The writing is on the wall, and it’s not pretty.
Unless Minnesota reverses well-established declines in hunting and fishing participation among young people, license sales will crash and endanger the state’s priceless outdoors identity.
The worst-case scenario — at the forefront of next weekend’s statewide Angler and Hunter Recruitment and Retention Summit — is that fishing and hunting fade so badly that those two historic institutions lose sway with policymakers.
The consequence feared by outdoors leaders nationwide is a society with less awareness of the natural world, less fish and wildlife research and less protection for forests, prairies, rivers, lakes, wetlands and all other game and nongame habitat.
“Staying connected to the outdoors is important for the future stewardship of our natural resources,” said Jeff Ledermann, supervisor of recruitment, retention and outdoors education for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
“We have to reach out to young people and broader groups,” said Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association and a member of the DNR-led task force that organized next weekend’s summit. “Our level of interest in conservation will drop if we keep doing what we are doing.”
Free and open to the public, the Friday-Saturday summit at Earle Brown Heritage Center in Minneapolis is designed for current and potential providers of angler and hunter recruitment programs. Outdoor industries, conservation groups, wildlife biologists, fishing and hunting organizations, clubs, 4-H leaders, high school shooting sports organizers, some legislators and an array of public agencies will be there.
The most anticipated general session is a talk Saturday morning by Matt Dunfee of Wildlife Management Institute, a 100-year-old nonprofit, scientific and educational group that has spent nearly a decade on so-called R3 research: recruitment, retention and reactivation.
Minnesota has fared better than most states in keeping hunting and fishing vital. DNR policy and planning official Olivia LeDee said the state ranks second only to Alaska in fishing participation per capita. Some 1.2 million Minnesotans over 16 years of age buy fishing licenses each year, while another 300,000 nonresidents visit to fish.
Minnesota also is tied for second with Wyoming in national rankings for having 34 percent of its population active in both hunting or fishing. LeDee said Minnesota hunting license sales have been steady at more than 500,000 a year — good enough for a top 10 ranking nationally for hunters per capita.
“It’s still a lot of people,” she said. “We are more stable than a lot of other states.”
But the culture is weakening dramatically when you consider that it has not kept pace with the state’s growing population, Ledermann and LeDee said. Younger Minnesotans enthralled with electronic devices are not participating in hunting and fishing as did previous generations and a large cohort of older hunters will be timing out for health and mobility reasons, they said.
“The net result will be an increasingly smaller percentage of the state’s population that hunts and fishes,” the DNR’s Council on Hunting and Angling Recruitment and Retention wrote in a report.
In general, the trend is down in all age groups, but observers are especially worried about young people who spend vast amounts of time indoors with electronics. The phenomenon is termed “nature-deficit disorder” in Richard Louv’s award-winning book “Last Child in the Woods,” and those who attend the summit will share ideas on how to counter it.
“The kids are just not getting the exposure to the outdoors,” Ledermann said. “They spend an unbelievable amount of times in front of screens.”
Shortage of tutelage
Engwall said the traditional recruitment model of parents ushering their kids to the outdoors is broken. According to DNR statistics, fishing was enjoyed by 316,600 adults in the 35-44 age group in 2000. In 2014, that number stood at only 203,000, a 35 percent decline.
For the same age group over the same time period, hunting licenses sank by an even larger percentage, according to the data. LeDee said the downward trend in both categories continued in 2015.
“We’re trying to get ideas with how to engage with people,” Engwall said.
A new report by the U.S. Forest Service shows outdoors activity also has waned in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA). BWCA visitor use dipped 14 percent between 2009 and 2014, before rebounding slightly in 2015, the report said. Core visitors numbered 97,731 in 2014, down from 114,029 in 2009, the report said. An earlier federal report noted a decline in fishing among BWCA visitors.
“In general, the Forest Service is working on various approaches at all levels with many partners to encourage public engagement in the outdoors,” Forest Service spokeswoman Kris Reichenbach said.
Ledermann said outreach efforts aren’t new to the DNR and part of next weekend’s summit is to share success stories. His own breakout session Saturday will deal with grant writing and funding.
One creative recruitment effort blossoming at the Red Wing Environmental Center has kids trapping gophers, practicing archery and getting hands-on hunting experience. “It goes beyond the basic stuff,” he said.
Emphasis also will be placed on engagement with new audiences and how to build on success in the corner of women who hunt and fish.