As the nation’s economy gradually grinds out of low gear, those willing to spend money in the outdoors of Washington and Idaho appear to have loosened their grip on the fewer dollars available for everything from bird watching to paying guides to hunt elk.
Both states saw crashes in 2009 in the number of people buying hunting licenses – which hit Idaho especially hard – and Idaho Fish and Game officials fear they may never again attain the number of non-residents willing to pay what many consider to be steep fees to hunt the Gem State.
However, both states have seen steady increases in either participation or sales, which makes an event like Spokane’s Big Horn Show both a predictor and a conduit for those who spend billions of dollars to do everything from whitewater rafting to mountain hiking.
“Outdoor recreation, in general, is huge,” said Madonna Luers, spokeswoman of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department. “People who go fishing, hunting and wildlife viewing – they spend money.”
Based on somewhat aged data from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, outdoor activities generate about $4.5 billion for Washington and about $1.5 billion a year for Idaho, state officials said.
“Bird watching is a good example,” Luers said. “One of our biologists saw a gull, something normally seen only near the Bering Strait, and it was in Okanogan County. You would not believe the number of people who ran to Okanogan County just to get that bird on their life list. They are all paying for lodging, gas and food.”
While the Big Horn Show started 54 years ago by hunters who wanted to compare their huge antlers, it has morphed into outdoor-economy trade show for those seeking to sell everything from hunts in Alaska to salad dressing from Rathdrum.
“We’re seeing a tremendous increase in vendors,” said Wanda Clifford, the event’s executive director. “We are sitting on a larger waiting list than we’ve ever had for people wanting in the show.”
While similar shows in Missoula, Boise and Seattle are for profit, the Big Horn Show raises money for the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council. Just five years ago the show would typically sell about 75 percent of the booths by December. This year, 95 percent were sold by then.
“The show is busting at the seams this year,” she said. “We’ve seen a huge increase in vendor requests. It could be that the economy is getting better or that we have a very good show at a reasonable price.”
Idaho’s hunting economy took a double hit in 2009 when both the economy slowed and the state hiked nonresident fees for hunting tags. Out-of-state hunters were left facing higher costs at a time when many of them were facing uncertainty about jobs.
“The economy tanks and people had fewer dollars for hotels, gas and food,” said Michael Pearson, chief of the bureau of operations for Idaho Fish and Game. “Obviously, it means the department earned less revenue. We have less money to do the things we do.”
When Idaho lawmakers raised nonresident deer tags from $259 to $302 and bumped the elk tag from $373 to $417, it made Idaho one of the costliest states for non-residents to hunt. Since then, other states have raised their fees to take out some of the sting.
Department spokesman Mike Keckler said he remembers talking to one disgruntled group from Mississippi, which typically brought six hunters every year to hunt in Idaho.
“They said that between the six of them, they paid $60,000 a year through tags, outfitter fees, hotels and transportation,” Keckler said. “I never forgot that.”
Idaho also has several quota hunts, where it caps the number of permits for a given area. In good times, hunters would gobble up those tags in January before they sold out.
In 2008, Pearson said he would sell more than 2,000 tags in January. So far this year, he sold 270 and many of the quota hunts aren’t getting filled.
“There’s been a shift in the economics of how they buy their tags,” he said. “People are waiting … because they know they can buy it over the counter later in the year.”
In Washington, only a fraction of the money funneled into Fish and Wildlife Department comes from the sale of non-resident tags. Most of the movement actually comes from hunters coming across the Cascades to hunt in Eastern Washington, said Frank Hawley, the department’s budget and policy manager in licensing.
Hawley tracks the numbers of persons who buy hunting and fishing licenses and uses that information to forecast the revenue for the coming year.
Washington started to see a decline in hunting license customers from 196,302 in fiscal year 2007 until it bottomed out at 180,113 in 2012.
“I’m predicting 183,000 hunting license customers for 2014. That’s still low, but it’s an uptick,” he said. “It’s the first one we are seeing in years. Any sort of uptick like that is important.”
The economy has had less impact on fishing licenses. Generally, the better the salmon run, the more fishing licenses get sold, Hawley said.
“Hunting costs a little bit more. So, disposable income is harder to part with if you have a family or even if you are an individual,” he said. “But … people are obviously starting to buy again despite what it costs to hunt.”
Rafting the Horn
Peter Grubb, owner of ROW Adventures in Coeur d’Alene, has spent 35 years turning the thrill of white water into a career. But the economy downturn hurt his business, too.
“If the stock market crashes, our phones stop ringing,” Grubb said. “We definitely saw a dip in business in 2009. For us, it was about 30 percent, so it was a huge hit. We have seen modest growth since then.” Grubb offers rafting trips on local rivers and books trips to California, South America and Europe.
“Over half of our trips are international,” Grubb said. “Those trips cost more, but they have done very well in the last decade.”
Grubb said he rented his first booth at the Big Horn Show in 1982.
“It’s been a great show for us over the years,” Grubb said. “It gives us a lot of local exposure. It’s a nice, easy place to touch bases with people and clients.”
Those connections are exactly what Dan Dodd is hoping for as the Medical Lake resident rented his first booth this year at the Big Horn Show.
“I hope to pick up some clients, maybe book some fishing and hunting trips and get my name out there,” said the owner of Double D’s Taxidermy and Guide Service.
Recently retired from the U.S. Air Force, Dodd in 2009 started offering hunting and fishing trips. He’s just recently added taxidermy to the mix.
“I’m a small-time operation. I’m taking people out to do something I enjoy,” he said.
Still, he’s banking his next career on finding just enough like-minded folks who want to pay a little to share his passion for the outdoors.
“Sportsmen are kind of like drug addicts,” he said. “If they want to get their fix, they will save to get their trips.”