The steadily declining number of hunters in recent years has troubling repercussions for environmental conservation efforts throughout the nation.
From one deer-hunting season to the next, not much changes. There’s a comforting predictability to our routine: The night before the season opens, we meet up at Andy’s cabin on the shore of one of northern Minnesota’s thousands of small lakes, now empty of boats and roll-out docks as autumn gives way to winter. Same taxidermied deer and lacquered bass on the wood-paneled walls, same musty shag carpet. Hunting lodge kitsch. It’s tight in there, but at least it’s warm. A huddle of camouflage coats and blaze orange hats packs inside, a beer in everyone’s hand. Nothing too pretentious or exotic, of course. It’d be tough defending a micro-brewed IPA to this crowd.
There’s the usual small talk, catching up on the year’s events. It’s a bit like chatting with distant cousins at a family reunion. After everyone’s been accounted for, we make our way into the woods, to the clearing where we make camp each year. The meandering logging road has always been washed out and a bit precarious, but this year it’s nearly untraversable. Deep washes could swallow a tire to the axle, and steep rises and gullies—made slick by ice—test even the most robust off-road vehicle. Every year we assume someone won’t make it into camp. Somehow everyone manages—eventually.
A convoy of pickup trucks and mud-spattered campers circles up like a Wild West wagon train. An old department-store mannequin—one leg clumsily broken off—occupies a discolored plastic lawn chair nearby. With printed-on eyeshadow and lipstick, topped by a ratty wig someone added years ago, it’s unnervingly lifelike. One of those fixtures of camp from before my time, and no, to this day I haven’t asked why it’s there. It still spooks me every time I return to camp.
An hour later, everyone has settled in. From the woods, a small generator putters contentedly. We crowd around the campfire, occupying wood benches and lounge chairs, sun-bleached and listing precariously. Faces are illuminated by the flames and, occasionally, the stark white glow of phone screens. These days you have to travel a whole lot farther from civilization to avoid cell service. It’s not long before a flask of whiskey materializes and begins making its way around the circle.
My brother and I are here because of my dad. My dad’s here because of my uncle. My uncle worked for one of the old timers in camp years ago. These hunters have all gotten to know each other well over a span of decades, so I’m still a newcomer, comparatively speaking. Truth is, I don’t have much in common with the majority of the folks here, and we all know it. I work in a modish, temperature-controlled office. Most of these guys spend arduous days on a job site. I drive an anemic compact sedan. It’d probably fit neatly in the bed of one of their four-wheel-drive trucks. They make no secret about who they voted for or why, but I don’t join the inevitable political wittering because voicing a contradictory opinion wouldn’t change any minds or suddenly enlighten anyone, anyway. Besides, much of their talk is just that—talk. I’ve come to realize that, out here, the bluster and bravado, the heckling and machismo, is as integral to the hunting experience as the time spent in the field. All said, these are genuinely good, industrious and kind people. Our differences are readily ignored because we all came here for the same reason: to hunt deer.
What might come as a surprise to most of my trail-hiking, REI-patronizing friends is that this colorful, Rabelaisian cast of characters—many of whom don’t lose a minute of sleep over their carbon footprint or give so much as a passing thought to the global impact of single-use plastics—has spent many orders of magnitude more money on wildlife and critical habitat conservation than they have.
See, this hunting thing isn’t cheap. The gear, the guns, the licenses and stamps, all the assorted miscellany that accompanies the hunt, adds up fast. Hunters throughout the nation spend tens of billions on this pastime year after year. I know I’ve contributed my fair share; my wife will readily testify to that.
By law, one hundred percent of license fees go directly into state and federal conservation and restoration programs that are of vital importance to the health of wilderness areas throughout the country. The Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937 charges hunters an extra 11 percent tax on the purchase of firearms, ammunition, and archery equipment—again, bankrolling many conservation programs. If that wasn’t enough, hundreds of thousands of hunters also voluntarily maintain paid memberships to leading conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, or the Boone and Crockett Club. All said, hunters pump more than 1.6 billion—that’s billion with a B—into conservation efforts every year. That’s more than the annual GDP of numerous small countries.
This ragtag group of guys, though hardly the Prius-driving environmentalists one imagines when they think of Mother Nature’s more altruistic protectors, are key stakeholders in a unique and noble system that has safeguarded our nation’s ecological wonders for years.
Opening morning, still blinking away sleep and shaking off the joint-stiffening chill that crept into my tent overnight, I load my rifle by headlamp beam. Slinging my pack over a shoulder, I begin the uphill hike to my favorite stand, tucked back among a copse of swaying pines and ancient oaks. The guys give passing nods as I trundle on, mumbling well wishes for the day, cigarettes bouncing on their lips, steam wafting from their coffee mugs.
A familiar rush of eager anticipation creeps in as I make my approach. Firearm season for deer comes around for only a few weeks each November, so this moment feels a bit like Christmas Eve did when I was a kid—after building it up in my head for weeks, the moment had nearly arrived. Reaching the stand more winded than I’d like to admit, I test each foothold. The offcuts of construction lumber, nailed to the side of the old oak without much eye for keeping them level, have been steadily rotting for years. Satisfied they’ll hold my weight for at least the next couple of days, I ascend.
As the feeble blossom of morning sunlight crests the horizon, the woods erupt with a booming cacophony of rifle reports. The staccato tempo sounds like the popping of microwave popcorn. Some are loud enough to make me jump. Those ones make me think someone in our camp got lucky this year.
To hear those gunshots is to imagine tens of thousands of deer hunters shivering in their tree stands like me. Here in Minnesota, the state used to nearly shut down during this time of year. Everyone—farmers to dentists, accountants to diesel mechanics—would take to the fields and woods, staking out their lucky spots. During those few weeks of firearm season, one could as easily ask a stranger about their luck in the stand as chat about the weather.
But things have changed.
Older members of the group pass away every few years, but fewer young hunters take their place. Although Cameron brought his adolescent son along for the first time last year, he’s the only one in the group under the age of 30. This isn’t unique to our deer camp.
According to the U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service, the number of paid hunting license holders here in Minnesota has dropped by more than 20,000 in the past 15 years. That’s a five percent decrease in a state with an especially strong heritage of hunting. In Pennsylvania, second only to Texas in terms of the overall paid hunting-license holders in the country, those numbers have plummeted by nearly 10 percent in that same time period. With less hunters taking up the sport, there’s less money going into the coffers of state and federal conservation programs. If the trend continues as it has, within the next few decades, many of these programs may become insolvent. That poses an alarming question: Where’s the money going to come from? Who’s going to pay to protect wildlife and maintain conservation areas when the remaining hunters can’t?
Non-hunters, or those against hunting, likely don’t see this as an issue. Just the natural passing of an antiquated pastime as society embraces new technology and traditions. A holdover from another era finally going the way of horse-drawn carriages and the telegraph. I’ve often thought that, to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, hunting must seem conceptually similar to washing one’s clothes in the river rather than using the washing machine at home. For meat-eaters, the accessibility of grocery stores and advancements in animal husbandry have rendered the strictly utilitarian aspect of hunting—to affordably put food on the table—inessential.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the number of hunters has diminished so drastically. I mean, after all, there’s usually no small amount of misery involved in the process. One can expect to get rained or snowed on, feasted on by mosquitos, or sunburned to the color of a ripe tomato. If the end goal is merely to obtain game to eat, you could accomplish the same thing by driving in your air-conditioned car to a grocery store, purchasing the priciest cut of beef they sell, and still come out ahead on money, time, energy spent, and suffering endured.
In my case, having spent all morning in the stand without seeing a thing, that’s especially true. I unload my rifle, drop the big brass cartridge in my coat pocket for another time, and clamber down from the tree stand.
This isn’t about the money to me, nor is it to many of my fellow hunters. It’s about communing with nature. Forcing oneself to sit quietly and meditate for hours. To sort through the clutter of one’s mind and make peace with all those little itching problems and anxieties that we shove into dark recesses and hope to forget about. It’s about feeling uncomfortable—and yes, I think periodically that’s important, too—and learning to cope with it. Enduring a little suffering and boredom gives us a new appreciation for the many luxuries we enjoy in our daily lives.
It’s also about the ethical harvest of game. I believe it’s vital to understand where our food comes from and to respect the animals we’ve harvested. Industrial livestock production has made it easy for the consumer to remain ignorant of what they’re eating or how it was processed. It was never a living, sentient creature; it’s a neatly prepared white package, on sale this week only. Those who haven’t hunted and processed their own game will never experience the extraordinary sensation of enduring a strenuous hunt, making a clean shot, preparing the game in the kitchen, and savoring every bite.
As I trek back along the trail, I pause at a particularly scenic overlook where, millennia ago, glaciers carved an obstinate path through the bedrock. A sea of fallen orange and brown leaves rolls out below the paper-white birch trees. For some, hunting is about camaraderie. Others, solitude. In my case, it’s a little of both. I just hope others can find what they need out here, and that this vista will remain this breathtaking and pure long after I’m gone. That may take more help than hunters alone can provide.