ST. PAUL — The 2018 small game hunter survey conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources revealed the fewest number of hunters pursuing species like grouse, waterfowl and squirrels since the DNR began tracking these figures in 1969.
“Every year that license sales go down means our challenges in maintaining healthy wildlife habitat go up,” said Nicole Davros, farmland wildlife research supervisor. “Declines in hunter numbers affect both hunters and non-hunters alike. License dollars help pay for habitat management that also benefits the water that we drink and the pollinators that help produce our food.”
The survey is mailed to a sample of small game hunters each year to help the DNR estimate hunter numbers and harvest. Wildlife managers use the survey data to estimate wildlife populations, prioritize habitat projects and establish new hunting regulations.
Hunters generate the largest portion of the funding that pays for managing wildlife habitat. A continued decline in small game hunting license sales could negatively impact these management efforts.
Declining license sales suggest an aging hunting population. The DNR has created programs to retain hunters and recruit new and lapsed hunters, but they haven’t kept pace with the number of hunters leaving the field.
Davros said the best way to recruit and retain hunters is to provide continued mentorship.
“The key is to continue to support and engage our new hunters,” Davros said. “Don’t just take a person out once. Keep asking them to hunt with you and provide continued support as they learn.”
Small game harvest results
One positive finding was an increased pheasant harvest. Hunters harvested 205,395 roosters in 2018, up 19% from the previous year. This was likely due to an increase in the number of hunters following an optimistic pheasant forecast. While the numbers reflect an uptick in recent years, 2018’s pheasant hunter numbers still fell well below the 10-year average.
The ruffed grouse harvest of 195,515 birds was down 30% from the 2017 estimate and was the lowest harvest in the last 11 years. The estimated number of grouse hunters was 67,765 — the lowest number in the past 40 years.
Fewer people hunted waterfowl last year than in 2017, resulting in less state duck stamp revenue and a lower harvest. Despite fewer hunters, though, duck and goose success rates were slightly better than the 10-year averages.
Impact on future conservation projects
The decline in hunting participation translates into an annual reduction of nearly $1 million in small game license sales compared to the 1990s. This estimated loss doesn’t account for other hunting-related expenditures including gun and ammunition sales, visits to gas stations and restaurants, and stays at lodging facilities — all things that benefit local economies.
“This isn’t just about having less money to do conservation work,” Davros said. “It’s also a hit to our rural economies. Simply put, fewer hunters means fewer dollars into those small towns — whether it’s fewer sandwiches and candy bars being sold, and ultimately fewer jobs and businesses being supported in these areas.”
Despite the overall decline in hunter numbers, wildlife conservation remains a core value of Minnesotans. In 2008, voters amended the state constitution to support Minnesota’s natural resources. Hunters played a large role in initiating and supporting this amendment.
The resulting Legacy Amendment increased the sales tax by 1/8 of 1% to protect drinking water sources; to protect, enhance and restore wetlands, prairies, forests, and fish, game and wildlife habitat; to preserve arts and cultural heritage; to support parks and trails; and to protect, enhance, and restore lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater.
“Minnesotans care about conservation, but who pays for conservation in the future?” Davros said. “We’re grappling with that question here along with others in the conservation community across the country. To address this challenge, we know that we need to increase the number of hunters, and also work together with people who care about the outdoors whether or not they hunt.”