The most recent small game hunter survey from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources revealed the fewest number of hunters pursuing species like grouse, waterfowl and squirrels since the DNR began keeping track of these figures in 1969. Small game license sales have been trending lower for the past 20 years.
“Every year that license sales go down means our challenges in maintaining healthy wildlife habitat go up,” said Nicole Davros, farmland wildlife research supervisor. “Declines in hunter numbers affect both hunters and non-hunters alike. License dollars help pay for habitat management that also benefits the water that we drink and the pollinators that help produce our food.”
The survey, mailed to a sample of small game hunters annually, helps the DNR estimate both hunter numbers and harvest by type of small game. Wildlife managers use the survey to inform population monitoring and decisions about habitat management and hunting regulations.
Tracking license sales is also important because hunters generate the largest portion of the funding that pays for managing wildlife and their habitats. A continued decline in small game hunting license sales could affect the extent to which the agency can manage wildlife and their habitats in the future.
License sales and resulting harvest estimates reflect an aging hunting population. The DNR has programs to retain hunters and recruit new and lapsed hunters, but they haven’t kept up with the number of hunters leaving the fields.
Contributing to the decline in hunter numbers are many factors including competing activities, time constraints, limited access to hunting lands and changing relationships with the natural world. Amid the challenges, one effective way to recruit and retain hunters is to provide continued mentorship.
“The key is to continue to support and engage our new hunters,” Davros said. “Don’t just take a person out once. Keep asking them to hunt with you and provide continued support as they learn.”
One positive out of the report was found in numbers of pheasants harvested. Hunters harvested 205,395 roosters in the 2018 pheasant season, up 19 percent compared to 171,883 the previous year. This was likely due to an increase in the number of pheasant hunters in 2018. An optimistic fall hunting forecast likely encouraged more hunters to go afield. While the numbers reflect an uptick in recent years, 2018’s pheasant hunter numbers still fall 24 percent below the 10-year average.
The ruffed grouse harvest of 195,515 birds was down 30 percent from the 2017 estimate of 285,180 grouse and was the lowest harvest in the last 11 years. The estimated number of grouse hunters was 67,765, which is the lowest on record, a period that spans more than 40 years.
Fewer people hunted waterfowl last year than the year before, resulting in fewer state duck stamps being sold and a lower overall harvest. About 614,800 ducks were harvested in 2018, compared to 688,000 ducks in 2017. The Canada goose harvest was 187,600 geese, well below the 2017 harvest of 267,000 geese. Despite fewer hunters, duck hunter and goose hunter success rates were 89 percent and 77 percent, respectively, which was slightly better than the 10-year averages.
Implications for the future of conservation
The decline in small game hunter participation translates into an annual average of nearly $1 million dollars less in small game license sales compared to the 1990s. This estimated loss doesn’t account for other hunting-related expenditures including gun and ammunition sales, visits to gas stations and restaurants, and stays at lodging facilities – all things that benefit local economies.
“This isn’t just about having less money to do conservation work,” Davros said. “It’s also a hit to our rural economies. Simply put, fewer hunters means fewer dollars into those small towns – whether it’s fewer sandwiches and candy bars being sold, and ultimately fewer jobs and businesses being supported in these areas.”
Despite the overall decline in hunter numbers, wildlife conservation remains a core value of Minnesotans. In 2008, Minnesota voters amended the state constitution to support actions that benefit Minnesota’s natural resources. Hunters played a large role in both initiating and supporting this amendment.
The resulting Legacy Amendment increased the sales tax by one-eighth of one percent to protect drinking water sources; to protect, enhance, and restore wetlands, prairies, forests, and fish, game, and wildlife habitat; to preserve arts and cultural heritage; to support parks and trails; and to protect, enhance, and restore lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater.
“Minnesotans care about conservation, but who pays for conservation in the future?” Davros said. “We’re grappling with that question here along with others in the conservation community across the country. To address this challenge, we know that we need to increase the number of hunters, and also work together with people who care about the outdoors whether or not they hunt.”
The complete small game hunter survey report is on the DNR website.