Many of you have read the reports, including on this Outdoors page, concerning the surprising increase in the number of hunters in the United States during recent years.
This fact has been enthusiastically reported in just about every major outdoor magazine on the market. The most recent account that I read said that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s survey noted an increase of 1.2 million hunters from 2006 to 2011, a net gain of 9 percent.
I am not sure if it is my age or experience that arouses my suspicion regarding this news item, but I can sum up my opinion on these figures with one word.
I am sorry to be cynical and display distrust over statistics tendered by our federal government, but a lifetime of hunting and a career in natural resources law enforcement tell me that this is simply not true. Hunter numbers are not increasing and I believe that the anecdotal evidence would show that the woods are becoming less crowded.
Think about it. Did you hear anywhere near the number of shots this deer season — or the last half dozen deer seasons — that you heard way back in the late 1980s? I would bet not.
Could it be that the much-talked-about decrease in buck kill is as much a result of reduced hunting pressure as it is acorns, antler restrictions or expanded doe seasons? Maybe.
Back in the early ’70s I often camped with my father and his buddies in the Dug Hill Road area of Green Ridge State Forest during the fall turkey season. That was a big event back in the day. If you stepped away from the campfire in the evening to look out across the mountain you would see a veritable string of lights from the campfires and lanterns that marked the position of other turkey hunters’ camps.
Two years ago I camped in one of those same sites during the fall season and hunted those same woods for three days without seeing one other hunter. That would have been unheard of on public land four decades ago.
Ask the next natural resources police officer you see, preferably one that has gray hair, if he is as busy during deer season today as he was when he started the job and my guess is he will tell you no, he is not.
So where do these statistics come from? I believe it is a case of old fashioned home cooking of license sales numbers.
For many years, West Virginia residents over the age of 65 could hunt or fish merely on the possession of photo identification, no actual sporting license was required. West Virginia recently inaugurated the Senior Hunting License for persons who turned 65 after January 1, 2012. The DNR openly admitted this was being done to boost the license numbers to help capture (their term not mine) more federal revenue sharing funds that are based on licenses sold per state.
I have no idea how many of my fellow Mountaineers turn 65 annually, but as we of the Pepsi generation are aging I imagine it could easily be several thousand, with a corresponding boost to license sales that would have normally been lost.
My favorite numbers recipe is the nonresident fishing license. There formerly was a three-day nonresident fishing license in West Virginia. Several years ago the DNR scrapped the three-day license in favor of a one-day license. They reduced the cost accordingly so they really did not gain additional license revenue, but they did make impressive gains in the numbers category.
Here is how it works. Ten guys from Baltimore come here every year to float the South Branch during the Memorial Day weekend. In years past, those guys purchased 10 three-day licenses to get them through the trip. Those same 10 guys now must purchase a total of 30 one-day licenses to cover the same time frame. Again there is no real increase in cost to them, but the state gets to report a whopper of an increase in fishing license sales, especially when multiplied on a state-wide and year-long basis.
I smell the sour aroma of cooking numbers, which is probably how that survey came up with the figures showing an increase in license sales. There are no additional outdoorsmen out there. In fact, there are probably fewer, despite what our government says.
Perhaps it really doesn’t matter. I just hate to be smiled at and lied to.
Dave Long is a retired W.Va. natural resources police officer and a frequent contributor to the Outdoors page.