Small game hunting continues its popularity descent in Minnesota, according to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), resulting in about $1 million less in hunting-license sales last year compared to the 1990s.

Results of a DNR survey show the state had fewer grouse, waterfowl and squirrel hunters in 2018 than at any time since the agency began tracking participation numbers in these activities in 1969.

A graying hunter population, along with time constraints and hunting-land access challenges are among reasons for the declines, the DNR said.

Some small-game harvests also fell last year, the survey showed, in part because of hunter participation declines.

The ruffed grouse kill, for example, of 195,515 last year was down 30% from the 2017 estimate and the lowest in 11 years. Fewer Minnesotans hunted grouse in 2018 — 67,765 — than at any time in the past 40 years.

Waterfowl-hunter numbers also dropped in 2018. Still, 614,800 ducks were harvested, the DNR estimates, along with 187,600 geese, the latter far below the 267,000 geese taken in 2017.

On the good news front, last year’s pheasant harvest was higher than in 2017, with an estimated 2018 kill of 205,395 roosters, about a 19% increase from the year before. Last year’s ringneck kill remained 24% below the 10-year average, however.

Traditionally, Minnesota kids began hunting by chasing squirrels or other small game, oftentimes near their rural homes. But as society has changed and the state has become more urbanized, more young hunters start their field careers in deer stands, seeking whitetails.

DNR officials say tracking license sales is important because the transactions pay the largest share of wildlife management in Minnesota.

“Every year that license sales go down means our challenges in maintaining healthy wildlife habitat go up,” said Nicole Davros, farmland wildlife research supervisor. “Declines in hunter numbers affect both hunters and non-hunters alike. License dollars help pay for habitat management that also benefits the water that we drink and the pollinators that help produce our food.”