hire, Jenifer Wisniewski, came from my native Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources (GADNR) and was part of a team that has enjoyed much success in its work in the R3 movement to “recruit, retain and reactivate” hunters. As this website reported in February, new hunters in Georgia are being introduced to hunting through the GADNR’s Hunt and Learn program. It consists of R3 workshops that provide an educational weekend for beginners, providing exceptional instruction from qualified teachers for children ages 10-17, accompanied by an adult. The weekend offers time on the shooting range, provides an actual guided hunting experience and teaches new young hunters how to care for harvested game. Statistics now show Georgia’s active hunter population has grown since 2009. From 2013 to 2018 the figure went from 635,000 to 718,000, a 13 percent increase. This bucked a 26-year trend that began in 1986—good news indeed. Just a few years earlier, the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) had reported on the decades-long decline.
Note that this was not merely a Georgia issue. This decline was nationwide and continues in parts of the country today. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) figures show a 1991 active hunter population of 14.1 million but only 11.5 million in 2016. The AJC listed several factors for the decline, including an aging hunter population, suburban sprawl and loss of hunting land. As NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre also explains, technology also has affected the younger generation by enabling vast entertainment indoors. Notably absent from the report was the role of animal rights, anti-gun and animal rights extremist groups that are leading the charge to abolish hunting. As the NRA HLF has reported, the demonization of hunters also has had a negative impact.
Six years after its initial article, the AJC reported on the reversal of the trend in Georgia as hunter participation rose from 273,000 to 400,000—not including the hunters who aren’t required to purchase licenses, are over 65 or under 16 and those who hunt on their own property and therefore do not need a license.
This increase in hunter numbers is critical to maintaining future wildlife conservation funding. The GADNR uses 100 percent of these fees for wildlife conservation and habitat management. Estimates for 2017 show increases in hunting license sales as well as overall revenue. GADNR estimates that hunters spent nearly a billion dollars in retail sales in 2017, another $600 million in wages and salaries, $106 million in state and local taxes and $145 million in federal taxes. Not to mention supporting 24,000 jobs. Federal Pittman-Robertson (P-R) funds also increased due to the increase in outdoor product sales. P-R levies an 11 percent tax on firearms, ammunition and related products.
So what changed? Technology and the Internet have upended marketing strategies for everything from politics to yard sales. As that NRAHLF.org article I mentioned earlier reported, GADNR now has a social media coordinator, marketing and communications manager and a winning strategy to increase hunter engagement and retention. I spoke with GADNR’s Jenifer Wisniewski, the current marketing and communications manager and subject of the News Channel 9 article. She explained how she will take her winning formula from Georgia to Tennessee.
Wisniewski explains that social media marketing and partnerships with organizations using the R3 approach—recruitment, retention, reactivation—has been the most effective. Today it is an integral part of nearly every hunting organization. R3 has had a great year in 2018. In addition to continuing to increase hunter participation, The Council to Advise Hunting and Shooting Sports hosted what was billed as the first national R3 symposium in Nebraska.
Wisniewski also credits programs such as Field to Fork with recruitment of new hunters. As NRAHLF.org also reported, Field to Fork is an outreach effort focused on educating potential hunters to the benefits of the best organic meat available.
Furthermore, Wisniewski cites like-minded hunting and wildlife conservation partner organizations as being pivotal to GADNR’s successful R3 endeavors. With national coordination and education, the trend of increasing participation is not limited to hunting as the USFWS reports significant increases in other outdoor related activities nationally. This includes a 20 percent increase in wildlife watching and a 10 percent increase in fishing in some regions. GADNR reports fishing enjoying as high as a 20 percent increase as licensing rose from 1 million to 1.2 million.
Georgia also has been active in the protection of hunters’ and landowners’ rights. In 2006, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action and statewide NRA members and other sportsmen were instrumental in passing Amendment 2—the Right to Hunt and Fish Amendment—to Georgia’s constitution. In 2009, the state passed HB529, which protects landowners who allow hunting on their property, absolving them of liability in case of a hunting accident.
The GADNR has also embraced technology to ease access to information and licensing. Smart phone apps and a comprehensive website have taken over where license agents and regulations booklets left off. Now you can buy licenses, report harvests and have every state hunting regulation at your fingertips. Hunting maps and area-specific regulations are easy to find—especially helpful in areas with convoluted boundaries or special regulations.
In moving forward, it is refreshing to note that one little story can lead to a much better outlook on an otherwise grim reality. Social media and national coordination have turned the tide in some states with increased hunter participation. I’d like to congratulate Tennessee on its new hire and wish it much success.
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