All across America, hunting is on the decline.
According to a 2018 report by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service based on data from 2016, only five percent of Americans ages 16 and old are hunting anymore.
In Virginia, conservations at the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) are concerned about the impacts of the decline.
The director of the VDGIF’s outreach, Lee Walker, says since the 1980s, the sport of hunting has been in decline, and Virginia is losing about three percent of its hunters every year.
Three percent may not sound like much, but Walker says it’s adding up and the decline is threatening more than just the sport of hunting.
“We manage all of the State’s species,” said Walker. “Birds, raptors, reptiles, amphibians–all of those species. So it’s been a huge challenge throughout that 100 plus years but we remind folks why we do what we do is because wildlife belongs to everybody.”
But Walker admits that no everybody pays for wildlife in the same way.
When the VDGIF was first founded in 1916, Walker says it was intended to be relatively self-sufficient. As such, the department’s $65,000,000 budget isn’t funded by Virginia’s general fund tax revenues.
“$55,000,000 of that $65,000,000 is generated basically through license sales [and] federal match money that comes back from the federal government when somebody purchases hunting equipment or fishing equipment” in the form of a small excise tax says Walker.
In particular, Whitetail Deer hunters drive a great deal of Virginia’s conservation efforts, not just in license fees, but in population control.
While many people consider conservation work to be species and habitat protection, VDGIF is also responsible for keeping a species’ population at what Walker calls ‘carrying capacity’, or how much a given area can support.
When a population exceeds the area’s carrying capacity, Walker says wildlife and human interactions can become negative.
“We always hear when people are running into deer. ‘You got too many deer, you need to do something about it,” he said. “That’s where hunters come in.”
Terrence Johnson is one of those hunters.
Johnson, who grew up in Front Royal and still lives there today says he started hunting as a child with relatives.
WDVM 25’s Ellie Williams went out hunting with Johnson in Haymarket, which has an extended doe season. Despite seeing several deer and even a coyote, none of the animals were within range of Johnson’s crossbow. He wasn’t too upset though, as he says the biggest draw for him is his connection to the outdoors.
“It’s a time to gather yourself, it’s time to think,” Johnson said. “You become acquainted with nature. It’s not always about the kill.”
Johnson tries to instill that mentality in others as well.
“I don’t have children and I almost feel guilty for the fact that I feel lke I need to share with someone,” he said. “Any opportunity I have to take a friend, you know, a child, anyone in the woods, even if it’s just to shadow me for the experience and not for the long term. It opens their mind to the opportunity.”
Back at the VDGIF’s Henrico headquarters, officials are trying to find ways to grow the sport.
Eddie Herndon, the Recuritment, Retention, and Reactivation Coordinator at VDGIF says the department is looking at a variety of options, from new license options, a larger online presence, and benefits for recruiting hunters.
One of the programs that will pilot in the spring: an Apprentice Hunter license level for new adult hunters. The Apprentice License would cost $11 and wouldn’t require the individual to go through hunter education classes, but would instead need to hunt with a licensed hunter.
Additionally, the VDGIF is offering hunter education classes online to appeal to millennials and providing recipes showing new hunters how to cook wild meats.
“This is a group that is willing to try new things. A lot of time they have more time available, they have more disposable income, and they’re looking for authentic experiences,” said Herndon. He adds that the locavore movement–getting food from local sources–has brought a number of millennials to the sport.
But a large issue still is teaching those new hunters how to hunt. Herndon says a single class won’t cut it, since hunting is a skill often developed over a lifetime.
The VDGIF is now counting on hunters like Johnson to grow the sport, teaching apprentice hunters how to harvest animals, and hopes to match experienced hunters with novices in a mentoring program.
Department officials also see refer-a-friend efforts as a key way to bring in new hunters.
“Current hunters can go on and actually help us with the recruiting efforts getting new people out in the field and participating in outdoor activities,” Herndon said. The VDGIF also hopes
Conservations at the department hope these new strategies will not just stop the decline in hunting, but reverse it.