The following opinion piece is written by my brother, Matt Rinella. He’s a research ecologist who has devoted his life equally to hunting and conservation. You’ve maybe seen him on old episodes of MeatEater or listened to him on more recent episodes of the podcast. For years now, we’ve been debating the merits of hunter recruitment. I’ve expressed my opinion that we need healthy numbers of hunters in order to maintain political clout and conservation momentum. I don’t want to see more hunters suffer the legislative setbacks that have plagued states like New Jersey and California, where hunting rights have been stripped away at alarming rates. In turn, Matt has argued that...well, you’ll hear it straight from him below. As with many issues, I see both sides of this one. But I find myself leaning more and more in Matt’s direction all the time on this. While I’ve tried to give voice to his ideas in abbreviated form on a few podcast episodes, I figured it would be best to let him explain it himself.

The Case Against R3
Have you ever arrived at your favorite whitetail hunting spot hoping to see another hunter there ahead of you? I’m guessing the answer is no. If I’m right about that, I invite you to take a look at a widespread and well-funded movement that’s become known as R3. It stands for recruit, retain, and reactivate, meaning the movement seeks to recruit new hunters, retain hunters that are already at it, and get those who have quit hunting back in the woods. The movement seeks to achieve its objectives using slick marketing campaigns, print advertising, and free how-to courses and mentorship programs that pair experienced hunters with newbies.

I’m an outdoorsman who craves solitude, yet my hunting spots get more crowded every year. That, in a nutshell, is why I’m leery of R3. Of course, the outright goal of R3 isn’t to make the woods more crowded and lessen the odds of you drawing coveted big game tags—though that’s an obvious result. Instead, the movement is motivated by the belief that hunter numbers are declining. Fewer hunters means fewer votes for things we care about, like conservation, public access, and our right to hunt. Also, in addition to wielding votes, hunters are major funders of conservation, both through licenses they purchase and taxes levied on bows, guns, and ammo sales through the Pittman-Robertson Act. The more hunters we have, the logic goes, the more conservation dollars will flow to the things we care about. The movement is widely embraced, to the point that support for R3 seems unanimous. Conservation groups ranging from the National Wild Turkey Federation to Backcountry Hunters & Anglers support R3, as does the hunting industry in general. Even state and federal wildlife agencies are on board. Last year, R3 advocates successfully lobbied congress to modify the Pittman-Robertson Act so that hunter-generated excise taxes once earmarked for conservation and access can now be reallocated to hunter recruitment.

While in some shape or form R3 is decades old, the movement found renewed inspiration when the 2016 edition of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Hunter Participation Survey was released. This survey was widely interpreted as proof of the hunting industry’s worst fears—that hunters are vanishing. But the survey did not, in fact, demonstrate declines. The survey is conducted every five years, and grey dots in the graph below show numbers of hunters, according to the survey, going back to 1991. The dip in grey dot values between 2011 and 2016 is what’s been reported as irrefutable proof of hunting’s demise by many sources, including major national news outlets ranging from The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal. However, what’s never reported are the error bars (red lines) depicting the accuracy of the survey.

Check out 2016. The most likely estimate is 11.5 million hunters (grey dot), but the error bars indicate the true number is anywhere between 9.5 and 13.3 million. And if there were 13.3 million hunters in 2016, that’s not much different than earlier years the survey was conducted. Most importantly, the orange and blue lines make me extremely suspicious of the 2016 survey. Instead of contacting some people and asking them if they hunt (grey), the blue and orange lines are actual numbers of license holders and tags sold in the entire country according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I ask you, if there were fewer hunters in 2016 than 2011, then why were there more license holders and tags sold in 2016 than 2011? According to the tag holder data (blue), which I put way more stock in than some survey (grey), you have to go back to the early 1990s to find a year when there were more hunters than in 2016.

R3 Figure 1 Figure 1. Hunter participation data.

In addition to the survey results, many sources express worry about losses in license holders since 1982 (blue line). The increasing trend from 2013 to 2019 suggests we are recouping those lost hunters, but I hope we don’t. How many of us honestly regard the early ’80s as the good old days? I grew up in Michigan in the 1980s, and hunting pressure was ridiculous. Despite hunting my ass off, I never once saw a buck sporting his second set of antlers, and even spikes and forks were nearly extinct after opening day. If my adolescence is any indication, we should leave the hunting situation from those days behind along with the parachute pants and mullets.

Besides, where would an early 1980s-sized hunter population even go in Michigan and other states that have undergone substantial urban development? Many of my childhood hunting spots are residential neighborhoods now, and friends from elsewhere tell me theirs are too. In Michigan, tag holders dropped from an average of 965,000 in the 1980s to 755,000 in the 2010s, and I suspect this is because there are fewer places to hunt. I believe hunters are just like any other predator. When home range availability and/or prey numbers decline, so do we. In this sense, R3 goes against basic population ecology by trying to increase predator numbers above what the resource can handle.

The predator-prey thing works the other way around, too. When prey becomes more abundant, hunters increase. Take North Carolina for example, one of 17 states where hunter numbers increased between the 1980s and 2010s. Due to conservation efforts, the whitetail deer population has dramatically increased in North Carolina. I can’t help but think that’s why the state has about 200,000 more hunters now than in the 1980s.

The same articles that assert hunting is going bye-bye also use cherry-picked anecdotes from handfuls of states to make dire proclamations about hunter-generated conservation revenues. Dollar amounts in the graph below, which are adjusted for inflation, show what is truly going on with funding on a national scale. The two major sources of conservation revenue, license fees and PR dollars, are WAY greater now than historically. Given these data, it takes some amount of willful ignorance to paint a gloomy picture of the funding realities.

R3 Figure 2 Figure 2. Hunting revenue adjusted for inflation (2018 dollars).

However, one might argue, the hunter population is aging, and attrition will eventually deplete hunters and dollars alike. To this I say the future is difficult to predict. Several factors could easily override effects of attrition. For example, hunting has become increasingly trendy in recent years, and this is likely adding to our ranks—though perhaps for the wrong reasons. Also, the free-range, organic, locavore folks continue to grab on to hunting. Additionally, Covid-19 is causing huge increases in hunter safety enrollment and hunting license sales. At least some of these new hunters will keep at it. Basically, until we start hearing about landowners who have gobs of turkeys and deer on their property but can’t find anyone willing to come hunt for them, let’s stop fretting about attrition.

If an organized R3 movement is not actually needed to bolster hunter numbers and conservation dollars, might it serve some other virtuous purpose? I doubt it. Part of R3’s appeal is that it makes hunters feel warm and fuzzy—benevolent folks guiding newbies to a more fulfilling life. But I don’t think we should feel so good about R3 just for its own sake. First, there is zero empirical evidence that simply turning someone into a hunter makes them a better, happier citizen. If the rationale for R3 is making people better and happier, redirect the effort toward encouraging good nutrition, reading, and cardiovascular exercise, things proven to make people better.

Rather than seeing R3 as philanthropic, I see it as undemocratic and rude. No pro-R3 group has ever asked if you want to encounter more hunters when afield, despite that being the blatantly obvious consequence of R3. Instead, they either assume you’re OK with increased hunting pressure, or worse, they don’t care what you think. Either way, they’re fine letting their R3 compromise your hunting. I recently quit the board of a major hunting nonprofit over this. While helping design a survey to better figure out what members thought the organization’s priorities should be, I advocated for two questions: Do you want to see more hunters when afield, and if so, how many? The board’s unwillingness to include these questions remains troubling to me. I assume they feared the answers would be “no” and “zero,” in which case they’d have to reconsider R3, which is a main thrust of the organization. I’m concerned that avoiding the tough questions doesn’t serve hunting nonprofits or the hunting community more generally.

It’s bewildering that consequences for hunting pressure are absent from the R3 discussion. Even the movement’s own surveys show pressure is reducing hunter satisfaction. The R3 bible is the 2017 Hunting, Fishing, Sport Shooting, and Archery Recruitment, Retention, and Reactivation, a 507-page tome devoted to improving R3 efforts. According to their own survey data, 82% of respondents indicated hunting pressure was the dominant factor determining where they hunted, and 55% reported abandoning spots due to pressure. By increasing hunting pressure, R3 seems doomed to fight against itself. After all, successes on the recruitment and reactivation fronts will inevitably cause dissatisfaction and losses on the retainment front. The result will probably be a bunch of lifelong hunters getting displaced by half-committed people.

Conservation nonprofits are essential to the future of hunting, and we owe them much for the important work they do. If you are not a member of a group like BHA, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, or Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, I urge you to join, contribute, and help shape the priorities. Those priorities should be protecting wildlife habitat, increasing acreage available to hunters, and countering threats to hunting rights. Let friends and family recruit the next generation of hunters. That model has worked since the beginning of time.

Feature image via Captured Creative.