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A counterintuitive trend.

That is what’s happening in America’s hunting community.

On the one hand, hunter numbers are down. America has about 5 million fewer hunters age 16 and older than it did in 1982. That is when hunter numbers peaked at 16.7 million. Yet the success of certain national hunting organizations is up. Way up.

As such, nonprofit hunting groups are acquiring more habitat and enhancing it than ever while their base — hunters themselves — is eroding. This paradox means nonprofit hunting-and-habitat groups are trekking in new territory, a land where fewer hunting boots are hitting the ground yet revenue for habitat work is going great guns.

“Duck hunter numbers have declined but mission support hasn’t,” said Chris Sebastian, a regional Ducks Unlimited spokesperson. “Ducks Unlimited membership has grown 2.3 % over the last eight years. Lifetime commitments of $10,000 or greater have increased by 25 % during that same time and the number of major sponsors making an annual gift has increased 32 %.”

Ducks Unlimited exemplifies the “more revenue yet fewer American hunters” anomaly. Nationally, duck hunter numbers have been in a long decline. Back in the 1970s America had about 2 million waterfowl hunters. Now, it’s about 1 million. In Minnesota, waterfowl hunting license sales peaked in 1980 at 149,483 and are now about of half that. Still, in 2019 Ducks Unlimited exceeded national budget goals for the ninth consecutive year while collecting revenue of $235 million.

The National Wild Turkey Federation has a similar story. Federation membership is down from its peak during the 2000s yet revenue have been on an upward trend. The organization’s recent national convention and sports show in Nashville drew more than 55,000 attendees. “It was our largest show ever,” said Tom Glines, a regional turkey federation representative from Coon Rapids. “We had a record number of exhibitors. The aisles were packed.”

Minnesota-based Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever is part of this paradox, too. Collectively, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever membership is down about 10,000 from historic highs, yet the 138,000-member organization remains a habitat powerhouse. This is especially true in Minnesota where Pheasants Forever has leveraged Outdoor Heritage Fund dollars in partnership with the Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We are financially solid,” said Bob St. Pierre, Pheasant Forever’s vice president for marketing and communications. “Our recent Pheasant Fest in Minneapolis set records for attendance (almost 33,000), sponsorships, booth sales and donations. We are about a $100 million a year business.”

So how is this happening? Why are certain organizations prospering while the hunting base is crumbling?

St. Pierre suggested three things are happening at his organization, and all help to create more and better wildlife habitat, pollinator habitat, and surface and groundwater benefits.

“First, despite our charitable nonprofit status we function as a hard-driving business that generates profit to fund our habitat mission,” said St. Pierre. “Secondly, we’ve become much better at working with those who want to make significant charitable donations. Many people who truly love the land want to leave a legacy, and they see us as a tool to achieve this through donations of land or cash.

“Finally, we have diversified our revenue streams. For a long time, hunting organizations were primarily dependent on membership revenue. Today, our organization represents the largest collection of upland bird hunters in the country, and advertisers pay us to reach this audience through our publications, special events and more,” he said.

Like Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, the turkey federation has increased its aim on large donors and major sponsors. Glines, for example, meets regularly with baby boomers — the largest age cohort of hunters — because many are passionate about hunting, financially secure, and glad to help wild turkeys and other species.

“Boomers will be transferring an amazing amount of wealth through their wills, estate plans and other forms of giving over the next 20 years,” Glines said. “For those who want to support our mission — save the habitat; save the hunt — we have tools to help them.”

Declining base

Nonprofit outreach to boomers is effective today but will be less so tomorrow. The youngest boomers are in their mid- to late 50s and the oldest are in their early 70s. As such, the funding vein will gradually wane. Unknown today is how generous Generation X and millennial hunters will be.

Yet despite revenue positives, the negatives of a declining hunting base are a definite concern. Hunter numbers translate into relevance, and the long-term outlook for hunter numbers is more overcast than sunny.

“The big elephant in the room is that hunting continues to attract Caucasians, but Caucasians are an increasingly smaller percentage of the American population,” said Glines. “So, hunter recruitment will have to come elsewhere, and that’s the real challenge.”

Glines said culturally diverse states have lower hunter participation rates than states that are predominantly white. California hunters, for example, represent only 3% of the state’s population. “It’s hard to be politically relevant when you are such a small minority,” he said.

Pheasant Forever’s St. Pierre said slipping hunter numbers is a real concern for his group, too, in part, because of another counterintuitive situation.

“There’s a perception that when grassland habitat acres are down and pheasant numbers are down, citizens will rally around our mission,” St. Pierre said. “The truth is our membership rallies when rooster numbers are up. It is harder for us to recruit members when hunting quality declines.”

Be it hunting quality or other factors, Minnesota pheasant hunting is clearly less popular than it once was. In 2006, a record 129,425 pheasant stamps were sold. In 2019 pheasant stamp sales were slightly less than half that amount.

The number of duck hunters has declined, but membership in one of the sport’s distinguished groups, Ducks Unlimited, has grown during the last several years.
The number of duck hunters has declined, but membership in one of the sport’s distinguished groups, Ducks Unlimited, has grown during the last several years.

Star Tribune file photo

Though nonprofit revenue are easy to measure, it is virtually impossible to calculate the value hunting organizations have made in terms of habitat conservation. Ducks Unlimited, for example, conserved 309,000 acres in 2019 and has conserved 14.5 million acres since 1937. The turkey federation conserved or enhanced 653,676 acres in 2019 and has conserved 3.5 million in the past seven years.

Since forming in 1982, Pheasants Forever has created or enhanced wildlife habitat on about 19 million acres across the United States and parts of Canada.

Such accomplishments are due, in part, because most species-specific organizations hire professional wildlife biologists to help deliver conservation. Among them is Jon Schneider, Ducks Unlimited’s Minnesota director of conservation. Schneider is a key designer, implementer and tracker of Duck’s Unlimited’s accomplishments.

“We did 28 Minnesota projects totaling 28,921 acres in 2019,” said Schneider. “Historically, we’ve done 233,257 acres of habitat work in Minnesota.”

Recent Ducks Unlimited projects in Minnesota include enhancing Hubbard and Wheeler lakes east of Willmar, buying 233 acres on the north side of Marsh Lake west of Appleton and buying 153 acres along Hwy. 14 near Tyler.

“In many instances our prairie work involves expanding the size and functionality of small state Wildlife Management Areas so that they provide better benefits for wildlife and hunters alike,” Schneider said. “The Department of Natural Resources saved these patches years ago and now we are increasing the amount of water and grass around them.”

Ultimately, such work provides benefits for bees, butterflies, drinking water, floodwater retention, species conservation and more. In fact, St. Pierre said communicating these societal benefits is more important than ever for hunting organizations.

“In a time of fewer hunters we need to ensure that nonhunters understand and appreciate the work we do,” St. Pierre said. “For us, it’s not about changing what we do. Instead, it is about people understanding that the food and cover we create for pheasants is the same habitat that helps pollinators, monarch butterflies and more.”

C.B. Bylander lives near Baxter, Minn.