Most parents of children born between 1946 and 1964 — baby boomers — didn't worry about whether their kids would hunt or fish. Of course they would. Or, at least, many would. These outdoor traditions dated to the nation's founding, and had long been embedded in Americans' aggregate recreational lifestyle.
Yet whether hunting and fishing can catch on in significant numbers with more recent generations of Americans is an open question, particularly with the cohort known as millennials, who are now age 19 to 35, give or take.
The issue is important for a number of reasons.
Foremost is that, while multiple "gateway" activities exist to get people introduced to the outdoors (e.g., hiking, biking, climbing), traditional pastimes such as hunting and fishing have proved to engender long-term, passionate allegiance among participants — and a willingness to support that allegiance with money.
It can be fairly said, in fact, that stewardship and conservation of the nation's natural resources are largely dependent on funds provided by hunters and anglers. Some of this money accrues from license sales. Some is raised by the nation's vast web of species-specific wildlife groups such as Ducks Unlimited, the Ruffed Grouse Society, Trout Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, as well as more broad-based groups such as the Izaak Walton League and the National Wildlife Federation.
What's more, hunters and anglers voted eagerly last century to add federal excise taxes on equipment they buy.
These funds in turn support state and federal fish and wildlife agencies and the conservation management they provide.
But what happens if millennials, who have recently passed baby boomers as the largest living American generation, choose not to hunt and fish in relative proportion to their forebears?
In that case — which seems already to have unfolded — money available for fish and game management would decline, as would the influence of hunters and anglers in American politics.
This last point is critical, because throughout time, hunters and anglers have been primarily responsible for passage of this nation's key fish, wildlife and conservation legislation, from establishment of national parks and wildlife refuges to authorization of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Lacey Act, the Pittman-Robertson Act, the Dingell-Johnson Act and many more.
Each in its way is intended to sustain the nation's fish and wildlife and the habitat they require — forever.
John Q. Public, meanwhile, has done mostly nothing in this regard, and instead has trotted merrily along, leaving to others the challenge of sustaining the nation's natural heritage.
Among those who pay no excise taxes on equipment and feed they buy are people who feed and watch birds, the nation's largest outdoor category — even though many birders would willingly do so. Hunters happily pay self-imposed taxes on everything from bows and arrows to rods, reels, electric trolling motors and depth finders. Yet somehow birders' binoculars, thistle, sunflower seeds and other forage have remained above the taxing fray, despite efforts over the years to include them in the pay-as-you-go crowd.
Ditto, for that matter, climbers, hikers and bicyclists, among other outdoor users, who pay no excise taxes on equipment they buy.
John Arms is among those who worry about this stuff. "These things keep me up at night," he said.
The owner of J.P. Arms Marketing Innovation in Minneapolis, Arms is a hunter, angler and conservationist, too. He spoke at the Department of Natural Resources' annual Roundtable in Bloomington last week.
"Millennials are different from baby boomers in many ways, and if we're going to engage millennials in the outdoors, we have to stop trying to turn millennials into baby boomers and instead meet millennials where they are," Arms said.
The average millennial picks up a smartphone 45 times a day, and 89 percent choose a brand by cause, Arms said, noting success in this regard of Patagonia and REI, both of which in very high-profile ways have opposed public-lands takeaways.
Research, Arms said, shows millennials' No. 1 reason for going outdoors is to exercise. Second is as a venue to socialize. Third is to camp or hike.
"In one U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study, hunting and fishing didn't even show up in the top 10 reasons millennials go outdoors," Arms said.
The cliff's edge upon which hunting, fishing and wildlife management are perched is weaker than many suspect, he said. "We'll go from 8 or 9 percent of the nation's population who hunted and fished in 1980 to 3 percent in 2025."
Old ways won't work
Yet all is not doom and gloom. Reaching millennials is possible, Arms said. So is the conversion to hunting and fishing of at least some in this generation.
But old-fogey tactics won't work.
"Accumulating the pertinent available data about millennials, analyzing that data and innovation are the keys," he said. "Fortunately, because millennials are so connected by social media and by other means, they're relatively easy to reach."
After Arms spoke, two millennial women, Hannah Field and Katie Ledermann, who after graduating college in Minnesota last year rode their bikes across the U.S. in support of national parks and other public lands, joined him to answer audience questions. Their initiative is called Women on Wheels for Wild Lands.
The women buoyed Arms' observations about the 19-to-35 set, saying, for example, that if natural-resource advocates want to gather millennials for a cause, choosing a fun location such as a brewery is a good idea.
Also, using ambassadors on social media "to show that they're doing something fun and cool" outdoors might be productive.
In short, Ledermann said, "Ditch the posters."
Dennis Anderson • 612-673-4424