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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

As hunter numbers plummet across the U.S., Idaho sets records — for now

A first-time hunter takes a shot at a pheasant during an Idaho Department of Fish and Game hunting clinic. The department will hold a hunting expo in Lewiston Aug. 21 and 22, 2015, designed to introduce people to hunting. (Courtesy photo / COURTESY PHOTO)
By Nicole Blanchard The Idaho Statesman

BOISE – For years, hunting advocates have been sounding the alarm as the practice started slipping from tradition. What started as a slow decline in the early 1980s has picked up speed in many states, some of which have lost tens of thousands of hunters in the last decade alone.

In Idaho, the numbers look a little different.

According to data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Idaho hit a record-high number of paid hunting license holders in 2019: 295,281. Ian Malepeai, marketing director for Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said that number includes hunting licenses and combination hunting/fishing licenses.

In many ways, that number is good. Sustained interest in a longtime Idaho pastime also means consistent revenue to Fish and Game, which took in nearly $28 million in 2019 (another record). Like other state wildlife agencies, Idaho Fish and Game is tasked with managing all of Idaho’s wildlife, regardless of whether they’re game animals, so a steady stream of revenue is vital. Earlier this month, the Washington Post highlighted what it called “a crisis for … endangered species” due to hunting-related revenue declines in other states.

But despite Idaho’s promising growth in hunter numbers and funding, officials say our state isn’t out of the woods when it comes to preserving hunting.

Idaho sees ‘writing on the wall’ in other states’ declines

The number of hunters in Idaho is growing – but the number of people in Idaho is growing even faster, and hunting figures can’t keep pace with the state’s booming population growth.

Even in 1982, when the number of hunters in the nation was at its peak, the number of hunters per capita in Idaho was falling. The earliest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service records available online, from 1958, show 27 hunting license holders for every 100 people in Idaho. By 1982, that number was down slightly to 25 hunters for every 100 Idahoans. As hunting started to decline nationwide, Idaho slid to 20 hunters per 100 people in 2000. Last year, there were 16 hunters per 100 Idahoans – a number that’s been consistent in recent years since hitting an all-time low of 15 in 2013.

The decline in the percentage of hunters is one of several potential harbingers of difficult times to come. Hunting advocates have long speculated about what will happen as longtime hunters “age out” of the pastime.

“The fear is this Baby Boomer generation would age out and there’s no one to replace them,” Malepeai said.

Idaho is already struggling for younger hunters.

“One of the concerning things for us is over the past three years, we’ve seen a marked decline in graduates from our hunters education courses,” Malepeai said.

But Idaho Fish and Game is not waiting to meet the same fate other states have. Malepeai’s marketing position was created recently to help the agency with “the three R’s” – recruiting, retaining and reactivating hunters and anglers. Fish and Game is already seeing year-over-year growth in fishing licenses as a result of marketing campaigns, Malepeai said.

“We saw the writing on the wall in other states, so we wanted to get out ahead of it,” Malepeai said. “Our revenue is stable right now, but we’re just trying to keep it there.”

Why has Idaho hunting bucked trends?

Idaho isn’t the only state that has seen its hunting license numbers grow – Alaska, Oregon and Utah have seen major increases, while Colorado, Wyoming and Nevada have had mostly steady numbers since 2000.

It’s not entirely clear why Idaho and other states aren’t seeing such steep declines, but the culture of the West likely plays a role, Malepeai said.

“I think the Western states are all in the same boat,” he said. “And anecdotally … Idaho traditionally is a gun-friendly state. I think hunting and gun ownership is woven into the fabric of our history.”

Idaho also offers myriad opportunities for hunting – from different game animals to public land to hunt them on, according to Josh Kuntz, head of the Idaho chapter of outdoors group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

“We have a wide spectrum of different hunting opportunities: upland birds, waterfowl, several different big-game animals,” Kuntz said. “There’s a little something for everyone.”

Plus, Idahoans might be converting some of the state’s newcomers to hunting.

“If you move here, you’re probably going to meet someone who hunts,” Kuntz said. “It’s probably not very different from mountain biking in Boise.”

And once a nonhunter’s curiosity is piqued, there are plenty of resources in the Treasure Valley. Backcountry Hunters and Anglers offers classes for “adult onset hunters” wanting to learn the skill. Last year, Fish and Game debuted a virtual reality program to teach hunters how to field-dress an elk.

But hunting advocates are still trying to strike the perfect balance between bringing in more hunters and avoiding overcrowding. At the same time that Idaho is courting new hunters, it’s also putting up some obstacles for nonresident hunters. The Idaho Legislature this year moved to increase prices on nonresident deer and elk tags, which in recent years have been selling out faster than ever.

“There’s a big movement to recruit for hunting, but as a hunter you naturally want a ton of opportunity, lots of big animals and no other hunters around,” Kuntz said. “You want to have your cake and eat it, too.”