The number of hunters in North America is not going up. This isn't news, it's reality. And it's not tied to a shortage of game animals to hunt; it's a people problem.
Surveys report hunter numbers are going down because of difficulty with access, increased costs, crowding on public lands and increasingly complex regulations.
That's useful information, to be sure. But the bottom line, simply put, is that half of the problem is retention of existing hunters, and the other half of the problem is recruitment of new hunters.
Geographer Jared Diamond's latest book, "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," is about why some cultures have failed while others have succeeded. As the hunting culture is shrinking, Diamond's book is very relevant.
Diamond's premise is that if cultures do not adjust to the resources, times and place and learn to create cooperative mutually supportive human systems that don't destroy the environment they become brittle, vulnerable and potentially self-destructive.
Drawing on Diamond's thesis, the following are some of my suggestions for saving hunting:
There are a number of programs to encourage kids to try hunting. I'm not saying these programs aren't valuable; they are.
But, in general, these programs target kids who are the children of people who already hunt. As the number of adult hunters goes down, the number of people who could enroll their kids in these programs goes down.
The Becoming an Outdoors-Woman and the Archery In the Schools programs, in my opinion, are model hunter recruitment programs. They reach a much broader audience, offer recreational skills training and introduce hunting as one of many ways to enjoy nature. The soft sell works.
Kids are sensitive to what their peers think. Even if you turn a kid on to hunting, they still have to go back to school. If they constantly have to defend themselves, many will back out and conform, even though opposition may be based on bunk that antis dish out.
Kids need supportive educational programs that enlighten the general public about hunting so their peers will understand them. This is true for adult hunters, as well. The hunting community in general just doesn't get this. I consider this a dysfunctional, self-destructive attitude.
I sent out a request to all 50 states and some Canadian provinces asking for a copy of their hunting regulations. I got materials from all.
A few sent me pamphlets the size of a dollar bill or smaller that could fit in my back pocket, had less than 50 pages and could be easily read and understood.
Some states sent multiple pamphlets with more pages, smaller type and more complexity than a manual for a computer. California, Alaska and Colorado had the most complicated and lengthy regulations.
I have a Ph.D. and have taught natural resources management at major universities, and I got lost in these.
Game wardens in several states have admitted to me that the regs are too complicated for even them.
Every state should strive to provide hunting regulations that are simple, easily understood, clearly presented and concise, and make sense. If not, the regs are serving bureaucratic managers, not the clients who support them, and contributing to the decline in hunter numbers.
A hunting season ought to provide hunters with maximum time afield that minimizes conflict with non-hunters and offers a chance to be successful while encouraging sportsmanship, not competition as well as wisely manage wildlife.
Deer season in the middle of the summer, with triple-digit temperatures and maximum potential conflict with non-hunters, serves neither man nor beast.
Volunteer recruitment and rewards
Wildlife agencies need to increase opportunities for volunteers and find ways to pay them back, something akin to the U.S. Forest Service program that encourages volunteers who run campgrounds in exchange for a place to park their trailer for the summer.
An annual guaranteed hunt day at the refuge for volunteers would be a great way to show appreciation to those people who put in hundreds of hours a year for no compensation.
All across America, hunters are being asked to pay increasingly higher prices to hunt private lands that once cost little or nothing to access. As prices go up, hunter numbers will go down. That's a no-brainer.
Cooperative arrangements between governments and private landowners are good. There are an increasing number of private organizations buying up hunting land leases and selling memberships.
I wonder why hunting organizations don't buy, keep and manage lands like the Nature Conservancy and the National Audubon Society do. The organizations now have more resources than many state agencies.
Hunter education is one of the best things that has happened to hunting. But it can be improved.
The requirements for hunter education should be standardized across all 50 states, which would mean that there would be reciprocity among all states. This does not exist right now, another example of petty bureaucracy.
There ought to be reciprocity of hunter-education requirements around the world, as well.
There should be more advanced hunter-education classes that raise the bar on ethics and skill levels. And these "master hunters" should be rewarded with more hunting opportunities both in terms of access and special seasons.
Encourage good hunting behaviors
There are not enough game wardens to go around and, by necessity, they have to focus on catching criminals.
There are a whole host of undesirable hunter behaviors that generally do not receive attention, either because the game wardens are too busy or they are not present at all.
Road hunters, obnoxious hunters, excessively competitive hunters, sky blasters, discourteous hunters and litterbug hunters are all forms of the species known as "slob hunters."
Ethical hunters across the country tell me that slob hunters are one of the key reasons why they stop hunting.
We need to find ways to discourage illegal behavior and bad sportsmanship, and reward positive behaviors.
For a starter, I'd like to see every hunter have a visible license number on their back so you could report people who are breaking laws and acting in an unsportsmanlike manner.
I always wear my Hunter Education Instructor hat when I go hunting on public land. I'd like to think that the presence of some kind of authority in the field helps maintain good sportsmanship. The "Thin Green Line" can't do it all.
We need to raise the bar on hunting ethics so it will attract the kind of people with whom we want to share the woods. Crowding, among sportsmen, is tolerable.
James Swan who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.