The opening of Utah’s deer hunt once ranked as one of the state’s most important holidays. High school football games were moved to Thursdays. Schools declared a fall recess the Friday before the hunt because so many students skipped class to go hunting. College athletic directors scheduled football games out of town to avoid conflicts.
Those days are over. A more urbanized Utah is following a national trend in which hunting-license sales continue to decline.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently reported that 15.23 million hunters bought licenses in 1996, a slight decrease from 15.34 million hunters in 1995.
Most stories about the decline did not attempt to explain it.
In 1960, there were 184,344 Utah hunters. The state population that year was 900,000. In 1995, when the population hit nearly 2 million, 166,837 hunters bought licenses.
The high point in hunter numbers came in 1980, when 257,596 hunters were afield.
State Department of Wildlife Resources officials are working to find the reason people are abandoning hunting for other pursuits. Indeed, 85 percent of the agency’s budget hinges on the sale of hunting and fishing licenses.
One obvious reason for the decline in hunters is the cap on the number of deer licenses sold - 97,000 - that went into effect in the 1993 season. Utah lost almost 30,000 hunters that year.
Dick Carter, a longtime Utah wildlife activist, isn’t surprised that hunter numbers are dropping in Utah and other states.
“Western state wildlife agencies have missed the trend,” he said. “Hunters are not interested in numbers or killing. Their paradigm is changing. Hunters want quality and fewer people.”
Carter said he can’t find a single researcher who believes hunter numbers will increase. It’s simply too hard nowadays to find a good place to hunt.
“There is a different demographic with respect to hunting populations. The future of Western wildlife agencies clearly doesn’t rest with selling hunting licenses. Selling wildlife as tourism or, more important, as an ecological indicator of the health of public lands is where the money is.”
Lenny Reese, who heads the agency’s hunter-education program, said the legal age to hunt big game was dropped from 16 to 14 in an effort to recruit more hunters.
“We’re competing for recreational opportunities,” said Reese. “There are a lot more things for young people to do now than there were 20 or 30 years ago.”
Ultimately, though, those who enjoy wildlife but do not hunt or fish may be required to help pay for wildlife programs.
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