Game and Parks officials work to grow interest in hunting

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February 27, 2012 - 6:00pm

Walk into the Hayes' home in Lincoln and you'll see a snapshot of the challenge facing the sport of hunting.

Ty and Aaron Hayes are teenage brothers, but their similarities end there.

Ty's bedroom looks like a taxidermy shop, with his numerous hunting "trophies" mounted on the walls. He is a freshman wildlife ecology major at Peru State College and hopes to turn his passion for the outdoors into a career. He hunts whenever he gets a chance, big game or small, proficient with any gun or bow.

"To me, I've never gotten a better adrenaline rush than actually having ducks lock into your decoys or having a deer 10 yards away from you or anything like that," Ty said. "I can't get satisfaction by sitting on my butt and playing a video game all day."

On the other hand, Ty's younger brother would play video games all day if he could. Aaron is a sophomore at Lincoln North Star High School. He plays three sports but considers himself a "hardcore gamer." In his free time he plays hours of Halo, a futuristic first-person shooter video game.

"I don't have a lot of patience," Aaron said. "When I play a game, I'm doing something constantly. Hunting, I just can't sit there for more than an hour not doing anything, basically."

Like many kids his age, Aaron doesn't hunt. That's part of the problem facing the future of the sport. In 1975, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported about 19 million hunters nationally. That number declined to 12.5 million in 2006. By 2025 the number is projected to be about 9 million. (CLICK HERE to read the 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation.)

Tim McCoy is administrator of the wildlife division of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. He says the decline in Nebraska is not as dramatic as other parts of the country. But he is aware the hunter population is getting older.
 

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Tim McCoy, NE Game and Parks wildlife division administrator, talks about the future of hunting and Game and Parks efforts to increase interest.

"We do have a long-term concern that our hunter population, our major groups of hunters, continue to age," McCoy said. "Our interest is probably not as much trying to recruit a large number of new hunters as to help replace the hunters that fall out and also to retain folks."

Some point to the cost of hunting as a reason for declining numbers, but McCoy says it is comparable to golf and other hobbies. He thinks the main problem is available land. With limited public land for hunting, and permission needed to hunt on private land, McCoy says hunters frequently blame a lack of quality land as a reason to quit hunting.

"Access is typically identified as one of the limiting factors for people to quit participating in hunting and fishing," he said. "(For) hunting specifically, it's been continually identified as an issue. Losing access for places to hunt is one of the reasons people drop out."

To combat this issue, Game and Parks developed a pilot program in 2009 called Open Fields and Waters. This program gives landowners up to $15 an acre to open their land for hunting and fishing. Funded by Game and Parks and through a Federal grant, the program will pay land owners a little more than a million dollars total in 2012.

Open Fields and Waters is a component of the Retention, Recruitment and Development plan of Game and Parks. They call this "an effort to ensure that the state's rich outdoor heritage is passed on to future generations." Last year Open Fields and Waters opened 230,000 acres of land and almost 500 acres of lakes and ponds for hunters and anglers. McCoy expects similar numbers in the near future.

Although McCoy identified access as the biggest problem, he understands that a lack of young hunters is also an issue. "The challenges for kids' time are one of the big concerns out there," he said. "Everything from electronics to youth sports; there's a lot of activities. Kids have a lot of stuff going on. Being outside provides some different benefits. It provides different opportunities. We're hoping if we get kids exposed to that, some of them will be interested."

Game and Parks recently tried to appeal to younger people by providing a smartphone and tablet application where hunters can view an atlas of available hunting land.

"That's one of the things we're looking at (is) helping try to bridge to younger generations that have really embraced and grown up with technology, providing those other opportunities for them to access this sort of information through the way they're used to accessing information," McCoy said.

Bridging that gap to the younger generation may be important now more than ever. Which takes us back to the Hayes family. Ty hunts, his younger brother Aaron doesn't. Their father Brian is also a non-hunter.

"Ty, who hunts so much, he's an anomaly in our family, because I was this first generation of video geeks. Asteroids, Defender, that was right there in my heyday," Brian said. "Hunting's been a legacy in families for generations and it kind of ended with me, because my father hunted. My brother is an avid hunter though, who grew up in the same household. Kind of like these two guys, we have one gamer and one hunter. It's kind of the same thing that's happening with my two sons."

A trend that the hunting community doesn't like to see.

 

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