Another decade is in our back window, which means it is time to pause and consider how the passage of this time has affected hunters and anglers. The past 10 years have generally been good for populations of big game, waterfowl, and upland gamebirds across the west. There have been declines in the number of sage grouse and pheasants, as well as Wyoming’s pronghorns, but overall hunters and anglers have as many or more opportunities today than they did on December 31, 2009. What has changed is how men and women go about pursuing fish and wildlife.
The biggest difference has been the availability of high-resolution satellite photographs and Global Positioning Systems. This evolution happened so fast my kids (the oldest is 16) don’t know how to use a paper map. These tools let people scout hunting and fishing locations from hundreds of miles away, can identify land owners, tell you your exact location, and all while looking at a phone.
Having this information at literally the tip of one’s finger means that it is possible to plan and execute great hunting and fishing trips without much help. For example, you could use breeding bird surveys and Bureau of Land Management maps to determine where you might want to hunt quail. As many states now post information online about hunter drawing odds, success rates, size of the animals harvested and all associated with maps, a hunter can easily plan when and where they want to pursue big game. If you are not the type of person that likes to plan their own trips, an internet search can find people willing to provide excursions seeking animals ranging from Prairie Dogs to Dall Sheep.
That does not mean the last decade was all good, as this timeframe saw the spread of several wildlife diseases and invasive species. The biggest concern is Chronic Wasting Disease. This disease is making it harder to transport harvested deer and elk across state lines and may eventually cause some big game hunters to hang-up their rifles.
The West Nile Virus is also getting a toe hold in the region. Best known for its effects on humans and horses, this virus also kills birds such as ruffed grouse and sage grouse. Quagga mussels showed up in Utah’s Lake Powell in 2013. Given the threat this species poses to dam infrastructure, their presence has caused some lakes to be closed to motorized boats and is making it more difficult and expensive to move boats around different waterbodies.
A big change in the landscape has been the presence of more and bigger wildfires. In 2018 nearly a half million acres burned in Utah, and in 2017 almost 700,000 acres burned in Idaho. This trend is a continuation of one the dates back to the 1980s. The increase in big fires is due to the success of past firefighting efforts which increased the number of trees in conjunction with a warming climate that dries out the forest and extends the fire season. Wildland fires cost people their lives and property and can close down access to certain hunting areas and streams when they are burning. While there are few benefits to fires as they burn, the vegetative regrowth that occurs after fires can benefit big game and other animal populations.
This was also the era when long-distance shooting took hold. One reason for the increased number of long-distance shooters was the introduction of the 6.5 Creedmoor in 2007. Other reasons include the presence of high quality high power adjustable rifle scopes and outdoor shows that demonstrated the potential effectiveness of these guns. This shift means hunters are a long way from 1962 when noted outdoor writer Ted Trueblood stated, “Making a long shot should be cause for embarrassment, rather than pride.”
Finally, the last decade may represent the period of time when hunter numbers stabilize in the United States. In the 1980s hunter numbers were around 18 million but, in this century, numbers have ranged between 11 to 13 million. Anglers continue to increase in number and now around 35 million people fish. What is concerning is that the amount of money spent by hunters and anglers seems to be flattening out at around 75 billion dollars a year. If this trend continues it will likely be hard to maintain strong state fish and game agencies as they rely on taxes generated by the sales of hunting and fishing equipment. Luckily, hunters and anglers are not the only people who enjoy the outdoors. Figuring out how to get hikers, bird watchers, mountain bikers, water skiers, and campers to pick up their part of the bill for natural resource management will be a task for the future.
I hope everyone’s next decade is as good or better than the last. Happy New Year.