Good article in Washington monthly


Malone LaVeigh
January 18, 2006, 01:32 PM
The End of Hunting?

Why only progressive government can save a great American pastime.

Too long to post here, but the author makes some very good points.

This hunt for a spot to hunt is increasingly a part of the sportsmen's pursuit today. In the terminology of those who follow the problem, "access" is the buzzword phrase. "When you ask hunters directly what their biggest concern is, out of 20-odd possible choices, land access is most often number one," ...

The increasing difficulty of finding land to hunt on is, not surprisingly, nudging ever more hunters to hang up their shotguns. In Iowa, the number of hunters in state has dropped 26 percent in a decade, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and other states have experienced similar declines. One in three former hunters told the agency that not having a place to hunt motivated their decision to abandon their hobby.

In recent years, an industry has sprung up to match hunter checkbooks with landowner bank accounts. Now, hunters can pay for exclusive recreational access to a property through a contract known as a "hunting lease." In 2001, leases averaged $670 per property for the hunting season, up 150 percent since 1991. To locate leasing opportunities, hunters post want ads on sites like, listing what they are looking for and what they are willing to pay. A sportsman with the handle "Texas Law Dog," for example, wrote on behalf of five hunters seeking a hunting lease in the Lone Star panhandle; each was willing to pay $1,750 for land access.

Awarding access to the highest bidder tends to drive up prices, and consequently drives some people out. When Dave Hurteau, a columnist at Field and Stream magazine, solicited reader comments on the subject, he found he had touched a nerve. One reader wrote to say: "I had a lease that cost me $850 the first year, $1,100 the second, and $1,300 the third. Three years was enough for me." ...

The rising cost of a place in the field has, according to Todd Peterson of Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources, "priced some people out of the sport." Nationally, the number of hunters with below-median incomes has declined 16 percent in 15 years; over the same period, the number of hunters with above-median incomes has declined just 3 percent.

... Wildlife is held in trust by the state (managed by state wildlife agencies) for the benefit of the public, who collectively own it. This idea of public ownership became the intellectual foundation for America's conservation movement a century ago, when commercial hunters had begun decimating buffalo herds and blasting snowy egrets with cannons in order to sell feathers for ladies' hats. Theodore Roosevelt and a handful of other naturalists--most of them hunters--argued that wildlife belonged to the public and therefore could not be obliterated by business interests. "Public rights comes first and private interests second," Roosevelt wrote in 1905. "The conservation of wildlife and…all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method." ...

Kansas' Walk-In Hunting Access program (WIHA)--delightfully called "wee-haw"--works with private landowners to arrange for public hunting use of their land. It started a decade ago after the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks polled inactive hunters and found that access was the greatest obstacle to hunting. In 1995, a pilot version of WIHA debuted in seven counties around Wichita, encompassing 10,000 acres of land. Since then, the program has grown to include over one million acres across the state.

In early November, on opening morning of this fall's pheasant season, Mike Thompson and his son Brandon drove 40 minutes west from their home in Wichita, parked their truck beside a field of tall grass, and hopped out to don orange vests. Signs bordering the field read: "Walk-In Hunting Area, foot traffic only." Anyone with a $19 resident hunting license can hunt on WIHA land, and it's not hard to find convenient sites.

It takes time for any new idea to percolate nationally, and the origins of access programs (in conversations in the field, and between regional fish and wildlife departments) are literally as grassroots as they come. But another reason these programs haven't yet caught fire in Washington may have more to do with the fact that conservatives currently dominate every foothold of federal government. Polling shows that hunters and anglers vote predominantly, though not overwhelmingly, Republican. On some issues, such as gun rights, the GOP has courted these groups intently. But on hunting and fishing land access, conservatives have routinely supported industrial interests over those of sportsmen.

Liberals hardly have a better record at championing sportsmen's causes. Local chapters of the Sierra Club, for instance, have campaigned against everything from dove hunting in Minnesota to the culling of black bears in New Jersey--even though state wildlife biologists insist the hunts pose no ecological risks. Some environmental leaders, though, are beginning to find philosophic and political common ground with sportsmen's groups, pursuing partnerships on a variety of fronts, including private land access. So are some Democrats in Congress.

For the last two years, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) have introduced an "Open Fields" bill. The measure would provide $20 million a year for five years in federal money for states to establish or expand access programs for "hunting, fishing, bird-watching, and related outdoor activities." That any elected official would fail to support such an inexpensive, uncontroversial, and potentially popular bill might be hard to imagine. Yet in both GOP-dominated houses of Congress the measure has garnered nearly twice as many Democratic co-sponsors as Republican, and consequently not gone very far.

As long as the conservative ethos reigns in Washington and in state capitals, then America's hunting, fishing, and outdoors culture will almost certainly continue to decline. The best hope for protecting this heritage probably rests with elected officials of a progressive bent, Republicans as well as Democrats--officials who are ideologically comfortable using government to assert a right bequeathed by America's political forefathers: that wildlife belongs not to private interests but to the public.

I know a lot of folks here won't agree with the premise of the title, but I say anything that helps keep hunting alive helps our cause by keeping the population familiar with guns. I've always said there's more common cause than the ideologues on either side want us to know about.

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January 18, 2006, 02:10 PM
Hunting is hurting from a lack of interest as much as a lack of land. We have so many more recreational options than even 15 years ago that many people simply choose other activity.

Besides that, we're more pressed for time than in decades past, and hunting is a big time investment. Even people with their own huntable land just out the back door often rarely get out (I know some) because other pressures rarely leave them the time to sit in the woods for hours on end.

I doubt that an <ahem> "progressive" government could do anything about the waning interest and lack of time.

And, yes, I disagree that only an <ahem> "progressive" government can safeguard hunting lands, but that debate probably would involve a few dead horses and some whips. ;)

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