Why are national hunting license sales still decreasing?

There have been a lot of stories published about a surge in hunting and fishing license sales around the country, including an increase in first-time hunters, but overall hunting license sales are still declining at an uncomfortable rate.

In my home state of West Virginia, according to data provided by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, over the last five years there has been a drop of 8.2% (19,014) of license holders and a 13% decrease (75,705) in resident license sales. The trend continues from 2000 (24% decrease of license holders) and 1980 (33.2% decrease). Although data says it’s from 2020, according to Paul Johansen, chief of the wildlife resources section of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, it’s likely this data is from 2019 as final hunting license sales haven’t been verfied. Further, current license sale numbers, according to Johansen and WVDNR Director Stephen McDaniel show two years of increased license sales. The numbers were not available at the time of this publishing, but an updated story will be published when those statistics are released.

Stil, it’s easy to argue the Mountain State has some of the most dedicated hunters in the country, so why is there such a critical decline over the last 40 years?

Part of it is a dying culture: young adults aren’t interested in hunting. Money is certainly an issue. Even if you don’t buy all the new, fancy camouflage and accessories, you’re still looking at purchasing a gun or a bow and some camo. Not to mention, if you decide to get into archery, arrows and necessary accessories like a trigger are needed. And if you decide to go the crossbow route, a full package could run you anywhere from $500 for something that isn’t great quality to $900 for a sturdy, quality entry-level crossbow.

Small game is a great way to get someone interested in hunting. It’s cost effective, fun and relaxed. In Ritchie County, there are plenty of public tracts of land to go squirrel hunting – and maybe rabbit hunting, though I’ve never tried in Ritchie – which has always been my go-to when teaching someone the ins and outs of how to look for sign and walk as silently as possible through the woods. I’ve recently become obsessed with bird hunting, too, but that’s another type of hunting that’s hard to get people interested in. This brings me to the one-two punch: young people don’t want to spend a lot of money or feel like they’re wasting their time.

Upland birds are so scarce, even in the areas that are considered their stronghold in the eastern part of the state, a new hunter may not find it enjoyable to hike miles and only see a few birds. Doves and turkey are the exceptions, and with many old farms around Ritchie and Doddridge, there are plenty of opportunities if you have the right connections, but a typical day could see you getting just a handful of doves. Turkey is relatively self-explanatory and beholden to tight bag limits. Interestingly, the states I listed above and others saw major increases in turkey tag sales. I wonder why that was. Waterfowl are quite abundant, but there aren’t many great places to hunt them in West Virginia aside from the Cheat, New and Ohio Rivers, or small ponds/submerged lands on someone’s private property. Being that there aren’t many spots also means you have to wake up super early to get out to your shore spot or to get set up with your boat to beat the next guy competing for your honey hole, and most young people don’t want to get up at 3 or 4 a.m. 

The bright side is, both waterfowl and upland hunting can be cost-effective. For upland hunting, you should get a game vest (which is also great for all small game) and for waterfowl hunting, you should get a set of waders. Waterfowl also requires you to buy a federal duck stamp, but West Virginia doesn’t have a stamp so you save some money there. New hunters can also borrow a hunting buddy’s extra shotgun, and if they have a dog, too, that’s even better. If you’re doing it alone, expect the entry cost to be much different. 

All in all, this is all speculation when it comes to why West Virginia saw a decrease. But my experience covering this topic the last year and a half has shown me it’s very likely these are just some of the many reasons why young people are not picking up hunting.

We’re already deep in a hole, and I guarantee that in a perfect situation we wouldn’t reach 1980 numbers 40 years from now. So what can we do? Educating folks, especially young children, would be my go-to answer, but, truthfully, I don’t have the answers. Many contacts I’ve spoken to in state wildlife agencies around the country or organizations like the Ruffed Grouse Society and Safari Club International don’t know the absolute fix either. There are things that work, though. First of all, if you’re a parent that hunts, try to pass it on. Don’t force it, but explore new avenues to introduce your children to the sport. Certain programs like the National Deer Association’s (formerly the Quality Deer Management Association) field to fork program has been a success, albeit limited to certain areas of the country. Finally, if you’re a young adult and are interested in hunting but maybe your family doesn’t partake, consider joining groups at your college like a Ducks Unlimited student chapter or Facebook groups dedicated to enhancing the sport and recruiting new hunters. There are jerks in every group that will lambast you for asking for someone to mentor you, but there are typically a few that will step up and offer their help. 

As we hopefully move out of this COVID-19 world and back to some normalcy, 2021 could prove to be a great year to begin recruiting new hunters into our community. The pandemic convinced plenty of people to return to the woods, some who may still need help, but with something like that rooted deep in our minds, it might be worth passing on our traditions so the generations coming up can continue to carry them on. 

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Andrew Spellman

A West Virginia University Reed College of Media alum, Andrew has a deep passion for his field of work. He is currently a sports and outdoors writer for The Dominion Post in Morgantown, WV, and a current issues and affairs writer for Project Upland. He also runs his blog, Hill & Holler, on the side.

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