In the Field

Understanding Hunter Demographics Key to Improving Numbers

by Mark Smither

I am a two-box deer hunter.

I buy two boxes of .270 caliber bullets just before every deer season. Each box contains 20 cartridges. A week or two before opening weekend, I will fire 30 rounds into a series of paper targets just to make sure my scope is still sighted correctly. The remaining cartridges will be used to harvest my deer. With luck, I will have a few bullets left over for next year.

I am also a two-dog pheasant hunter.

I keep two Labrador Retrievers so that I can hunt pheasants every available weekend and holiday from October through December. Some weekends, I will shoot through an entire box of shotgun shells without even thinking about it.

Although I have been hunting most of my adult life, I still think of myself as a student of the sport. Every time I step into a field, I learn something that I can add to my collective knowledge and hopefully make me a better hunter the next time out. Admittedly, I am not an expert by any stretch of the definition. If there were a pie chart representing various types of hunters, you could put me in the “practicing enthusiast” category.

Next to me on the hunter pie chart might be “avid experts.” These hunters are passionate about pursuing all sorts of wild game—and they are very good at it. Instead of firing a few rounds into a target every fall, they spend all year studying ballistics and trajectory for different types of ammunition. They manage wildlife habitat and serve as guides for trophy mule deer. In April, they hunt turkeys. In September, they shoot doves. They make frequent trips to Alaska to hunt grizzly bears and Dall sheep. Undoubtedly, there is more than one beautifully mounted, trophy-sized animal proudly displayed in their home.

Another slice of the hunting pie chart would be labeled “occasional recreationists.” Most of these hunters enjoy being outside and pursuing game just like the practicing enthusiasts and avid experts. However, they haven’t been able to prioritize hunting to a greater degree. Sometimes it is a lack of time or opportunity. In other cases, it might be the inability to find accessible land. I’ve talked with older hunters who just lost the drive to “get out there.” Unfortunately, this slice is getting bigger every year.

It would be stating the obvious to say no two hunters are exactly the same. We all have different reasons for being outdoors and pursuing our game of choice. Understanding what makes us different from one another—and how often we hunt—is key to improving hunting numbers across all demographics.

According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, more than 21 million Americans have hunted at least once in the last five years. Seventy-eight percent of the hunters who bought a license in a given year purchased one again the next year. That sounds good, right? However, a closer look at the purchase patterns of hunters over multiple years tells a slightly different story: for every two hunters in the field this year, one is taking the year off.

Hunters who hunt occasionally, as opposed to those who hunt consistently, are a very important category, especially to South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks. They depend on hunting license fees as their primary source of funding.

Enthusiasts and experts can be counted on to buy a hunting license every year. What would happen if occasional hunters did the same?

More hunting licenses would mean more money for wildlife management and habitat development where it makes the most sense. It would mean more education and outreach programs across South Dakota. It could also help expand the Wildlife Damage Management program or fight the spread of aquatic invasive species.

Convincing the occasional hunter to hunt more often is easier than convincing someone to start hunting. They already have the equipment and experience needed to hunt more often. All they need is a good reason and the right opportunity.

I know what type of hunter I am—with or without a pie chart.

I haven’t missed a pheasant or deer season since I graduated college over 30 years ago. I use the same deer rifle that my father gave me when I was a young man. I still own the Remington 870 pump action shotgun I picked up in a pawnshop. I hunt with friends who knew me when I had a mullet and an unflattering nickname. In other words, I am predictably consistent.

When fall rolls around this year, there will be a South Dakota hunting license in my wallet and two boxes of .270 cartridges in my ammo box. I am, and always will be, a “practicing enthusiast.”