Oregon's Response to Declining Hunting and Fishing License Sales

Feb 18, 2015
Nation-wide, hunting and fishing are increasing in most states, yet five states that appear to be prime outdoor sports states are experiencing significant declines in hunting and fishing -- Vermont, Arkansas, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Oregon.

Oregon has the second largest forest acreage of any state; a spectacular coastline with great ocean fishing; salmon, trout and steelhead in most rivers; and many rivers, lakes and wildlife refuges, yet the number of hunting and fishing licenses sold in Oregon are the lowest in 30 years as other outdoor recreation activities like wildlife watching are growing. (http://www.oregon.gov/oprd/PLANS/docs/scorp/2013-2018_SCORP/Demand_Analysis.pdf>Link) This has a significant effect on the state's economy, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) is facing a projected $32 million budget gap.

Oregon state legislators are exploring all options, including a special conservation license plate, but nothing would make up the $32 million shortfall. ODFW will be trying to get more money from the state general fund or plan for reductions in programs and staff, along with license and tag increases. (http://www.dfw.state.or.us/agency/budget/docs/ODFW_budget_background_handout.pdf>Link)

With the help of the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation, I contacted two members of the Oregon legislature to get the inside story: representatives Sal Esquivel (R) and Brad Witt (D), the outgoing House Co-Chairs of the Oregon Legislative Sportsmen's Caucus. Representative Esquivel is also a member of the National Assembly of Sportsmen's Caucuses (NASC) Executive Council. The following are their responses to questions about what can be done in the short run as well as the long run.

My question: Can you explain why Oregon's fishing and hunting numbers are declining?

Representative Esquivel: "Probably the largest factors contributing to the decline in hunting and fishing participation are the loss in access and diminished big game populations, both of which mean fewer opportunities to harvest animals. Declining deer and elk populations, whether it be from habitat loss, increased mortality from predators, or other factors, discourages a lot of people from heading into the field. On top of that, a lot of sportsmen also report a reduction in access to places to hunt and fish. It's tough for folks to justify buying a tag when their opportunity to harvest something, and even get in the field, is increasingly limited.

This all coalesces to create a vicious cycle: Fewer hunting and fishing licenses sold means less money for conservation and fish and wildlife management, which in turn leads to diminished hunting and fishing success rates and opportunities. It's a complex problem that we have to fix; if we don't, we risk losing the outdoor traditions that make Oregon such a great place to live, not to mention losing the positive, critical conservation and economic impacts provided by hunting and fishing."

My question: What's being done to reverse the decline in numbers?

Representative Witt,: "Many groups in the state are working to get more women and youth into the outdoors. Groups like the Oregon Hunters Association, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and B.A.S.S., among many others, hold youth hunting and firearm workshops and fishing tournaments. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife also hosts clinics around the state, in conjunction with sportsmen's groups, for both youth and beginning hunters. Many of these groups have similar programs to encourage women to get into hunting and fishing. In fact, while Oregon may be facing an overall decline in hunters and anglers, we've actually seen an increase in the percentage of Oregon women who are hunters and anglers.

One thing I'd encourage other states to take a look at, if they don't already have something in place, is our Mentored Youth Hunter Program. This program allows a licensed hunter (21 and older) to act as a sort of guide for young, first-time hunters. So long as the mentor has all of the requisite tags and licenses, then the youth hunter (ages 9-13) can hunt with them for the species for which the mentor has tags, without having to buy tags themselves. This is a great program because it works as sort of a "try before you buy" system that allows youngsters to get into hunting and gain in-the-field experience at little to no cost. The kids learn a lot of valuable skills through this program, such as firearm safety and wildlife identification."

Representative Esquivel: "Another unique program, of which Oregon is a participating member, is the National Assembly of Sportsmen's Caucuses (NASC). NASC is a program of the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation (CSF), and acts as a communication network for the 45 state legislative sportsmen's caucuses around the country. The NASC program helps facilitate interaction between state sportsmen's caucuses, sportsmen's groups, state agencies, and industry partners, and NASC members have access to extensive informational and educational on sportsmen's issues. As a member of the NASC Executive Council (EC), I've witnessed firsthand the expansive growth of the program over the past few years, and the critical role that the NASC network plays in protecting our sportsmen's heritage. I'd encourage any state who is yet to form a sportsmen's caucus to do so and participate in the NASC program."

My Question: What new legislation is being promoted that can help restore the outdoor recreation industry in Oregon?

Representative Esquivel: "We are exploring opportunities for the Legislature to support efforts to help to educate the non-hunting and angling public about the role that sportsmen and women play in conserving fish and wildlife that is enjoyed by all Oregonians. The money we pay in license and tag fees funds the work of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), is responsible for managing both game and non-game fish and wildlife in the state. The excise taxes we pay on things like guns, ammunition, fishing tackle, archery equipment and motor boat fuel ultimately generate revenue for state fish and wildlife agencies that manage public trust resources through this "user pays-public benefits" structure. In 2014 alone, Oregon received an apportionment of over $24 million through the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration (WSFR) program, the federal program that allocates these revenues back to the states for fish and wildlife management. This is a huge benefit for all Oregonians, regardless of whether or not they hunt or fish. Sportsmen and women know the impact of our license dollars and volunteer efforts, but we haven't always done the best job of communicating those contributions to the public at large."

My question: What's the best way for people, especially outdoor groups, members of the industry, and federal legislators to help restore Oregon's outdoor sports and preserve the state's natural resources?

Representative Witt: "I'd encourage outdoor groups to contact their state legislators about issues that concern them. The Oregon Sportsmen's Caucus has been successful in no small part due to the legislative engagement from sportsmen's groups across the state. Our sportsmen and women do a great job of providing background data on important issues, and always turn out in large numbers for pertinent legislative hearings. In addition, I encourage these groups to continue to focus their efforts to introduce more youth, women, and first-time adult sportsmen to the outdoors.

As far as industry is concerned, it is absolutely critical that they continue to communicate to both legislators and the public the immense economic contribution that hunting and fishing make to the state. Over 700,000 people hunt and fish in Oregon each year, supporting almost 15,000 Oregon jobs and generating $929 million in economic activity, along with $100 million in state and local tax revenues; these are huge numbers! We absolutely cannot afford further erosion of our hunting and fishing traditions; if so, we risk significant losses in both funding for wildlife management and critical revenue for our rural economies.

On a federal level, seeing Congress finally pass a comprehensive sportsmen's act this year would be a huge win for sportsmen and women all across the country. I know it's come close in past years only to get hung up down the line, so I'd love to see that finally get done."

All across the US, states and organizations are exploring ways to help support hunting and fishing. A recent Responsive Management study, for example, reports over 400 hunter retention and recruitment programs nation-wide. (http://www.nwtf.org/conservation/R&R_Evaluation_Report.pdf>Report)

Reaching the general public is another goal that deserves more attention. One program in Colorado stands out as a strategy that deserves consideration

In the late 1990s a coalition of hunters, anglers and conservationists working with livestock and agriculture organizations created The Colorado Wildlife Council to design and administer a media-based public information program to educate people about the benefits of wildlife, wildlife management, and wildlife-related recreational opportunities in Colorado, specifically hunting and fishing. Funding comes from a surcharge of 75 cents per hunting and fishing license, which can amount to $850,000 to $950,000 per year. That budget is administered by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Agency.

Initially. the Council created some ads in newspapers and billboards. In 2005, they began running TV commercials; in 2010, working with Pilgrim Advertising,http://www.cctadvertising.com/ a series of focus groups were held around the state to come up with some new, creative commercials that would have measurable positive results.

The Council and Pilgrim tested 20 benefit statements. Some, including pictures of families carrying guns, were turn-offs; but families going fishing was okay. Messages about the safety of hunting and hunters as good citizens were met by skepticism; and hunters protecting communities from wild animal attacks got little sympathy. Hunting for food, incidentally, ranked 16 of 20 benefits to the non-sportsman audience. Hunter safety, didn't move the non-sportsman.

The most effective appeals? The positive economic impact of hunting and fishing to the state (about the same as the ski industry), hunting and fishing license sales and excises taxes on equipment paying for all wildlife management, and the 21,000 jobs in small towns across the state generated by hunting and fishing.

The Council wanted a storyline that appealed to the non-sportsman. The first two commercials had non-hunters and non-fishermen showing their appreciation for hunters and fishermen supporting wildlife conservation by approaching them in the field and hugging them.

The Council surveys found the level of support grew- by about 30%. Those commercials have since evolved. New ones show people in service roles dressed as hunters and anglers getting hugs, while the voice-over narration describes how hunting and fishing help the economy. Check out the wildlife Council's websitehttp://hugahunter.com/ to see the current commercials.

What works in Colorado may not work elsewhere, but the the future of hunting and fishing will be determined by hunters and fishermen and the general public . Their understanding and appreciating the importance of outdoor sportsmen and women to conservation is essential.

-- James A. Swann, PhD.