To Revive Hunting, States Turn to the Classroom
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — When David Helms was in seventh grade, he would take his .22-caliber rifle to school, put a box of ammunition in his locker and, like virtually all the other boys, lean his rifle against a wall in the principal’s office so he could start hunting squirrels as soon as classes let out.
Mike Shay, left, owner of the Sports Emporium in Morgantown, W.Va. He said he was 8 or 9 when his father first took him hunting, and it took him years before he was ready to shoot.
The number of hunting licenses bought in West Virginia dropped 20 percent in the last decade.
Now, when he takes his 8-year-old grandson hunting on weekends, Mr. Helms, 55, searches the boy’s pockets before sending him back to school to ensure that there are no forgotten ammunition shells. But most of his grandson’s peers never have to worry about that, Mr. Helms said, because they would sooner play video games than join them outdoors.
Hunting is on the decline across the nation as participation has fallen over the last three decades, and states have begun trying to bolster this rural tradition by attracting new and younger people to the sport.
In West Virginia, state lawmakers gave final approval on Friday to a bill that allows hunting education classes in all schools where at least 20 students express interest. The goal is to reverse a 20 percent drop in hunting permits purchased over the last decade, which has caused a loss of more than $1.5 million in state revenue over that period. At least six other states are considering similar legislation.
Moreover, in the last two years, 17 states have passed laws to attract younger hunters by creating apprentice hunting licenses that allow people supervised by a trained mentor to sample the sport before completing the required course work, which typically takes 8 to 10 hours and can cost more than $200.
In that effort, Michigan, Nebraska, South Carolina and Utah have enacted laws since 2004 lowering or removing minimum age requirements for hunters, while Louisiana, Montana and Georgia have amended their constitutions to protect the right to hunt and fish. Eight states are considering similar amendments.
Hunting has seen its ranks fall nationally to 12.5 million in 2006 from a peak of 19.1 million in 1975, according to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. While the National Rifle Association has enthusiastically backed the campaign to get states to try to reverse the trend, groups like the United States Sportsmen’s Alliance have been the strongest lobbying force.
Of course, this issue is raising eyebrows amongst gun control advocates.
“In the post-Virginia Tech era, there is absolutely no reason to be bringing unloaded guns, toy guns or any guns into schools,” said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-control group based in Washington. “What West Virginia is doing is essentially trying to bolster gun sales and hunting participation by advertising to children, which is really cynical.”
Wildlife officials and environmental researchers offer different explanations for the decline in hunting, including rural depopulation, higher gas prices and the increased leasing of land by small exclusive clubs or the posting of “No Hunting” signs by private land owners.
Others cite the prevalence of single-parent homes, where the father is not present to pass down the tradition, and the growing popularity of indoor activities that offer immediate gratification, like the Internet, video games and movies.
“Hunting takes time, effort and patience,” said Capt. Louis DellaMea of the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. Shaking his head, he said that among the few young people who do hunt, the habit is to ride an all-terrain vehicle to a tree platform, pour out a bag of corn and sit waiting for the prey to show up.
There are other ways to enjoy wildlife however.
Andrew Page agrees about the draw of nature, but as the director of hunting affairs for the Humane Society of the United States, he sees the drop in hunting as heartening, partly because it has come with a simultaneous rise in other types of outdoor activity. The number of birdwatchers, wildlife photographers and other wildlife watchers grew to 71 million in 2006, up from 62.8 million in 1996, according to surveys conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
However, the decline of hunting has had some consequences as well.
In West Virginia, the Department of Natural Resources has lost at least $1.5 million in revenue from hunting and fishing licenses, which affects the department’s ability to conduct conservation work, state officials said.
Hunting is the largest factor in controlling the deer population, and without enough hunters, the deer population can grow and has contributed to an increase in road accidents, said Steve Brown, the state’s fish and wildlife planner. West Virginia has the highest rate of vehicular accidents caused by deer, according to State Farm Insurance. In 2006, the state Division of Highways reported 15,918 deer were killed in motor vehicle collisions.