Whether you see a hunter sitting in a treestand, crouching in a duck blind or bugling bulls on a mountainside, you can predict something with 91% certainty: You’re looking at a white guy of European stock.
You can also bet the guy has rural or small-town roots, and that he and his buddies are more passionate about hunting than any other demographic group sociologists can identify by race or ethnic heritage. In fact, researchers at universities and wildlife agencies have been documenting those details with little variance for decades.
“That’s a historical fact in this country,” said Mark Duda, executive director of Responsive Management, a research group in Harrisonburg, Va., that studies outdoor recreation. “The further you get from that stereotype, whether it’s women or minority groups, the less likely you’ll find hunters. It’s a sensitive topic, but every study finds the same results.”
Duda said no one involved in outdoor recreation industries or management should be surprised. Officials running the nation’s parks and wildlife agencies surely aren’t. They noticed that more of the white guys’ wives, girlfriends and daughters embraced hunting the past three decades. Still, only 1% of American women hunt.
Far more females hike, camp, swim, kayak, climb or tour parks and wild places. The same can’t be said about blacks, Asians and Hispanics. Those groups haven’t embraced outdoor recreation as enthusiastically as whites have. Yes, everyone can recite exceptions by name and outdoor activity, but exceptions don’t pack campgrounds, clog park entrances, or—in the case of hunting—replace the legions of white baby boomers now retiring their shotguns, deer rifles and compound bows.
In a country worried about the future of hunting, that’s concerning. Fewer white kids from hunting families have been entering the woods this century, and it’s proving tough to “recruit” new hunters from the nation’s faster growing racial and ethnic populations.
In 2013, over half the children under age 1 were racial minorities for the first time in U.S. history. Recent projections by the U.S. Census Bureau also indicate the nation’s population will become a “majority minority” in 2044. If current trends continue, whites will then make up just under half the U.S. population; Hispanics, one-quarter of it; and blacks, just over one-eighth.
Currently, whites make up 61% of the U.S. population; Hispanics, 18%; and blacks, 13%.
Stubborn Participation Rates
Those demographics are not transferring proportionately into outdoor recreation. From 2010 to 2014, the USDA Forest Service reported whites made up 95% of all visits to national forests. Likewise, a recent National Park Service study found whites made up nearly 80% of visits to NPS parks and monuments.
Studies from the private sector look the same. A 2017 report by the Coleman Co. on camping participation found whites accounted for nearly 80% of campers. And even when including fishing, hiking, camping, running, swimming, bicycling, backpacking and several other outdoor activities in its 2018 study, the Outdoor Foundation found whites accounted for nearly three-quarters of all outdoor recreation.
Hunting participation is whiter yet. In the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s most recent participation study of hunting, fishing and wildlife watching, the agency found 11.5 million Americans hunted at least once in 2016. Of those hunters, 11.1 million—96%—were white and 3% were Hispanic. Blacks and Asians made up most of the remaining 1%, but at levels too low to pinpoint participation rates.
Overall, the survey found that 5.5% of Americans hunted in 2016, but only 2% of blacks and 1% of Hispanics hunted.
One lifelong Southern hunter who’s not surprised by such numbers is Rick Dillard, 54, the U.S. Forest Service’s fish and wildlife program manager for Mississippi’s national forests. Dillard is black, and he’s well aware that blacks account for only 1.2% of visitors to national forests nationwide, the lowest rate of all minority groups. Blacks also make up only 5% of the nation’s campers and 3% of its national park visitors.
Dillard, however, grew up hunting and fishing with his father near their Mississippi home southeast of Memphis, Tenn. Dillard passed on those traditions to his two sons when they were boys. The three generations of Dillards still hunt and fish together, sometimes behind Dillard’s home near Jackson, Miss.
“Hunting was popular among the black kids I grew up with,” Dillard said. “We lived in a rural area, and most of the kids hunted and fished every day back in the 1970s. That’s about all we talked about in 6th and 7th grade.”
In terms of regional participation rates, the Dillards fit a pattern: If you’re a black person who hunts, you probably live in the South. The F&WS’s 2011 hunting-participation survey found 95% of black hunters in the U.S. live in Southern states, home to 55% of the nation’s black population in 2016.
The same report found over 43% of Hispanic hunters live in the West, home to 39% of the nation’s Hispanic population in 2017. The USFWS report said sample sizes for black hunters in the West, Midwest and Northeast were too small to report data reliably. The agency also reported samples sizes were too small to calculate reliably for Hispanic hunters in the South, Midwest and Northeast.
Despite the Dillard family’s love for hunting and fishing, Dillard thinks they’re becoming exceptions. He said hunting among Southern blacks began declining in the early to mid-1900s as blacks flocked to Northern cities for jobs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the first “great black migration” from 1916 through 1930 saw 1.5 million Southern blacks leave for the North and West. The second wave lasted even longer, 1940 to 1970, and saw 5 million Southern blacks shift to the North and West—usually for indoor work.
“I know that, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” Dillard said. “Because of the way things were in America, many blacks were loggers and worked the land throughout our history, so anything associated with the outdoors and rural activities became a bad thing during the 1900s. Our families encouraged us to get away from farming, the timber industry and other outdoor labor. They pushed us toward indoor professions.”
Dillard said those societal shifts “purposefully” cut many familial ties to rural lifestyles, which inadvertently severed many blacks from outdoor recreation. And those moves were huge. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 89% of the nation’s blacks lived in the South in 1910, and 80% of them lived in rural areas. By 1970, 53% of blacks lived in the South and 80% of them lived in urban areas.
“A lot of those people had rural roots, but they raised their kids in urban areas,” Dillard said. “They’ve already raised an entire generation who’ve never hunted or fished. A lot of the adults today don’t even have the interest or skills to teach hunting or fishing to their kids.”
Duda agreed that the farther and longer families live apart from rural areas, the less likely any group is to hunt. He said blacks also tell researchers the farther they get from woods, fields and marshes, the better they feel.
“Our studies and other researchers’ surveys of African Americans consistently find that hunting and other outdoor recreation just isn’t part of their families’ heritage,” Duda said. “If it truly takes a hunter to make a hunter, the challenges look daunting. Few African-American families include someone to pass down a hunting tradition.”
Dillard said the challenges aren’t just about time and location. “Another aspect of it cuts across racial lines, but in the black community more single mothers are raising children, and most women don’t grow up hunting and fishing,” he said. “I’m not saying no mothers teach their kids to hunt and fish, but if they live in urban areas, they usually won’t have opportunities nearby to try it.”
Duda and other researchers heard other explanations that go beyond numbers. At risk of simplifying by paraphrasing, here’s what some blacks told Responsive Management researchers in various studies: Many blacks look down on hunting, have a greater fear of firearms, and are uncomfortable being afield among unknown white guys carrying guns.
Again, Dillard confirms those explanations from firsthand experience. He said it’s common for his black friends and family members to dislike firearms. Some even fear for his safety when he goes hunting.
“I’ve had many black friends say there’s no way they’d go to unfamiliar places in the woods where they’d be the only black among a lot of white people they don’t know,” he said. “When I go to Colorado with my friends to hunt, we’re probably the only black people on that mountain. Friends ask if I’m afraid being out there among all those white people with guns. I’m not, but it’s a real fear for many black people. It might be changing, but it’s there.”
Dillard appreciates all the complexities that affect participation rates for outdoor recreation, but said much of it still requires help from friendly adults. He thinks more blacks, Hispanics and others would hunt if they simply felt welcome.
“We need more inclusiveness,” Dillard said. “If you’re a black hunter, and you watch TV hunting shows, or pick up an outdoors magazine or catalog, you feel intimidated when no one looks like you. The hunting industry has done a wonderful job including women and children, but I sense discomfort about including people of color.”
John Annoni, founder and director of a hunting/conservation program in Allentown, Pennsylvania, has introduced over 6,500 urban students in grades 5 through 12 to outdoor activities since launching Camp Compass in 1994. The program helps students learn about conservation, outdoor careers and hunters’ philosophies.
Annoni said he wants students to learn to love the outdoors so much that no contrary attitude deters them from hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation.
“I get to see a rainbow every day because I see a plethora of kids who never had a chance to hunt, but now want to hunt and like to hunt,” Annoni said. “But we can’t do it alone, and no company or organization can hire one outreach person and think they’ll reach all people of color. The ‘inclusive’ piece is still often missing from the puzzle.”
Annoni also said hunters shouldn’t be quick to congratulate themselves for taking their own kids hunting. “Taking your child hunting is your obligation,” he said. “You can’t pat yourself on the back for something you should be doing. We need long-term programs where hunters work as hard for kids as they do for habitat, elk, deer, ducks or turkeys. When we see two black kids hunting with three white kids on TV and on weekend hunts, that’s when we’ll start breaking down the fears and stereotypes that hold things back.”
Acknowledging problems doesn’t mean you’re solving them, Annoni said. Countless mentored hunting programs failed to reach youths and adults beyond the white community the past quarter-century. For example, a 2014 Responsive Management survey commissioned by the National Wild Turkey Federation found participation rates in “recruitment, retention and reactivation” programs stubbornly resembled the data cited above. For example, the 2014 study found 71% of R3 participants were from farms, rural areas, or small cities and towns. Also, 87% of R3 participants were white.
Even so, the data are five years old, and don’t necessarily predict the future. Dillard, for example, said his social media reveals more active hunters than he realized. “I see friends on Facebook sharing hunting and fishing photos, and I had no idea they hunted or fished,” he said. “Maybe the surveys aren’t reaching all parts of our society, or maybe some people just don’t respond.”
Meanwhile, a study called “America’s Wildlife Values” found that non-hunting racial/ethnic groups are slightly more interested in hunting someday than whites. Of Native Americans surveyed, for example, nearly one-third said they’d like to try hunting. The survey also found future interest in hunting among blacks was 18%; Hispanics, 16%; whites, 15%; and Asians, 11%.
As Duda looks ahead, he sees signs of change. “The good news, the neat part, is that the hunting community is embracing diversity in their ranks,” he said. “I think we’ll see real change over time as that cultural acceptance grows.”