The Death of Hunting
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Editor, The Konformist
The Death of Hunting
By Christina Larson, Washington Monthly
Posted on January 9, 2006
Colo, Iowa (population 900), a town about an hour northeast of Des
Moines, is little more than a rail crossing, a grain elevator, and a
dwindling main street. But at 7 a.m. on the opening morning of
Iowa's celebrated pheasant season, the lights were on in a one-story
building on Main Street where the Colo Lions Club was sponsoring a
pancake breakfast for hunters. I arrived with two pheasant hunters,
the three of us clad in the ubiquitous orange vests and caps of the
sport, with dogs waiting in kennels in the back of a pickup. We were
looking for a place to hunt.
Inside, the scene resembled the cantina from "Star Wars" in one way:
It was a strategic place to gather information and try to seal a
deal. Men sat around folding tables swapping stories about the birds
they bagged last year, but also grousing about the difficulty of
finding land where they could hunt. Iowa is 97 percent private land,
so to have much shot at a pheasant, you pretty much need a
landowner's permission to roam his fields. That's getting harder to
come by these days, with old farms being sold and fence posts hung
with new signs that warn, "No Trespassing."
As my companions and I filled up on pancakes, a friend of theirs
walked over and pulled up a chair next to us. After helping himself
to a plate, he glanced around slyly, leaned forward, and passed us
an enticing tip: He had a friend who had a friend who was a local
landowner and might give us permission to hunt on his land. We
should drive down past Colo Bogs and look out for Joe Quaker in a
grey van. Soon we were on the road, rumbling over gravel roads to
the appointed meeting place. When no grey van appeared, we drove on,
forced to look elsewhere for hunting ground. Occasionally, we passed
hunters tromping through roadside drainage ditches, among the only
public turf still available to those pheasant seekers without access
to someone else's land.
This hunt for a spot to hunt is increasingly a part of the
sportsmen's pursuit today. In the terminology of those who follow
the problem, "access" is the buzzword phrase. "When you ask hunters
directly what their biggest concern is, out of 20-odd possible
choices, land access is most often number one," says Mark Duda of
Responsive Management, a firm that conducts surveys for state
wildlife departments. The scramble to find land can cause friction
between hunters and landowners--in at least one instance, with
tragic results. In November, a Hmong immigrant was sentenced to life
in prison for killing six hunters in Wisconsin after a trespassing
dispute erupted when he wandered onto their land.
The increasing difficulty of finding land to hunt on is, not
surprisingly, nudging ever more hunters to hang up their shotguns.
In Iowa, the number of hunters in state has dropped 26 percent in a
decade, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and other
states have experienced similar declines. One in three former
hunters told the agency that not having a place to hunt motivated
their decision to abandon their hobby. Around the country, more
sportsmen each year are parking their deer stands and duck decoys in
Even so, hunting is unlikely to disappear entirely. The ranks of
hunters may dwindle, but hunting itself retains a cultural
resonance, calling to mind a time when pioneers depended on
ingenuity and perseverance to settle the frontier and evoking a
pastoral nostalgia for farm life. Americans like to think of hunting
as a national tradition, even as they tool around suburban parkways
in their Subaru Outbacks. Hunting and fishing are touchstones for a
world that many suburban and exurban dwellers value, even if their
daily lives no longer reflect it.
In American politics, few causes are more potent than those
defending threatened heritage symbols. Real or perceived attacks on
school prayer, the pledge of allegiance, and the etiquette of
saying "Merry Christmas" have all been whipped into political
maelstroms. That's largely because conservatives recognized, and
then exploited, a latent but largely unorganized anger.
A comparable frustration exists among hunters over land access. But
conservatives haven't tapped into it because the source of this
anxiety isn't a liberal bogeyman, like elitism or big government.
Instead, it's the closing-off of private property and sale of public
land, something many on the right defend. That means progressives
could find themselves in the unexpected position of being the
champions of hunters. Those states that have effectively slowed or
reversed the hunting decline have done so with programs that use
government to open up private lands voluntarily to public
recreation. This time, it may be progressive government that holds
out the best hope for preserving an American tradition.
A wink from Uncle Fred
If Americans don't hunt in the numbers that they used to, hunting
goods stores aren't in danger of going out of business just yet.
Hunting and fishing remain major national pastimes: In 2001, 13
million Americans headed out to hunt and 34 million to fish. The
total number of "sportsmen" -- men and women who hunt or fish -- is
38 million today, nearly one in five Americans. But while that's a
crowd, it's a shrinking one. Over the past two decades, the
percentage of Americans who hunt or fish has tumbled from 26 to 18
percent; the absolute number of sportsmen has fallen from 50 million
to 38 million.
The decline is related to the ripple effects of suburbanization, the
gradual century-long movement of Americans from farms to cities and
suburbs. Thirty years ago, many suburban residents still had
relatives who lived in the country, relatives who would welcome them
back to the farm to hunt on fall weekends. Now those relatives are
largely gone -- or suburban dwellers themselves.
Today, more than two out of three sportsmen live in metropolitan
areas, where their children grow up less familiar with firearms,
removed from daily contact with blood and dirt, and often less
comfortable with the pursuit of game as sport. Just as successive
generations of immigrant families lose touch with the language and
customs of the old country, the descendants of rural America simply
don't have the same strong cultural attachment to the land and to
Yet there isn't an ocean separating the Old World from the New.
Americans who want to reclaim their hunting heritage are at most a
few hours' drive from doing so. Likewise, there's nothing preventing
certain aspects of country culture from making their way into town.
Other pastimes once thought of as rural, from country music to
NASCAR, have found their fastest-growing markets in the suburbs of
cities like Atlanta. But with hunting, the obstacles are twofold:
Suburbanites are less likely to know anyone who owns land, and
landowners -- particularly absentee owners -- are less inclined to
open their property to strangers.
Back when more Americans lived a short walk from a relative or
friend's farm, the way someone found a place to hunt or fish was
simply by asking for permission. If Uncle Fred wasn't home, you
knocked on the doors of nearby farmhouses. My dad, who grew up in
Dubuque, Iowa, in the 1950s, recalls that when he and his friends
stepped onto a farmer's porch, the first question was
usually, "Where you boys from?" Once the farmer had sized them up,
content that local boys would know not to fire a gun near cattle and
not to leave gates open, they were usually sent on their way with a
These days, knocking on a stranger's door, shotgun in hand, would
likely meet with less success. For one thing, rural America has a
greater proportion of absentee landowners: corporate farm owners,
summer-home owners, investors who favor land over stocks. Those
landowners who are home are more likely to eye unfamiliar hunters
with suspicion. New arrivals from urban environments find it odd to
share their lawns. Even old-timers like Uncle Fred are having second
thoughts: Reports of trespassing and property damage are on the
rise, especially near metro areas.
As "No Hunting" signs hang from more gates, ammo boxes sit unused in
more sheds. In a poll of inactive New Jersey hunters, the complaint
that there weren't enough places to hunt topped the list of reasons
for quitting the sport. Slightly further down that list was a
related concern: "too many hunters in the field." As available
places to hunt diminish, hunters are squeezed onto fewer fields. In
Iowa, crowds on the state's limited public hunting grounds have
swelled even as hunting license sales have declined; an estimated 20
to 30 percent of Iowa hunters now hunt on the 1 percent of land that
is managed for public hunting. What the crowds reveal is a growing
mismatch between desire and opportunity.
Hunting with checkbooks
The old system of finding a spot to hunt was a favor among
friends: "You knew the landowner down the road or got to know him,"
Rob Sexton at the U.S. Sportsman's Alliance remembers, "maybe shared
your birds or offered to help seed a field or brought over some
cakes at Christmas time." The new system is the market.
In recent years, an industry has sprung up to match hunter
checkbooks with landowner bank accounts. Now, hunters can pay for
exclusive recreational access to a property through a contract known
as a "hunting lease." In 2001, leases averaged $670 per property for
the hunting season, up 150 percent since 1991. To locate leasing
opportunities, hunters post want ads on sites like Huntspot.com,
listing what they are looking for and what they are willing to pay.
A sportsman with the handle "Texas Law Dog," for example, wrote on
behalf of five hunters seeking a hunting lease in the Lone Star
panhandle; each was willing to pay $1,750 for land access.
Awarding access to the highest bidder tends to drive up prices, and
consequently drives some people out. When Dave Hurteau, a columnist
at Field and Stream magazine, solicited reader comments on the
subject, he found he had touched a nerve. One reader wrote to
say: "I had a lease that cost me $850 the first year, $1,100 the
second, and $1,300 the third. Three years was enough for me." A
hunter confirmed the high price of pay-to-play hunting: "Today, a
fine South Texas lease with trophy potential [big game hunting] will
run $3,500 a gun and up. And I mean way up--to around $10,000. It
had gotten totally out of hand."
The rising cost of a place in the field has, according to Todd
Peterson of Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources, "priced
some people out of the sport." Nationally, the number of hunters
with below-median incomes has declined 16 percent in 15 years; over
the same period, the number of hunters with above-median incomes has
declined just 3 percent.
Tony Dean, a sort of Walter Cronkite of Midwestern sportsmen, who
mixes walleye recipes with political commentary on the popular "Tony
Dean Outdoors" show, says he fears a day when hunting and outdoor
recreation become pastimes of the elite, something only the well-to-
do can afford to enjoy. "Our forefathers left a European system in
which wildlife and land belonged only to landowners," Dean told
me. "We don't want to go back to being like the Europeans."
Blasting snowy egrets
Indeed, in Europe the land and the creatures on it traditionally
belonged to the nobility, who alone had the right to pursue game.
Even today, when debates over British fox hunting arise, the
descendants of dukes generally defend it while the great-grandsons
of cobblers generally oppose.
But in America, something like the opposite has long been the case.
In 1683, William Penn's Charter for the Commonwealth enshrined the
right of the average man to hunt and fish on all lands not enclosed
for livestock. One hundred and fifty years later, in 1842, a New
Jersey landowner and an oysterman found themselves in front of the
Supreme Court, arguing over whether Mr. Waddell owned the oysters
stuck in the mud on his property. The Court ruled that he did not,
and it granted sovereignty of the waterways, the soil, and the
critters in them to the people of each state.
Subsequent rulings refined the unique American system that exists
today: Wildlife is held in trust by the state (managed by state
wildlife agencies) for the benefit of the public, who collectively
This idea of public ownership became the intellectual foundation for
America's conservation movement a century ago, when commercial
hunters had begun decimating buffalo herds and blasting snowy egrets
with cannons in order to sell feathers for ladies' hats. Theodore
Roosevelt and a handful of other naturalists -- most of them
hunters -- argued that wildlife belonged to the public and therefore
could not be obliterated by business interests.
"Public rights comes first and private interests second," Roosevelt
wrote in 1905. "The conservation of wildlife and... all our natural
resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and
method." He outlawed commercial hunting and promoted measures --
such as bag limits and game seasons -- to ensure that wildlife could
be enjoyed by future generations.
In a reversal of the tragedy of the commons, the American
conservation movement has been far more successful, both in
garnering popular support and in saving species from extinction,
than efforts in countries where a different mentality exists toward
ownership of wildlife. Whereas America brought back the elk,
antelope, and white-tailed deer, in Britain boars, beavers, and
bears no longer roam. Today, however, this heritage faces a new
challenge, unfathomable in the days of Penn or Roosevelt. As Todd
Bogenschutz of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources told
me, "Our forefathers made wildlife public, but they screwed another
thing up. They should have made access to wildlife public."
What's right with Kansas
From the window of an airplane, Kansas looks a lot like Iowa. Both
are square states, checkered in agricultural fields, and more than
97 percent of the largely flat land is in private hands. A glimpse
at census reports shows that they are also demographically similar.
Iowans and Kansans alike have been moving from the countryside to
cities like Des Moines and Wichita; the two states have seen similar
single-digit population growth over the last decade, and they now
rank 30th and 32nd in overall state populations. And both have
beloved pheasant seasons, anticipated by hunters and promoted by
small-town chambers of commerce.
There is one notable difference. While the number of hunters in Iowa
has dropped 26 percent in a decade, in Kansas resident hunter
numbers have remained steady and out-of-state license sales have
increased. It isn't that Kansas has more enthusiastic sportsmen's
groups or tastier birds or prettier fields than Iowa. What it does
have is a state-run program that increases access to hunting grounds.
Kansas' Walk-In Hunting Access program (WIHA) -- delightfully
called "wee-haw" -- works with private landowners to arrange for
public hunting use of their land. It started a decade ago after the
Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks polled inactive hunters and
found that access was the greatest obstacle to hunting.
In 1995, a pilot version of WIHA debuted in seven counties around
Wichita, encompassing 10,000 acres of land. Since then, the program
has grown to include over one million acres across the state. In
early November, on opening morning of this fall's pheasant season,
Mike Thompson and his son Brandon drove 40 minutes west from their
home in Wichita, parked their truck beside a field of tall grass,
and hopped out to don orange vests. Signs bordering the field
read: "Walk-In Hunting Area, foot traffic only." Anyone with a $19
resident hunting license can hunt on WIHA land, and it's not hard to
find convenient sites. Mike had noticed the signs for this
particular spot while driving; he might also have found it by
consulting an online atlas of available sites or flipping through a
listing at Cabela's, the sportsmen's megastore.
The Thompsons were walking back to their truck, a bird in hand and a
black lab trotting ahead of them, when a state wildlife department
employee pulled up to distribute survey cards. Mike said he had
relatives in Illinois with hunting land, but that was "a real long
drive"--having a destination under an hour away was much better.
"I'd pay for this program," Mike offered. The biologist tipped his
hat, a burnt orange cap that read "Kansas Hunting Access," and
said, "There's an address on that card if you want to send a
donation. We'll send you a hat."
That same morning, LaVeda Cross, longtime resident of the small town
of Lewis, Kansas, watched hunters pour into restaurants where cooks
had fired up griddles and coffee pots before dawn. Cross owns about
3,000 acres that members of her family homesteaded generations ago
outside of town. Four years ago, she contacted the state wildlife
agency about enrolling her land in WIHA; a wildlife biologist came
out to inspect habitat conditions before offering her a contract and
negotiating the compensation. Payments vary based on habitat and
hunting seasons, but the average rate is $1.25 per acre in Kansas.
(That's in addition to any money a landowner makes farming or
grazing the land, or enrolling it in a federal conservation reserve
Cross now lives in town; her son works the land. She tells me it's
harder to make a living on the farm than it used to be, and the
spike in fuel prices hit hard this harvest season. So, while the
payment from the wildlife department is not a lot, "It's a simple
way to make a little bit of money and help keep up income and
And there's another reason Cross likes WIHA: She's grateful for
Charlie Swank, a wildlife biologist who wears his ten-gallon hat on
official business and calls Cross regularly to keep her informed of
what's happening on the land. Before she enrolled her land in WIHA,
Cross had problems with hunters trespassing and taking pot shots at
the windmills on the farm ("The ones who don't ask permission tend
to be the reckless ones"). Now, the state has authority to watch
over the land and assumes limited liability, which otherwise would
rest with Cross and other landowners. More people use her land now,
but according to Cross, there have been far fewer problems with
property damage: "I really look forward to the time when the hunters
come back," she tells me.
According to the department's annual surveys, just one in five
landowners live on the enrolled property, though many, including
Cross, reside nearby. With fewer farmers each overseeing larger
plots of land, monitoring property has become a big concern. Eighty-
one percent of landowners said that state patrol of their lands was
a "very important" or "moderately important" component of the Kansas
program. Each year, Cross says, she turns down an offer for a more
lucrative private lease from a group of Colorado hunters, in part
because of the "peace of mind" the state program provides.
Kansas is one of seven states that has operated a sizable access
program (involving 500,000 or more acres) for a decade or longer. In
each of these seven states, the number of hunters in state has
either gone up, held steady, or dipped at a rate far slower than
would otherwise be expected, given urbanization and other
During a decade in which the number of hunters nationally declined
by 7 percent, those states with large established access programs
collectively saw the number of hunters in state (resident and
nonresident) rise by nearly 5 percent. Access programs are wildly
popular with hunters, benefit landowners and farmers, and promise to
slow hunting's decline, at least for the moment. The only question
seems to be: Why aren't more states embracing them?
A bunch of biologists making policy
Given the escalating payments that private leasers are willing to
make in order to secure land access, some skeptics question whether
states can afford to be competitive in the deals they offer to
landowners. As LaVeda Cross and other owners, especially the growing
cadre of absentee landowners, can attest, part of the attraction of
an access program is the peace of mind that comes with authorizing
someone else to watch over your land. But some states have also
worked with landowners to develop creative methods of compensation
that meet their specific needs.
In Pennsylvania, for instance, the state offers landowners habitat
consultations with state biologists and free seedlings in lieu of
payments. Oregon has hired retired state troopers to beef up patrol
of lands enrolled in its access program. The goal is to identify
ways to supplement cash payments to landowners with services that
draw upon the state's expertise--and provide a market advantage over
In addition, cash-strapped state capitals, under political pressure
from conservative activists to avoid raising taxes, are loathe to
implement new programs that require additional funding. Even though
hunting season can be a significant economic generator for rural
economies -- filling main-street restaurants and roadside motels --
state legislatures have not clamored to start access program to
attract more hunters. In almost every case (Oregon is the
exception), the initiative to start such programs has come instead
from state wildlife departments. "It's kinda dangerous," says Mike
Mitchener, Kansas' wildlife section chief, "a bunch of biologists
getting into policy and marketing."
What states have found, however, is that access programs can have
benefits that exceed their costs. Kansas has paid for its $1.5
million program largely by redistributing its existing wildlife
operating budget, which is only just over $3 million annually. Yet
wildlife-related recreation is estimated to bring a hefty sum of
$785 million to the state each year. In Oregon, a $2 surcharge on
hunting licenses has funded its access program. But despite polls
that show hunters in other states are willing to pay a modest charge
to fund access programs, wildlife agencies have found it difficult
to convince legislatures to embrace anything that looks like a tax
If politicians realized the potential support for access programs
beyond the nation's relatively small cadre of hunters, they might be
more enthusiastic about the political benefits of expanding
Americans' access to enjoy wildlife on private lands.
Wildlife belongs to all of us
Access programs are an elegant way to stem hunting's slow demise.
Yet the potential of the idea extends far beyond hunting, for
sportsmen aren't the only ones having a tough time finding a spot to
enjoy nature. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "non-
consumptive wildlife recreation," a category that includes such
pursuits as nature hiking and bird watching, has also declined--13
percent in a decade. This drop has occurred even as visits to
national parks have increased substantially, suggesting that
Americans' demand for experiencing nature hasn't diminished, it's
just outstripped the supply of accessible land.
Access programs could provide an answer. In Wyoming and other
states, programs are being adapted to help anglers. In Pennsylvania,
lands managed under the state's hunting access program already
attract horseback riders and hikers. And because many access
programs target acreage near metropolitan areas, giving landowners a
small incentive not to sell out too quickly to developers (and
developers a modest reason to hold off building on land they own),
these programs ought to be popular with everyone from Boy Scouts to
mountain-bike dealers to suburban anti-sprawl advocates.
It takes time for any new idea to percolate nationally, and the
origins of access programs (in conversations in the field, and
between regional fish and wildlife departments) are literally as
grassroots as they come. But another reason these programs haven't
yet caught fire in Washington may have more to do with the fact that
conservatives currently dominate every foothold of federal
government. Polling shows that hunters and anglers vote
predominantly, though not overwhelmingly, Republican. On some
issues, such as gun rights, the GOP has courted these groups
intently. But on hunting and fishing land access, conservatives have
routinely supported industrial interests over those of sportsmen.
The Bush administration has pushed sales of oil and gas drilling
rights on public land in the West, much of it prime habitat and
hunting and fishing range, sparking increasingly loud protests from
sportsmen's groups. Outrage at plans to allow exploratory drilling
near Montana's Rocky Mountain Front (oft-dubbed "America's
Serengeti," a trophy-hunter's paradise) convinced the White House to
back off before the last election. The latest outcry occurred over
language House Resources Committee chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.)
inserted into a GOP-backed budget bill. The insertion, since
withdrawn, would have allowed the sell-off of vast holdings of
public lands to mining companies and developers.
Liberals hardly have a better record at championing sportsmen's
causes. Local chapters of the Sierra Club, for instance, have
campaigned against everything from dove hunting in Minnesota to the
culling of black bears in New Jersey -- even though state wildlife
biologists insist the hunts pose no ecological risks. Some
environmental leaders, though, are beginning to find philosophic and
political common ground with sportsmen's groups, pursuing
partnerships on a variety of fronts, including private land access.
So are some Democrats in Congress.
For the last two years, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Sen. Pat
Roberts (R-Kansas) have introduced an "Open Fields" bill. The
measure would provide $20 million a year for five years in federal
money for states to establish or expand access programs
for "hunting, fishing, bird-watching, and related outdoor
activities." That any elected official would fail to support such an
inexpensive, uncontroversial, and potentially popular bill might be
hard to imagine. Yet in both GOP-dominated houses of Congress the
measure has garnered nearly twice as many Democratic co-sponsors as
Republican, and consequently not gone very far.
As long as the conservative ethos reigns in Washington and in state
capitals, then America's hunting, fishing, and outdoors culture will
almost certainly continue to decline. The best hope for protecting
this heritage probably rests with elected officials of a progressive
bent, Republicans as well as Democrats -- officials who are
ideologically comfortable using government to assert a right
bequeathed by America's political forefathers: that wildlife belongs
not to private interests but to the public.
Christina Larson is managing editor of The Washington Monthly.