Today’s deer hunters aren’t like those of 50 years ago. Here’s why
Open a hunting magazine from 1970. Then flip through one on the newsstands today. They won’t look the same. That’s not altogether surprising – magazines and their audience are bound to change over the course of 50 years – but once you start looking at digital content, social feeds, and even poke your head into a few deer camps, you’ll discover that deer hunters have changed significantly over the decades. In some ways, it’s been for the better. But this isn’t always the case.
So what’s changed? We spoke with several industry professionals to find out.
1. We Have Less Land to Hunt
Hunting grounds are finite. They aren’t making more land, and the spots that are available are rapidly shrinking. This translates to a reduction in land access. That’s no secret to any deer hunter who’s spent time knocking on doors or trying to keep hold of his lease. The real secret is learning how to circumvent it.
“For many, deer hunting was a hobby,” says Nick Pinizzotto, CEO of the National Deer Alliance. “There was usually a place to go, and nobody cared how big or old your buck was. Now, land is harder to find due to leases and those buying up large tracts that only a few hunters go on. There’s also pressure to not shoot deer that are too young or don’t have high-scoring racks.”
This commercialization of deer hunting helped create the problem – increased demand with a corresponding reduction in supply – within the last quarter century. Lower- and middle-class hunters have been affected the most.
“Access, or lack thereof, is often cited as the No. 1 reason [license buyers] quit hunting,” says Bee Frederick of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. “Access to private land is much harder to come by these days than it was 50 years ago. This is a significant policy issue, especially east of the Mississippi River where there is less public-land hunting. There are a number of state-specific access programs designed to provide public access to private lands.”
Walk-in-Hunting Areas and other state-driven programs are becoming more popular. Third-party organizations such as Powderhook, which tries to pair inexperienced hunters with established hunters, are making a difference, too. Still, non-profits such as the National Wild Turkey Federation, Whitetails Unlimited and other groups are making an impact. Hunters just have to continue to participate in those groups and support them.
Hunters of today and those from the 20th century are two completely different animals, especially when it comes to spending habits.
“How many friends do you have who own a bow that’s more than three years old?” Pinizzotto said. “I’m guilty of this, too. Even guns are being purchased more often. I know hunters who have so many trail cameras that they’ve lost track of some of them. Not too long ago, I spotted a trail camera hanging on a nearby tree. I walked over and realized it was one that I hung two years prior.”
It’s true. Most gear items hunters buy today weren’t common purchases 30-plus years ago: Trail cameras, rangefinders, multiple calls, land-management tools, deer corn and so on. The world of hunting retail has changed. Drastically. It no longer consists of just guns and bullets.
Now, that increased commercialization isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and many of these products have benefits for hunters. Checking summer trail cams and planting food plots extends your season and helps you manage a healthy deer herd. Rangefinders and good riflescopes help hunters take more ethical shots. And so forth.
But problems arise when gear becomes a status symbol, or hinders the hunt more than it helps. The latest gadgets shouldn’t be a barrier to entry or success, but plenty of deer hunters don’t think that way.
The hunting scene has joined the tech world in a big way. These products include cellular trail cameras, range-finding bow sights, scopes with Bluetooth connectivity, and more. These aren’t things your granddaddy took to the deer woods. Again, that doesn’t make the gear inherently bad, but it does raise some questions.
“The most obvious ways deer hunters have changed over the course of the last 50 years is through their use of better technology, equipment, and ultimately, their knowledge of deer and deer hunting,” Pinizzotto says.
Brita Turbyfill, director of outdoors with the Gray Loon Marketing Group, also argues that technology is one of the biggest ways hunters have changed.
“Smart phones have changed the game for hunters,” Turbyfill says. “An example — people use onX Hunt and other apps to find pinch points, identify private and public land, and more. Technology lets trail cameras to send photos to your phone in real time.”
Internet access has also changed how deer hunters check their game. There aren’t many in-person check stations these days. Plenty of states no longer have them. Instead, most people are checking deer with their smart phones and desktop computers. This is convenient for busy hunters who are already strapped for time, but there’s no denying the community culture of check stations has become a thing of the past.
And in some cases, there’s a clear line where too much technology is definitely a bad thing. There are even services that allows you to purchase “scouting packages” that someone else has pulled together regarding a specific public-land, big-game animal. You download the contents and get all of the information pertinent to that particular buck or bull. Then you go hunt. Some states are attempting to outlaw this.
Another significant change is the availability of better information for wildlife managers and hunters alike. And because of it, many long-held myths have been disbanded. These are just a few:
Myth: Buck-to-doe ratios get way out of whack. Truth: Studies show it’s biologically impossible for pre-season ratios to be more skewed than 1:5.
Myth: Deer are cannot see color. Truth: Thanks to research, we now know they see in shades of blue and yellow.
Myth: The October lull is real. Truth: Radio-collar research proves that deer activity – including during daylight – gradually increases from summer until the peak of the rut, and then begins to decline.
The list goes on. We could talk about dozens of once-popular myths that no longer hold water. And you can thank technology for busting them.
“I think back to the things the old timers would tell me,” Pinizzotto says. “I’ll bet at least 75% of them turned out to be wrong. No offense to them, but there wasn’t nearly as much information as there is now.”
Not only have our research methods improved thanks to technology like improved GPS collars, computing systems, and more, but access to that information is more easily shared with the general public, thanks to the Internet.
“Modern hunters are much more knowledgeable about deer biology and management than hunters at any point in our history,” says Matt Ross, a biologist with the Quality Deer Management Association. “Some of our forefathers had exceptional hunting skills, but as a group, today’s hunters are in the honor society with respect to deer knowledge. The modern deer hunter is a passionate, knowledgeable and engaged deer enthusiast who views his or her role as more than just a deer hunter, but rather an enlightened deer manager and a necessary contributor to the future of wildlife management and conservation. Whether you’re a QDM advocate or not, all hunters should rejoice in the fact that we’re more knowledgeable in our deer hunting and managing endeavors. This fact is not surprising, as public surveys indicate deer hunters have slightly higher average education and income levels than the general public. It is logical that this segment of our population is also more knowledgeable about their favorite pastime.”
Life is simpler in many ways today than it used to be. But it’s become more complicated in others, and the intersection of politics and deer management is one of them.
“Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease outbreaks are happening more often and farther north than ever before,” Pinizzotto says. “The spread of Chronic Wasting Disease is more prominent when there are too many deer. Simply, they can pass it along more easily.”
Both diseases are devastating to deer, but CWD has become a hot-button issue because it’s a largely invisible disease that requires drastic measures to contain. Unlike EHD-killed deer, it’s almost always impossible for hunters to visually identify CWD-infected deer. And state agencies and other conservation organizations that are trying to contain its spread are running into resistance from a significant population of hunters.
“Think about what we’re asking hunters to do to help control CWD,” says Pinizzotto, who recently testified in a congressional hearing. “We’re asking them to kill more deer – way more than they’re comfortable with – and to not let younger bucks walk. This isn’t a message you want to hear after you’ve been conditioned to pursue only older bucks for the last several decades. Imagine how the person might feel who emptied their life savings to buy their dream property to shoot big bucks. No wonder hunters not only refuse to hear about CWD, but also pretend it’s not a problem and fight state wildlife agencies that are trying to preserve the very traditions they love.”
Deer management is hard enough. Toss in controversial diseases and things get even saltier. Although CWD (and other diseases) have been around for decades, they’ve only recently become a hot-button issue. But CWD is spreading, and it’s not going to go away because the politics are unpleasant. Deer managers and hunters are struggling against diseases that weren’t much of a concern in the past, but will certainly shape our future.
Hunters pay for conservation. That’s in part thanks to license sales. But more importantly, it’s due to the Pittman-Robertson Act, which collects excise taxes on hunting and shooting sports goods. But that began in 1937, so it’s not new. But the accounts have shifted: There are fewer hunters today than there were in the ’80s (more on that later), but the money trail shows that the hunters who do participate are more invested than ever before.
“Whether you’re from a state agency, conservation organization, hunting group or other discipline, we need to acknowledge that hunters are the most important piece of the puzzle,” Ross says. “They drive the industry by contributing nearly $68 billion annually to the U.S. economy and supporting 525,000 jobs. Without hunters, and deer hunters in particular, wildlife conservation and management would cease to exist. We should embrace the fact that the modern deer hunter has arrived…State and federal wildlife agencies should further engage their hunter constituents as partners in the management and decision-making processes.”
This is a good thing. More invested hunters are generally more willing to do the right thing for the resource, whatever that might be.
“Modern hunters are interested in being a part of the management process, and state agencies aren’t the only ones recognizing this,” Ross says. “There was a time when state agencies could dictate policy to hunters without being questioned. However, many contend those days are gone forever as more hunters understand the principles of deer biology and management. They’re asking their state officials to explain or defend their management recommendations.”
When it comes to pulling the trigger, hunters are more discerning than ever before. Pinizzotto says some of the best support for that are the days spent afield by deer hunters. Deer hunters accounted for 115 million of the 184 million days hunting all species, and about 70% of all hunters pursue deer, according to the 2018 National Shooting Sports Foundation report Hunting in America: An Economic Force for Conservation. In the earlier days, most hunters traveled to camp with a group of friends for a couple days of hunting. Today’s hunter is much more selective, and puts in significantly more time.
“Hunters are a lot more selective, and most don’t reach bag limits. That’s unfortunate,” Pinizzotto says. “I think population management is suffering as a result. A higher percentage of hunters focus on killing particular mature bucks and pass on opportunities at does. Outfitters who consume significant areas of good hunting land struggle with getting clients to participate in broader population management.”
He also cited the Buffalo County Deer Advisory Council’s call for a moratorium on killing bucks during the 2019 season – in Wisconsin’s most famous big-deer county, no less. Ultimately, the idea didn’t fly, but those are the types of conversations happening around the country.
“I believe hunters are under-consuming the resource,” her says. “I recognize we all enjoy seeing a lot of deer while hunting, but if you’re seeing a lot of deer every time out, there are likely too many.”
In other words, we’re shooting fewer deer. That can be attributed to more selectivity. But it’s also because there are fewer hunters doing the shooting.
The most sobering change is that there are fewer hunters afield than a couple decades ago. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hunter numbers peaked in the early 1980s at 17 million. It’s been declining ever since because hunters are leaving and dying in droves.
There were about 14.1 million hunters in 1991, and 11.5 million in 2016. In 1991, 7.3% of adults hunted. Now it’s down to 4.4%. Some hunters welcome this news (it’s less competition, after all) but it’s actually bad news for all of us. Fewer hunters means fewer votes for wildlife and conservation, and a poor defense against anti-hunting legislation. Not to mention that hunting license dollars produce critical funding for wildlife conservation and habitat restoration, plus jobs.
So how do we reverse this trend? We have to make a conscious effort to do our own part. And that’s something many hunters aren’t doing enough. State agencies and NGOs are scrambling to catch up by reducing barriers to recruiting and retaining hunters, like lowering minimum age restrictions, increasing Sunday hunting opportunities, and more. These organizations are hiring dedicated employees to focus on the recruitment crisis and experimenting with new programs.
And these are all great things. But it takes grassroots-level dedication to make a true impact. Deer hunters – all of us – must introduce new people to hunting, and we must stick with those new recruits long enough that they learn to hunt on their own, then pay it forward.
And if we fail to recruit more hunters? We won’t have to worry about how the deer hunter has changed anymore, because there won’t be any of us left.