Before she went hunting for the first time, Crystal Egli practiced walking around with a replica rifle, feeling its heft while “on the verge of tears.” Egli had discovered the appeal of hunting — but had serious qualms about holding a rifle due to a lifelong fear of guns.
“Why don’t I hunt?” the 35-year-old Coloradoan asked herself. “That’s a great source of organic, free-range, grass-fed meat. What’s stopping me? The answer was firearms.”
With the help of friends and mentors, Egli became more comfortable handling a rifle and found she was a good shot. When she bagged a deer for the first time, she took a knee over the animal and gave thanks.
“I put my hands on her and talked to her,” she recalled. “I told her she’s beautiful and she’s going to feed my family, and she was going to be the first meat that my daughter eats.”
Egli’s story is one that state wildlife agencies are hoping to replicate. The number of hunters has fallen sharply in recent decades, and data shows that most hunters are older, white men even as the country’s demographics shift. With less money coming in from hunting and fishing licenses and sales taxes, state officials realize that to keep their conservation and wildlife agencies afloat they must recruit hunters for whom the activity is not a passed-down tradition.
States have begun targeting new groups to fill the ranks of hunters: foodies, city-dwellers, young adults and women. Rather than counting on family heritage and cultural ties to carry the hunting message, they’re preaching the gospel of ethically sourced food, healthy protein and respect for wildlife.
Taniya Bethke, who coordinates recruitment and retention efforts for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department, said she has experience with the cultural challenges.
“There’s this dichotomy between the hippies with tie-dye T-shirts and these stereotypical rednecks wearing doe urine and camouflage,” she said. “I didn’t fit into either one of those communities.”
Bethke, who took up hunting as an adult, said it wasn’t until she found a group of “hipnecks” — rural young adults who shared a commitment to sustainable food — that she felt comfortable trying it.
“I’ve always wrestled with if I can intentionally end the life of another living thing,” she said, “but I did not want to be a hypocrite and let somebody else kill animals and just eat the meat.”
Bethke has incorporated those lessons into the agency’s efforts to recruit more people like her. That includes putting more diverse faces on the state’s promotional materials, while visiting colleges, breweries and farmers markets to sign people up for training classes.
A new state program, Harvest South Dakota, teaches adults to hunt, process and cook game. The state also offers outdoors programs targeted toward women. Last year it began selling a $5 apprentice license (regular licenses are $40) to get novices into the field. Nearly 5,000 people bought them. And the state has a digital app to help hunters connect with mentors to answer questions such as where to find land to hunt, what calls or decoys to use and how to process the meat.
State wildlife agencies have the lead role in managing most species and collectively oversee nearly 500 million acres. But unlike most agencies, they don’t get most of their money from their state’s general fund. Nearly 60 percent comes from hunting and fishing revenue, such as license sales and taxes on gear sales, according to a survey by the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies.
“The decline in hunters is equivalent with the decline of available revenue,” said Daniel Eichinger, director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “That decline absolutely has the attention of every state across the country.”
The Michigan agency sold 16 percent fewer hunting licenses last year than in 2013, forcing it to freeze hiring and cancel five conservation programs that were supposed to begin this year.
Hunters also help cull overpopulated herds, and the reports and samples they submit after a hunt help scientists looking to track the spread of problems such as chronic wasting disease.
But U.S. hunters have dwindled from nearly 17 million in 1980 to just more than 11 million in 2016, according to data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ninety percent of hunters are male, 97 percent are white and most are 45 and older — leading to steeper losses as more participants age out and the country diversifies.
States have worked on recruiting more hunters for years, but it wasn’t until the past couple years that state officials have realized their efforts were reaching mostly kids of existing hunters.
“We need to get everyone to realize you can be an urban hipster millennial and not want to wear camouflage and still want to go hunting,” said Matt Dunfee, director of special programs at the Wildlife Management Institute, a conservationist nonprofit. “If something isn’t done and done really rapidly, we’re set to lose a huge chunk of those who are purchasing licenses, at which point wildlife conservation is going to face a huge crisis.”
But even hunting advocates acknowledge that recruiting adult hunters is a heavy lift. Hunting can be expensive, and accessibility to land is often a challenge. The time commitment is significant, and many people remain uncomfortable around firearms. Many also hold cultural stereotypes that make them believe they would not relate to other hunters.
“Those challenges can be compounded if you’re not seeing people who look like you hunting and angling,” said Mike Leahy, director of wildlife, hunting and fishing policy at the National Wildlife Federation.
Minority hunting advocates are quick to note that many communities have strong hunting traditions, such as African Americans in the rural South and Hispanics in the Southwest. The National Wildlife Federation’s group Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors seeks to amplify those stories. The group’s executive director, Camilla Simon, said it’s also important for existing hunters to be inclusive of those from different cultural backgrounds.
“If you want more hunters, make it more welcoming,” she said. “Is this about the activity and shared common values, or am I going to have to pass some political test to be an authentic hunter? I think that is in question.”
Eric Morris, an African American hunter with a TV show about his experiences on the Pursuit Channel, said that representation is important.
“I would challenge those in the outdoor industry to show more black people doing more things,” he said. “I come from that same target audience that they’re trying to reach, and I have rarely ever seen anybody that looks like me on television doing the things that I wanted to do.”
He added that he encourages African Americans to set aside “self-imposed roadblocks” and get to know hunters, part of his efforts to break down stereotypes on both sides.
Michigan has focused on acquiring more land in the southern half of the state since most of its public lands were in the northern part of the state, far from population centers such as Detroit and Grand Rapids. The Michigan natural resources agency also opened the Outdoor Adventure Center in downtown Detroit, offering hands-on experiences including archery and simulated trails.
“We’re trying to demystify the outdoors in Michigan for folks who haven’t had the opportunity to connect with nature,” Eichinger said. “If people haven’t had that foundational experience, we have a tin ear if we’re telling them to go buy a gun at a sporting goods store and go hunting. We have to meet them where they are.”
In previous years, the agency participated in a program called Gourmet Gone Wild, which is now on hiatus due to a loss of funding from foundation partners. Eichinger said the program was an attempt to connect hunting with “foodie culture.”
“Folks want to cook something that’s exotic and they haven’t tried before,” he said. “The story with wild game is it’s local, healthy and sustainable. You can take full responsibility for where your protein comes from. You’re not outsourcing that to Tyson (Foods).”
Wisconsin has taken a similar approach.
“Many people haven’t come in through the traditional pathway, which is the family,” said Keith Warnke, who leads hunter recruiting for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “We need to make a surrogate pathway so folks have a way to get involved.”
Two years ago, Wisconsin launched a program to certify hunting mentors. Nearly 200 people have graduated from it. Its Hunt for Food program has grown from 18 participants in 2012 to 165 this year — and about half of them are women. The state has seen the number of female hunters grow by half since 2006.
Despite those successes, Warnke acknowledged the efforts represent small victories amid a daunting trend.
“The likelihood that we’re going to stop the decline is very long odds,” he said.
In Idaho, conservation leaders determined that many aspiring hunters found field-dressing an animal — removing its organs in the field after it’s been shot — to be one of the most daunting barriers. To clear that hurdle, the agency worked with students at Boise State University to create a virtual reality field-dressing program for hunter safety classes.
“It’s a very hands-on process, and it’s hard to teach in a classroom setting,” said Ian Malepeai, director of marketing for Idaho Fish and Game. “Our hope was to give students hands-on experience and help them develop that muscle memory and knowledge.”
Washington state, meanwhile, passed a law earlier this year adding fluorescent pink as an approved color for hunter safety apparel, hoping to attract more female hunters.
Despite dwindling participation, 4 in 5 Americans approve of hunting, according to a 2019 poll conducted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation and Responsive Management. But some critics feel it has no place in modern society.
“In this day and age, it’s just completely unnecessary,” said Ashley Byrne, a spokeswoman with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “Hunting causes immense suffering for the animals who are killed and the families to whom they are bonded. It is just not in step with the ethics of our time.”
PETA would like to see states’ conservation funded under a different model, reducing the reliance on hunters.
When she brought her first deer home, Egli — the Colorado hunter — turned the meat into steaks and burgers, providing enough food for several dinner parties and 20 meals for her family.
“I want to care about meat, and the only way I found that I actually care about where my food comes from is knowing the full story,” Egli said. “I love knowing that my deer died looking at a sunrise in a field. … I am a terrible cook, but when I cook my game meat, you bet your butt I cook it perfectly.”
She created a Facebook group called “Hunters Like You” that she joked is for “liberal, millennial snowflakes” who are craving a safe space to talk about hunting.
Private groups also have increased efforts to recruit hunters. One early success story is the Field to Fork program, launched in Georgia in 2016 by two nonprofits, the Quality Deer Management Association and the Georgia Wildlife Federation. The organizations set up a booth in an Athens farmers market, offering venison samples and telling passersby about sustainable food sourcing. They signed people up for training classes that included crossbow practice, socializing and a venison taco bar.
Field to Fork has since helped launch 25 programs in 13 states, some boosted by state wildlife agencies. Group organizer Hank Forester, senior manager of hunting heritage programs for the deer management nonprofit, said retention numbers are strong for novice hunters who complete the program. That success, he said, stems from the program’s mentorship component, which brings in veteran hunters to share their insight, property and tree stands.
“It comes down to building confidence,” Forester said. “What builds that confidence is social support.”
Forester said the program asks its mentors to avoid talking about religion or politics, and it starts with crossbows to accommodate those who may initially be wary of firearms.
“The reasons I hunt and the reasons someone might choose not to eat meat might be the same reasons,” he said. “We just need current hunters to share venison, share stories and extend that helping hand.”