You probably saw the reports from earlier this year heralding a hunting renaissance driven by COVID lockdowns, government stimulus checks, and fears of food chain disruption. It’s a great theory, but many news reports ran before wildlife agencies had finalized their stats for 2020. Now that those numbers have been collected, we want to know: Is the COVID hunting bump real?
We reached out to dozens of wildlife agencies to hear how COVID-19 has impacted hunting participation in their states. As with most topics related to state-run outdoor sports, we received a wide range of responses. Some states only saw a modest rise in participation; others saw a drop. More often, however, states sold more hunting licenses in 2020 than in 2019, and that increase is even more remarkable in light of historic trends.
It’s not clear how much the COVID lockdowns can be credited with the jump, but something happened last year, and there’s reason to believe that trend could continue.
A Nationwide Bump
The numbers look good from 30,000 feet. The Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports released a report this month that found a 5% increase in hunting license sales between 2019 and 2020 among the 40 states it surveyed. That includes a 5.4% increase in resident licenses and a 1.6% increase in non-resident licenses. In addition, 35 of the 40 states that responded reported an overall increase in the number of licenses sold in 2020.
That report doesn’t include a state-specific breakdown, so we looked at hunting license data for 20 states from every corner of the country. For some, the picture appears even rosier than the national outlook.
Nevada, for example, reported a 12% increase in overall license sales between 2019 and 2020. California rose 9%, Washington rose 6.6%, Ohio rose 6%, and Michigan and Wyoming beat the national average with 5.5% and 5.6% jumps, respectively. Oklahoma saw a 15% increase in resident hunting licenses sold, South Dakota reported 8.8% growth in resident licenses, and New Jersey went up 5%.
Observers of state wildlife agencies will point out that a one-year jump isn’t necessarily indicative of a statistically significant trend. States sometimes change licensing requirements, and that can artificially lower or raise the numbers on any given year. If a state had a particularly bad year in 2019, their 2020 numbers will look great but might have nothing to do with COVID-19.
Historic trends, however, suggest that 2020 was a remarkable year. For many states that provided data dating back a few decades, license sales jumped significantly in 2020 as compared to those trend lines.
New Jersey is a great example. In 2020, the state sold 1,352 more resident hunting licenses and 107 more non-resident licenses than it sold in 2019. Those 5% resident and 3.1% non-resident increases don’t sound like anything to write home about. But consider this: except for one 500-license gain between 2007 and 2008, the state has sold fewer resident licenses than the previous season every year since 1981. A 1,352-license increase is more than 200% higher than any other gain in the last 40 years.
Same story is true in Michigan. The state’s 5.5% increase in hunting license sales seems paltry until you remember than the state has, on average, sold between 1 and 3% fewer licenses year-over-year since their peak year in 1996. Any gain is a big deal; 5.5% is downright amazing.
Other states also reported higher-than-usual license gains. South Dakota’s 119,306 hunting license sales in 2020 was 4.7% higher than the previous three-year average. Washington’s 194,726 licenses was 4.6% higher than the previous three-year average. California hasn’t issued more resident annual hunting licenses since 2014.
Moving back to the national level, a 5.4% increase in resident hunting licenses appears to be an excellent gain. On average, the sale of resident hunting licenses, tags, permits, and stamps has grown 1.4% each year between 2002 and 2018, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (if you’re looking at the data for yourself, the “calculation year” actually records licenses from two years prior).
The USFWS data can’t be compared precisely with the CAHSS data because it considers tags, permits, and stamps, and its data collection methods are different. The CAHSS has never conducted a similar survey, so they couldn’t provide historical data to compare against this year’s numbers.
Still, based on the state-specific data and national data available, we can confidently say that 2020 was a banner year for hunting license sales. Many states sold more hunting licenses last year, and the increase is too significant to dismiss as a fluke.
A Few Caveats
While most states we spoke with saw an overall hunting license gain, a few reported losses or only very modest gains. West Virginia’s resident license sales fell by 0.9%, and Delaware’s only rose by 0.5%. Since landowners don’t need a license to hunt in West Virginia, the state’s numbers might not be indicative of anything except an unwillingness to drive into town and pick up a license. In Delaware’s case, even a modest increase bucks the downward license sale trend.
More frequently, states reported an increase in resident license sales and a decrease in non-resident sales. Texas, for example, saw their resident sales rise by 13,963 (1.2%), but noticed that their non-resident sales fell by 12,768 (15%). Their total sales increased by about 1,000 licenses, but the non-resident drops nearly canceled out the resident gains.
Other states also saw their non-resident sales fall even though their overall numbers rose. South Dakota’s non-resident sales fell by 3%, Oklahoma’s by 6%, Wyoming’s by 6.6%, California’s by 9.5%, and Florida’s by 9.9%.
This appears to be one way that COVID influenced hunter behavior last year. With many states discouraging interstate travel, hunters stayed close to home. They purchased resident licenses, but they held off on non-resident licenses. While some states bucked the trend (Nebraska reported a 9.3% increase in non-resident licenses while Nevada reported 9.4%), the non-resident sales put a slight damper on the booming 2020 hunting market.
It's also worth noting that even with the increase in hunter participation last year, we’re still nowhere near historic highs as a percentage of the population. As the USFWS data shows, license sales and hunter participation has remained relatively constant since the 1980s while the U.S. population has grown from 230 million in 1981 to more than 330 million today.
This year’s growth is a step in the right direction, but hunters have a long way to go before retaining their historic share of the population.
A Quick Word About Fishing
While hunting license sales have shown solid growth, fishing license sales skyrocketed last year in every state we contacted. Oklahoma reported a 49% increase in resident license sales and a 31% increase in non-resident sales. California’s sport fishing licenses jumped 11% to a level not seen since 2008. New Jersey’s non-resident fishing licenses hit an all-time high, and Wisconsin saw a 102% increase in first-time fishing license buyers.
We could go on, but you get the idea. Not everyone used their pandemic free time to get into the deer woods, but it sounds like many took the opportunity to get on the water—in the states where fishing remained legal.
“Based on the observations from our hatchery staff, we had lots of folks on the rivers and streams. A huge bump,” West Virginia DNR’s Paul Johansen told us.
“We saw a pretty dramatic increase at our sites around the state, state parks, fishing access, wildlife management areas,” echoed Greg Lemon, communications director for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. “Intensity of use was up. Park staff were just totally slammed all the way through.”
Is COVID-19 Responsible for the Bump?
Not all states wanted to comment as to the effect of COVID-19 on hunting license sales, but some agency surveys suggest that the lockdown orders motivated people to get outside and hunt.
“We definitely saw an increase in hunting numbers in 2020, that was largely due to people wanting to get outside during the pandemic,” said Ashley Sanchez, public information officer for the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
“Interest in outdoor recreation—whether hunting/fishing or ‘non-consumptive’ recreation like hiking and camping—and use of public lands was up in 2020 generally, as people looked for opportunities to get outside amid pandemic lockdowns,” said Sam Montgomery, communications manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Montgomery pointed to a 2018 survey that found 27% of Washington residents expressed interest in learning to hunt in the future. “The pandemic likely offered a rare opportunity for some to follow through on that interest,” Montgomery continued. “We believe some hunters were motivated by the pandemic both in terms of having more time and because you can social distance while hunting.”
This theory, that COVID encouraged new hunters to finally take the plunge, was echoed by Anthony Barenie, the R3 manager for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
“We can infer, or at least theorize, that COVID likely drew those who were curious about hunting into taking the first step,” he told us.
Indiana saw a 47% increase in new hunters from 2019 to 2020, with the largest increase being in small game (62% increase in new hunters) and bird stamps (47% increase). Eighteen percent of new small game hunters were female, compared to just 8% female hunters in the general population.
Barenie admitted that the agency hasn’t specifically measured the impact of COVID on hunter participation, but the influx of new hunters indicates the pandemic could have played a role.
Indiana wasn’t the only state to report a big spike in new, and particularly female, hunters. Michigan saw their new hunter numbers spike 29%, and their female hunters increase by 14% between 2019 and 2020. Nebraska’s new hunters climbed 24% when they usually only see a 17% increase. Wisconsin reported a 12% increase in female hunters, their largest-growing demographic among deer hunters.
Tony Wasely, the Nevada Department of Wildlife director, also theorized that these new hunters were motivated by a COVID-induced fear of a food shortage.
“Food security resonated with people, too,” he said. “People had more time to experiment with recipes and play around with their harvest.”
Here to Stay?
The million-dollar question, of course, is whether these new hunters will return to the woods next fall.
Some industry experts think they’re seeing the start of a permanent uptick. Back in December, American Outdoor Brands CEO Brian Murphy told investors he believes the increasing levels of participation are here to stay.
“In general, we believe we are witnessing a new, higher foundational level of consumer participation in outdoor activities,” he said. “Data suggests that there has been a meaningful shift in the number of people engaging in outdoor activities, which we believe has driven a new higher baseline.”
The pandemic also forced state agencies to streamline their licensing processes. Wyoming had to amend their class structure and offerings to accommodate COVID restrictions and they permanently moved their registration system for bear bait sites online.
Nevada had already begun streamlining their hunter licensing process before the pandemic hit, but they credit their incredible 18.5% resident and 9.4% non-resident hunter license increases to being ready to accommodate the slew of new hunters.
“Those percentages are a reflection of being ready to take advantage of the people’s desire to get outside,” said Wasely.
If states retain those streamlined systems, it could make it easier for more new hunters to get out in the field moving forward. The year is still young, but initial signs point to another strong year for hunter license sales in 2021.
“All indications are that the lockdowns have made people find their way to the outdoors in a way that’s changing the landscape even this year,” Montana’s Greg Lemon told us. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the people who have applied for permits in March.”
When asked if he believed the increases of new hunters would continue for the foreseeable future, he agreed: “It seems like that might be the case. And a lot of them probably brought a friend.”