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Hunting for a turnaround

Several factors - including development - may b e to blame for fewer licensed hunters in Florida. Now the industry hopes to reverse the decline.

By TERRY TOMALIN
Published January 13, 2007


ORLANDO

Hunting industry insiders say they think they know why there are 100,000 fewer licensed hunters in Florida today than there were 25 years ago. And they hope they know how to reverse the trend. Gathering at this weekend's Shooting Hunting Outdoor Trade Show, industry officials admit the sport has taken a hit - from increased development that has reduced the habitat, to competition for leisure time, to even a change in family dynamics.

"Many of the traditional places that people used to hunt are now developed," said Nick Wiley of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "Another reason is that kids today have so many options. It is tough to compete with video games and the Internet."

About 240,000 licensed hunters were in the state in 1980. That number is now around 140,000 - a 40 percent drop.

But Wiley and his colleagues in private industry, upbeat about the future of their $20-billion sport, are trying to reverse that trend.

"I don't think we will ever reach the numbers we had back in 1960," said Scott Grange of Browning, one of the nation's leading rifle and shotgun manufacturers. "But I think the downward trend has stopped. Browning, and all the other major players, are doing everything they can to get the kids off the couch and into the field."

Florida is not alone. Fifteen years ago, there were 14.1-million hunters in the United States. Five years ago, that number had dropped to 13-million.

Meanwhile, thousands of wholesalers and retailers stood in line Friday to see the latest in outdoor gadgets and gear. More than 1,800 exhibitors from 50 states and 75 countries crowded 1.3-million square feet of floor space at the Orange County Convention Center to sell items ranging from shotguns to pocketknives.

This year's hunting show set records, a good sign for an outdoor industry that generates an estimated $108-billion annually in the United States. Although the overall number of hunters may be down, the amount of money spent is up nearly 30 percent since 1991.

"We are very optimistic," Grange said. "We are not going anywhere."

It is difficult to determine how many acres of former hunting lands have been lost to development. But state officials said the trend is obvious.

"There has been a great loss of private land," said David Meehan, vice chairman of the FWC. "It used to be that somebody had a friend, who had a friend, who had some land and you just went hunting."

Meehan, an avid hunter who is a partner in an exclusive private game club, said hunters were forced to choose between hunting in crowded state Wildlife Management Areas or pay to hunt on privately leased land.

"We have tried to give the hunters some release through our special opportunity hunt system," he said. "It works just like the lottery, and if you get a permit, you can hunt without the crowds."

Attracting younger hunters has been a challenge, Meehan said. Florida law requires that people born after 1975 take a hunter safety course. Although the classes have helped reduce the number of hunting-related accidents, officials fear they may deter some youngsters from taking up the sport.

"Scheduling was a problem," Meehan said. "If the time was inconvenient, they didn't take the class and couldn't go hunting."

Last year, to try to address the problem, the Florida Legislature passed a "Hunter Safety Mentoring Exemption" that will allow those 16 or older to hunt without the class, as long as they are with a licensed hunter who is 21 or older.

"We give them a one-year window to see if they like it," Meehan said. "If they decide they want to keep hunting, they can take the class and get a license."

In 2005, government officials and industry representatives met in Orlando for a hunting summit to discuss the future of the sport. The result was a not-for-profit organization called the Future of Hunting in Florida.

The organization is working to attract young people into the sport, as are others such as the National Wild Turkey Federation, the National Shooting Sports Foundation and Safari Club International.

"We are doing all we can to pry those video games out of their hands," said Lee Paczosa, a hunter from Tucson, Ariz., who runs the Safari Club's youth education seminar program. "Every weekend we invite the schools and the Scouts to come out to a Cabela's somewhere around the country to see what we do. Once you get them started with a BB gun, chances are they will be involved in the shooting sport for the rest of their life."

The Shooting Sports Foundation, an organization in Newton, Conn., that puts on the hunting show, has a scholastic clay target program that has grown from 700 teams in 2001 to 8,300 in 2006.

"Our future is with the youth," said Dick Kapp, a Safari Club member who runs a hunting dog supply business in Wisconsin. "If we don't get kids out there now, then their kids won't hunt. And that will be it."

Wiley, the state official in charge of hunting and game management, said changing family dynamics is a harder issue to address.

"Hunting is a sport that takes both time and effort," he said. "In many families, both parents now work. People are a lot busier than they used to be. There is more competition for their time."

Nonhunters might ask why the general public should care if hunting slowly disappears.

"If you look at any major conservation group, you will see that hunters played a major role in getting it started," said Gregg Patterson, director of communications for Ducks Unlimited, based in Memphis. "Hunters give more to conservation causes than the average citizen because they are more closely connected to the environment."

Since its founding 70 years ago, Ducks Unlimited has conserved, enhanced or restored more than 11.6-million acres of wetlands in Canada, the United States and Mexico.

Mike Checkett, a Ducks Unlimited biologist, points to Arkansas' Cash River National Wildlife Refuge.

"That is where researchers recently spotted an ivory-billed woodpecker, a species previously thought to be extinct," he said. "That land was all bought with federal duck stamp money. If the hunting tradition declines, there will be a serious impact on that type of habitat."

Eric Antebi, a national spokesman for the Sierra Club, the nation's oldest and largest grass roots environmental organization, applauded Ducks Unlimited's conservation record.

"We view groups like Ducks Unlimited as natural allies in the fight to protect wildlife habitat for future generations," Antebi said. "If we are going to succeed in preserving our natural resources for our children, the Sierra Club cannot do it alone."

Researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@ sptimes.com or (727) 893-8808.

Hunting and fishing across the nation

Florida may not be a top hunting state, but it remains No. 1 when it comes to fishing. The top five states by number of people:

Top hunting states

1. Texas 1,201,000

2. Pennsylvania 1,000,000

3. Michigan 754,000

4. New York 714,000

5. Wisconsin 660,000

Top fishing states

1. Florida 3,104,000

2. California 2,444,000

3. Texas 2,372,000

4. Minnesota 1,624,000

5. New York 1,550,000