Roughly 28.9 million anglers and 15.2 million hunters pursued fish and game on U.S. waters, forests, marshes and woodlots each of the past five years, but up to half of the faces in those license-buying armies change one year to the next.
That’s because many hunters and anglers don’t buy licenses every year, while many others return to hunt and fish after taking a year or more off. That constant cycling is called “churn” by those who study trends in hunting and fishing participation.
The phenomenon is greatest in fishing, especially among young adults (ages 18 to 24), whose churn rate is 55 percent, according to a 12-state study in 2015 by the American Sportfishing Association. That study found even higher churn among nonresident anglers (63 percent). The ASA study found that fishing’s overall churn rate was 46 percent from 2009 to 2013. Older anglers, those 45 to 64, had the lowest churn at 41 percent.
Hunting’s churn rates aren’t as high in states that can track individual license-buying habits. For example, deer hunter churn was about 15 percent in Kentucky and 28.5 percent in Wisconsin those years.
Why Churn Matters
One reason is because the nation’s longtime standard measure of outdoors recreation doesn’t account for it when estimating hunting and fishing populations. Since 1955, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has interviewed thousands of Americans 16 and older every five years for the “National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation,” a comprehensive study of participation trends.
Those studies, however, estimate participation rates only for the survey year itself. Recent national surveys occurred in 1991, 1996, 2001, 2006, 2011 and 2016; and don’t include hunters and anglers who cycled in or out during intervening years.
The 2016 national survey estimated anglers at 35.8 million and hunters at 11.5 million, even though USFWS listed 29 million license-holders for fishing and 15.4 million license-holders for hunting that year. In other words, USFWS estimated there were 6.8 million more anglers than fishing-license holders, but 3.9 million fewer hunters than hunting-license holders.
Why not just use license-holder numbers to assess those populations? Because license-holder numbers don’t tell the full story either, said Mark Duda, executive director of Responsive Management, a research group that studies outdoor recreation. Duda notes that license requirements vary widely by state. Some states, for example, don’t require licenses for senior citizens, or those fishing or hunting on their own land.
Some states also keep better records on license sales and enforce license compliance more vigorously. Further, anglers are far more likely to fish without a license, while hunters are far more likely to comply.
“Between annual ingress and egress, avid vs. sporadic participation, and who must pay and who gets free licenses, it’s not easy to define and count who hunts and fishes in this country,” Duda said. “Based on our research, I think we have 20 to 25 million hunters out there, depending on how you define them. Some people haven’t hunted for a decade, but still consider themselves hunters when asked.”
Casual Participation Causes Cycles
When Duda’s Responsive Management group first studied churn in the early 1990s, they were shocked to learn how many hunters cycled in and out annually.
“We knew hunting’s long-term trendline was going down, but we always thought the same basic core group hunted every year,” he said. “We were wrong. Different people are always rotating in and out for a variety of reasons.”
What causes churn? In general, the more casual the hunter or angler, the greater the churn. Generally, Duda defines someone as “avid” if they buy a license in at least four of five years, and “sporadic” (casual) if they buy a license in no more than three of five years.
Through it all is one constant: White guys hunt. More specifically, rural white guys 35 and older hunt and fish more passionately than those in other demographic groups.
“That’s a historical fact in this country,” Duda said. “The people most likely to hunt, and the ones most likely to hunt every year, are white men from rural areas. The further you get from that stereotype, whether it’s women or minority groups, the more churn you find.”
Keith Warnke supervises the “Learn to Hunt” and “Recruitment, Retention and Reactivation” programs for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. He and Duda note, of course, that many folks take a casual approach to hunting and fishing, no matter their age, gender, race or residence.
“Wisconsin sells half of its gun-deer licenses the week before the season each year,” Warnke said. “Die-hards don’t wait. They hunt no matter what. The other half check the weather, their schedule, their spouse’s schedule and their kids’ schedules. If their kid’s got choir practice, their buddy’s sick or away on business, or the forecast calls for wind and rain, they’re not so eager to hunt. But if those factors work in their favor the next year, they buy a license and come back.”
Warnke also cites a 2009 study by Southwick Associates for the National Shooting Sports Foundation that pinpoint the impact of casual participants. Much like Duda’s estimates, this study found America’s hunting pool is roughly 50 percent larger than the number of licensed hunters each year. That is, for every two hunters afield, another stays home.
This NSSF study analyzed hunting license sales in 17 states, and then estimated 21.8 million Americans hunted at least once the previous five years. It also found 78 percent of U.S. hunters who bought a resident license one year also bought a license the next. However, only 35 percent bought resident licenses five straight years, and 40 percent bought a license only once or twice in five years.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, identified more than 1.01 million individuals who bought at least one deer license from 2005 through 2011. Its average sales those years, however, were 636,299 gun-deer licenses and 256,808 archery licenses, with about 87 percent of bowhunters also buying gun licenses. That means net individual deer hunter license sales were about 670,000 annually, or 330,000 short of the state’s 1.01 million pool of hunters.
Wisconsin’s computerized license system also identified 393,566 hunters (39 percent) who bought at least one deer license all seven seasons from 2005 to 2011. Further, 91,018 hunters bought a license six of seven years. That means roughly half of the state’s deer hunters missed two or more seasons every seven years.
Warnke said Wisconsin’s churn rate hit 28.5 percent in 2014, which means nearly three in 10 hunters didn’t buy a tag that year. In hopes of reducing churn, the Wisconsin DNR now sends email reminders to lapsed hunters before deer season, urging them to buy a license.
“Churn rates have cold, hard implications for agency budgets,” Warnke said. “If we can reduce our churn rate to 21 percent, the increased revenue would equal a $5 license fee increase.”
Ohio, Kentucky and others are also experimenting with email reminders to learn if certain images and messages spur license sales. Duda is working with the Archery Trade Association on a study in 15 states to see if specific emailed images and messages sent at different times before or during autumn inspire more bowhunting license sales. Preliminary work in five states in 2017 found emails urging bowhunters to make memories and connect with nature fared better than those stressing bowhunting excitement and success.
Meanwhile, agencies are also considering whether they should sell two- or three-year licenses. Some also suggest letting hunters and anglers automatically renew their licenses, much as many membership-based organizations, to increase or stabilize their ranks.
This is Business
Duda isn’t surprised to see agencies trying business-oriented strategies to reduce churn.
“Everyone knows hunting and fishing are important, but state agencies and their partners are learning that long-term conservation programs are sheer business,” Duda said. “They require work, planning and marketing. They’re learning that reminders work, and that doing something to retain your customers is better than doing nothing. They all have great products to offer, but their products don’t sell themselves like they did 30 to 40 years ago.”
Feature image via Captured Creative.