by Ken Perrotte - Tuesday, February 22, 2022
The U.S. population has nearly doubled in my lifetime. Rural places where I hunted on the edge of the small town where I grew up are unrecognizable. The face of the nation will look considerably different in the middle of the 21st century than it did in the middle of the 20th century. Urban centers have exploded in population, consuming rural land for suburbs while privately owned farms and forests are increasingly fragmented. Who will be the hunters over the next 20 to 50 years? Where will they hunt? How will organizations and agencies adapt to changes happening at an incredible pace?
In addressing such questions, “Shifting Demographics: Challenges and Opportunities for Advancing Time-Honored Traditions” was the theme of the National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses’ sportsman-legislator summit in Little Rock, Ark., in December 2021. This 18th annual gathering organized by the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation brought together researchers, state legislators and conservation leaders.
Mark Damian Duda, executive director of Responsive Management, a survey research company specializing in natural resource and outdoor recreation issues, opened the event with an overview of a changing United States and how old operating models might not be relevant in the coming years. Duda said that for state fish and wildlife agencies, relevancy and R3 (Recruiting, Retaining and Reactivating) are two sides of the same coin. The country’s population is projected to grow to nearly 350 million people by 2025. In 1915, the number of people living in rural housing versus urban settings was equal. Today, almost 80 percent of America's population are urbanites.
The non-Hispanic white population should peak in 2024, then steadily decrease. The Hispanic population is expected to more than double by 2060. Minorities, now 37 percent of the U.S. population, are projected to comprise 57 percent of the population in 2060. Today, approximately 1 in 8 Americans are foreign-born. By 2050, approximately 1 in 5 Americans will be foreign-born. The base from which hunters, supporters and revenue are derived is evolving, as are public viewpoints regarding wildlife.
Traditionalists in Decline
Duda shared insights from a study titled “America’s Wildlife Values,” which surveyed 43,949 people across all 50 states. It grouped respondents into four categories based on their values.
“Traditionalists,” who believe wildlife should be used and managed for human benefit, comprise 28 percent of the population. “Mutualists,” who believe wildlife is part of our social network and that we should live in harmony, make up 35 percent. These folks sometimes say they care about animals as much as people and build emotional bonds with animals, though I know upland hunters who say that about their bird dogs. Next are “Pluralists” at 21 percent. Tougher to pin down, they prioritize values differently depending on the context. Finally, the “Distanced” segment, at 15 percent, represents people who often believe wildlife-related issues are less relevant to them.
Duda said Mutualistic attitudes are overtaking Traditionalist attitudes. One study showed western U.S. states having a 5.7 percent decrease in Traditionalists from 2004 to 2018 while Mutualists increased by 4.7 percent. Mutualists and Distanced are more prevalent in highly urbanized states. State agencies must find ways to ensure this sizable part of the population feels enfranchised and at least be supportive of hunting and fishing.
Duda added that agencies must expand operations and perspectives, not shift them. He cited the importance of maintaining and increasing hunting support and participation, noting, “Participation in hunting and support for hunting are different; programs should not mix up these goals.”
“First, we must maintain support for hunting,” he said. This is where words matter, as noted in the NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum book “How to Talk about Hunting: Research-Based Communications Strategies.” Antihunting groups will use inflammatory, emotional appeals to try to sway opinion. Hunters and their supporters must find ways to engage the public with science and sensitivity, keeping in mind those Mutualist values.
Beyond building support, Duda said, “The most important thing we can do is maintain and enhance access, which is usually cited as one of the top reasons why people don't hunt.”
Several state fish and wildlife agencies have “relevancy” projects underway to identify how agencies can serve broader constituencies to enhance political and financial support. Some states, such as Michigan, formed wildlife councils to foster public education. Today surveys in Michigan show that strong public approval of legal, regulated hunting improved 12 percent between 2017 and 2021, increasing from 43 percent to 55 percent.
“We must build cultural support for hunting through data-based messaging campaigns,” Duda said, citing the National Wild Turkey Federation’s (NWTF) rebranding campaign, which is based on intensive research and forecasting.
A Quick Story
One of the hats I wear as an outdoor communicator is my conservation field editor hat for the NWTF’s Turkey Call magazine. I was privileged to research and write an article last year that took me to Queens, N.Y., where I met a man in his 40s. He’s a UPS driver with Cuban and Haitian parents, and he wanted to hunt so much that he’d sometimes pack up his bow and take the subway out of the city to access public land.
The story of how Cliff Cadet and his young, white mentor, police officer Anthony Bambach, got together and how it is transforming Cadet’s life is compelling. The way Cadet is now reaching out to fellow inner-city dwellers who may also be curious about hunting but don’t have the first clue about how to go about it is laudable. A newcomer himself, he is an ambassador for hunting.
We took on this story because the NWTF is undergoing a bit of rebranding. Two years of intensive research and planning involving thousands of people—members, volunteers, staff and potential new members—showed that changes were needed to ensure its membership and supporters believe the organization is relevant and reflective of broader society.
As Dave Mahlke wrote earlier this year at nwtf.org, data from an NWTF 2016 membership survey showed the average age of an NWTF member at 54. In 2012, it was 48. “For each year that passed, our membership was aging 1½ years,” Mahlke wrote. “Perhaps more alarming was learning that in 2016 almost one-quarter of our members were over the age of 66 compared to only 12 percent in 2006. During the same 10-year period, the number of NWTF members between 19 and 35 years old had declined from 22 percent of the total to 10 percent.”
Mahlke notes that the data showed the NWTF wasn’t attracting new blood—turkey hunters and nonhunters alike. “NWTF branding efforts weren’t evolving fast enough to keep the organization relevant in a changing society,” he wrote. “The path we were on was unsustainable.” As Duda said, relevancy and R3 are interwoven.
The CEO View
Another hat I wear is that of president of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW), a fantastic group of communicators and industry professionals. Founded in 1956, AGLOW has some 400 members and stretches far beyond the Great Lakes region, with 36 states and two Canadian provinces. AGLOW members care intensely about the people, places and issues associated with our great outdoors.
In planning the last year’s annual AGLOW conference in Gaylord, Mich., we wanted a keynote speaker who could bridge the issues facing the outdoors and hunting world today. Given the organization’s ongoing rebranding efforts and its push to diversify, NWTF’s CEO Becky Humphries was an obvious choice. Humphries is a longtime conservation leader who capped her 32 years of service with Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources by serving as its director for seven years. Before joining NWTF, she was Ducks Unlimited’s director of operations in the Great Lakes/Atlantic Region.
Humphries told the assembled outdoor media members and their hunting and fishing industry partners, "For us to be more sustainable, we have to be more diverse."
Humphries graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in wildlife from Michigan State. There were only four women in her class of 400. Surveys of university programs show that women now comprise more than 50 percent of fisheries, wildlife, zoology and forestry graduates. She shared how women, often behind the scenes, energized movements to protect animal and bird species from overharvesting and restore America’s natural resources.
“Man, the maker, had left it to woman, the money saver, to preserve the resources and placed women squarely in the conservation movement,” Humphries said, before outlining the dawn of “The General Federation of Women’s Clubs” founded in 1890 with chapters in every state.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, women were at the vanguard across state and federal efforts to protect watersheds, establish forest reserves, and even ban the practice of using ornamental bird feathers on hats of the era. As new institutions grounded in scientific endeavor moved to the forefront of natural resources management, women’s roles in the greater conservation story were mostly silenced. Science was a male-dominated field.
Humphries tied the past disconnect of women to the isolation of people of color and nonhunting backgrounds from the outdoors narrative. A week before her AGLOW address, she met with CEOs of several new conservation organizations, including Outdoor Afro, Hunters of Color, the Minority Outdoor Alliance and the Hispanic Access Foundation.
“During our time together, we had an opportunity to discuss their efforts to forge new entry points into the lifestyles of hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation for nonwhite Americans,” Humphries said. “The landscape is changing, and so are the people. If we are going to ensure that these resources endowed to all of us as Americans are conserved and managed, the face of the people who conserve and revere them needs to be more representative of what America looks like.”
Why I Hunt Doesn’t Have to be Why You Hunt
Virginia is one of many states assessing its relevancy. Ryan Brown, director of Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), participated in a roundtable discussion of state fish and wildlife agency directors following Duda's presentation.
“Virginia is an interesting state to represent in a discussion like this,” Brown said, “with high degrees of population diversity, geographical variation, and differences between our rural, suburban and urban areas. I like to say you can find elements of most other states somewhere in Virginia.”
Last summer, Virginia was selected for a Wildlife Management Institute grant to test individual aspects of the “Relevancy Roadmap.” Brown said DWR also created a two-person, human dimensions staff focused on bolstering the agency’s relevancy to Virginia's diverse population.
Brown said he thinks work needs to be done to make hunting attractive to the masses versus trying to convince the masses that our (longtime traditional hunters) version of hunting is what they should like.
“By that I don’t mean fundamentally changing the sport—not that you really could anyway—but recognizing that there are a variety of reasons someone might enjoy hunting and that points of emphasis or likes or dislikes to people who’ve never hunted might not match up to us traditional hunters, and that’s okay,” Brown said.
Humphries explained that her generation talked about recreational or sport hunting specifically to differentiate it from market hunting. Today, though, she noted that hunting for sport or recreation is not well supported among the public. Hunting for healthy, sustainable food, however, is well accepted.
With females representing the most significant growth segment in hunting and angling, she applauds the evolution of the outdoor industry’s move away from the “shrink it and pink it” women’s products of the recent past. She notes that several companies now make technical clothing and gear for women and increase their marketing to nonwhite hunters.
Nonwhite hunters account for only 4 percent of the hunting population, but their numbers are growing, she said, adding, “Learning about their heritage in conservation is extremely important to them.”
Brown said he believes the hunting community needs to focus on presenting the sport as something that people would want to do because they realize there’s something about it that appeals to them. “And that may not be the same thing that appeals to those of us who are already in it,” he emphasized.
2021-2022 Voice of Leadership Panel
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