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Hunting's quickly fading out

Bob Markle remembers the fall days when couldn't wait to follow his bird dog through a frost-covered field or wade into a waterfowl marsh.

But that has changed.

Today, Markle is a national statistic. He is a hunting dropout, one of many who have turned away from the sport and are causing alarm among wildlife officials.

"I'd still be hunting today if the sport was like it was in the `50s," said Markle, 73, who lives in Lee's Summit. "Back then, I could go five miles south of my home in Belton and find all the places to hunt that I wanted.

"It isn't that way anymore. A lot of that land is under concrete now. We're just running out of places to hunt. And even if you can find a place to go, there are no birds (quail) anymore.

"I had some good times hunting. But I got out of it.

"It's just not the same anymore."

Others apparently agree. Citing everything from a lack of time in an increasingly hectic world to trouble finding a place to hunt, people are leaving the sport as never before.

Take a look:

- Hunter numbers have fallen to 12.5 million nationally, according to the 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service outdoor recreation survey that is conducted every five years. That's the lowest it has been since the mid-1950s.

- Even more troubling to state and federal officials is the fact that hunter numbers have dropped 10 percent in just 10 years.

- Nationally, the percentage of Americans who hunt is also down - from 7 percent in 1996 to 5 percent in 2006.

- New England, the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific states are losing hunters at the fastest rate - 400,000 from 1996 to 2006.

- Even in Kansas, a state rich in tradition, there is cause for concern. Hunter numbers dropped from 291,000 in 2001 to 277,000 in 2006.

- Missouri is viewed as one of the bright spots in the nation, one of the few states to show healthy increases in hunter numbers. But there, too, officials are worried about the future. One study by the Department of Conservation projected the state to lose 117,000 deer hunters by 2030, mainly because of the aging of its core participants.

For many supporters of hunting, those figures are sobering.

"A lot of it has to do with the aging of the Baby Boomers," said Mike Hubbard, a resource-science supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation. "We've had this generation of hunters for 20 years or more, but now we're starting to see them get older and drop out.

"Nationally, we just haven't been able to make up for that loss with young hunters. And that's a cause for concern."

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Roy Wilson sat at the edge of a cut sunflower field with his 12-year-old son, Hunter, in early September, and got a good look at the future of hunting.

During a youth dove hunt sponsored by the Missouri Department of Conservation, there were dozens of excited youngsters getting introduced to the sport.

But it's what Wilson didn't see that bothered him.

"My boy has been raised with hunting, and he loves it," said Wilson, who lives in Harrisonville. "But very few of his friends are into hunting or fishing. There's no way they would want to be here today.

"Even some of the kids who live on the farm today aren't interested. There's a lot more going on to compete for kids' interest these days."

Indeed, that hectic lifestyle is a cause for concern among many hunting supporters.

And it's not just the youngsters they're trying to recruit. It also carries over to the adults they are losing.

A survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revealed that the biggest reasons why hunters were dropping out of the sport were a lack of time and too many commitments to family and work.

Health, high costs, trouble finding places to hunt, falling game populations, and increasingly complicated regulations also were mentioned.

But that's only part of the problem, officials say. They point to the graying of America as a big factor. For example, the average age of the country's hunters today is 44, the Fish and Wildlife Service has found. In 1965, it was 37.

Urbanization also has played a major role. Urban sprawl not only gobbles up prime hunting land, it also affects rural values, officials say.

"People are losing their ties to the land," said Mike Hayden, secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. "In the past, we'd have a large population living in rural areas, and hunting was part of a lifestyle.

"Now here in Kansas, for example, more than 50 percent of our population lives in the suburbs or in an urban area. A lot of people are a generation or more removed from the land.

"And when that happens, people aren't exposed to hunting."

For fish and game agencies, the stakes are high. The decline in hunter numbers is costing them money.

Most of the agencies rely on license fees for the majority of their revenue. When hunter numbers go down, everything from habitat programs to maintenance of hunting areas are affected.

"Hunters pay their own way," Hayden said. "They have played a very important role in conservation.

"Their license dollars and the excise tax from the equipment they buy are the reason some species have come back. When hunter numbers go down and less money comes in, everyone is affected."

Missouri quail hunters are a lonely bunch these days.

A record low 30,119 hunted quail last year. That's a far cry from the 169,000 who went afield in 1969. Even into the late 1980s, hunter numbers - and excitement over the sport - were equally high.

Why the big drop? It's simple.

Quail populations have fallen to the point where many people simply don't want to bother hunting them.

"When I was growing up, there were a lot of small farms, there was a lot of cover and there were a lot of birds," said Bill Vincent, 69, of Lee's Summit. "It was nothing to go out for a few hours and find several coveys.

"Now you can walk for hours without seeing a bird. That, plus how hard it is to find a place to hunt these days, is why I got out.

"I still hunt ducks, but I've given up on the quail."

Opportunity. For many, that's still the driving force behind hunting.

If a game population is high, it will attract hunters. If it isn't, hunters will turn away.

It's not just Missouri quail. Wildlife officials cite huge drops in hunter numbers for other small game, such as rabbits and squirrels.

Even Kansas pheasants no longer attract the interest they did when bird numbers were high. As recently as the early 1980s, there were 195,000 pheasant hunters in the Sunflower State. Today, that total has fallen to 125,000.

But that trend works the other way, too. Look at Missouri deer. As the state's whitetail populations have climbed, so have hunter numbers.

Today, almost a half-million hunters are in the Missouri woods during the fall. In the mid-1980s, there were about 375,000.

"There's no question that opportunity plays a big part in our hunter numbers," said Lonnie Hansen, deer biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. "We have good numbers of deer in most parts of the state now.

"People don't have to drive far from home if they want to go hunting."

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In many ways, Missouri is a role model for other states when it comes to recruiting and retaining hunters.

At a time when other states are losing ground, the Show-Me State is actually gaining.

The latest Fish and Wildlife Service survey showed that hunter numbers in Missouri had climbed from 489,000 in 2001 to 613,000 in 2006, mostly from increases in the sale of deer and turkey permits.

Officials with the Department of Conservation question whether the increase was actually that high, but they nonetheless say they are seeing some encouraging results from their work.

"I think a lot goes into it," said John Hoskins, director of the Department of Conservation. "First, there is a real heritage for hunting in Missouri. It's always been part of who we are.

"But I think some of our efforts (at the Department of Conservation) have paid off, too. We have youth seasons for everything from waterfowl to deer to turkey and I think that's getting more young people involved in the sport.

"And I think our game management, the low cost of our licenses and our efforts to simplify regulations have helped, too."

Kansas, which had been on an upward trend in hunter numbers before a dip in the 2006 survey, also is making progress.

It, too, has many youth hunting seasons and mentoring programs. And it has addressed access problems by establishing a WIHA (Walk-in Hunting Areas) program, in which the state leases land from willing landowners and opens it to the public for hunting.

That has brought Kansas national attention and helped re-kindle interest in the state's hunting.

"No one in Kansas can say they don't have a place to hunt anymore," Hayden said. "With this WIHA program, there is more opportunity than ever before."

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Richard Murphy represents a sign of hope for those who are concerned about the decline in hunter numbers.

He is part of hunting's "boomerang generation." He hunted during his early years, then quit when his life got busy. But now that his 12-year-old son Ryan has reached the age where he can hunt, he's back.

"My dad (Jack) started making longbows as a hobby," said Murphy, 39, who lives in Lee's Summit. "He and Ryan got together and made a bow for Ryan this summer. Then my dad made me one.

"Our goal is to go out and use them to bow hunt for deer this fall. It would be a thrill to take a deer with a bow that my dad made for us."

But for Murphy, there are many more reasons why he is excited about his return to hunting. And most of them center on his son.

"I want him to experience the fun of following a bird dog through a field or seeing a big buck walk out of the woods," he said. "That was important to me when I was younger, and Ryan is excited about doing some of those same things."

It's hunters such as Murphy who give wildlife officials hope. Wildlife departments in both Missouri and Kansas are targeting hunting dropouts and occasional hunters, trying to get them back in the fold.

In Missouri, for example, the Department of Conservation will send out 15,000 postcards to people who have hunted deer in the past but not last year. Those postcards, which will be sent several weeks before the start of Missouri's firearms deer season, will carry a simple message: "Don't let the deer season get away from you."

Another hopeful sign for the sport is the amount of money hunters spend. Last year they spent $5.4 billion on hunting equipment, a 3 percent increase from 2001.

And hunting still has plenty of support from the general public. Surveys in both Kansas and Missouri indicate that residents still overwhelmingly support hunting.

"Times are changing," Hubbard said. "But it's not all doom and gloom.

"Missouri has a strong cultural heritage when it comes to hunting. There are still a lot of people who love to hunt."

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But will that core group be there in the future?

That's the question. While hunter participation remains good in Missouri and Kansas, that's not the case on both coasts. Only 1 percent of the population hunts in states such as California, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Wildlife officials doubt that support would ever erode to that point here. But they're still concerned about long-term trends.

"We're going to be losing a lot of those Baby Boomers in the coming years," Hubbard said. "We have to come up with a way to replace them."

That's why both the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks have established task forces to deal with hunter retention and recruitment.

They are dealing with everything from appealing to more youngsters to expanding target groups to providing more access.

Some programs already are working. The Becoming an Outdoors Woman program in both states has recruited many new hunters from a segment that officials say still has plenty of growth potential. And both states are trying to appeal more minorities, another group that has low participation levels but many possibilities.

The ultimate goal? To appeal to young and old alike to see that the tradition of hunting survives.

"With urbanization, more people have moved away from the land and they lead a harried lifestyle," Hayden said. "They've forgotten traditions like hunting and fishing.

"It's our job to remind them of their values."

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