On The Compelling Data Suggesting Public Lands Might Be Bad For Hunters.
Updated: Apr 25, 2021
This is the third article in a three part article series on the public land debate. You can read article one here and article two here.
In the past 50 years there has been a significant decrease in hunter participation rates throughout the United States. However, the rate of decrease is most sharp in states with the highest public land percentages. The only states that have seen increases in hunter participation rates in the past 50 years are states which have some of the lowest percentages of public land. Why?
Consider the below data as a way of introducing this subject. 4 of the top 6 states to see the sharpest per capita decreases in hunter participation rates are also among the top 5 states for highest public land percentages. 6 of the top 10 participation decline states are also among the top 10 public land states (and Montana ranks number 12 for public land).
States With The Highest Hunter Participation Decline Since 1960:
Vermont: 15% decrease in hunting (Public Land: 15.8%)
Utah: 13% decrease in hunting (Public Land: 75.2%)
Nevada: 12% decrease in hunting (Public Land: 87.8%)
New Hampshire: 11% decrease in hunting (Public Land: 18.0%)
Oregon: 10% decrease in hunting (Public Land: 60.4%)
Idaho: 9% decrease in hunting (Public Land: 70.4%)
Indiana: 9% decrease in hunting (Public Land: 4.5%)
Colorado: 9% decrease in hunting (Public Land: 43.3%)
Montana: 8% decrease in hunting (Public Land: 37.5%)
Wyoming: 7% decrease in hunting (Public Land: 55.9%)
(Source for hunting stats; source for public land percentages)
Alternatively, there have been 4 states in the past 50 years who have seen a per capita increase in hunter participation rates. These states are among the lowest for public land percentages.
North Dakota 8% increase in hunting (Public Land: 9.1%)
Alabama 2% increase in hunting (Public Land: 7.1%)
Oklahoma 2% increase in hunting (Public Land: 4.6%)
Mississippi 1% increase in hunting (Public Land: 10.9%)
Texas, a state with less than 2% federal public land, has seen the largest net increase in hunting license sales with 658,000 more being sold today than in 1960 (source).
Many hunting advocates have made the claim that without federally socialized public lands the future of hunting would be doomed. The question then becomes, from where do you draw that conclusion? All of the data appears to suggest that the exact opposite conclusion is correct. States with the highest public land percentages are seeing the largest decreases in participation rates. Why? Shouldn't states with more access to federal public land see higher hunter participation rates? Utah has over 8 times more public land than North Dakota, so why is North Dakota seeing a large increase in hunting participation while Utah is seeing a 13% decrease? Obviously correlation doesn't necessarily mean causation, but when nearly 7 of the top 10 states seeing hunting participation decreases also happen to be in the top 10 for public land, one must question if there is more than mere correlation at play. If nothing else it certainly illustrates that the availability of more public land does not encourage higher hunting participation rates, the exact opposite appears to be true.
Obviously the reason people are hunting less in a given state will depend on a variety of macro and micro influences. However, having spent the past decade guiding big game hunts I can offer at least an anecdotal reason for the correlation between public land and hunter participation rates: Public land hunts generally suck.
I realize that is not the most eloquent way of saying it, but it is generally true. If you have had the experience of trying to recruit someone to hunting, as I have a great many times, you know that giving them a good first experience is crucial. Like any new activity, if the new hunter does not have an enjoyable first experience they are unlikely to persist in hunting. After all, hunting is expensive, time consuming and physically demanding. A good experience doesn't mean necessarily harvesting an animal, but for a new hunter there has to at least be the excitement of potentially harvesting an animal. The vast majority of public land hunting today (particularly in the West) consists of hiking through miles of elevation changes in the hopes of finding a small to mediocre animal only to find your chance of an ethical shot dashed by a Mad Max-esque horde of ATV riding hunters. Now that's obviously not always the case, and for the hunting enthusiast who gets off the beaten path and hikes into the backcountry many miles away from roads (as I do) good hunting is still to be found on public land. The average new hunter, however, isn't doing Cameron Hanes style endurance backpacking expeditions. Generally their first experience is hunting public land within a mile of a road, and that is a problem for several reasons. Even Cameron Hanes and other outspoken proponents of public land (like Joe Rogan) appear to know the best quality animals and best hunting experiences do not come from public land. When they came to Utah recently to film their epic Under Armour elk hunt (which you should watch, don't worry they didn't use a spear) they did so on Deseret Ranch, which is a 227,000+ acre private land CWMU ("Cooperative Wildlife Management Unit"). When they went deer hunting in Hawaii several months later they went to the private island of Lanai (which I have also hunted). The question then becomes, why didn't Cam and Joe try to film those same hunts on public land? The obvious answer is they are very unlikely to find that same quality experience outside private land, and if they wanted to find anything remotely similar on public land it would take them roughly 20 years to draw the tag (and Joe would be 70).
Although anecdotal accounts are not empirical evidence by any means, they still serve to illustrate the point that socialized public lands are not designed to provide the optimal hunting experience. I'll share a couple experiences that many hunters can likely relate to.
On a similar note, this past year I had two friends, adults in their mid 30s, who decided to try hunting for the first time. They bought their gear, purchased a tag, and headed out on opening morning. One friend described it as the "worst experience" he could have imagined. They watched several other hunters feverishly pursuing a small two point buck and ignoring all safety and ethics to do so. Every roadway leading up to the public land was full of trailers and ATVs. They felt they were much more likely to get shot by another hunter than to harvest an animal, so they went home. Anyone who has hunted public land regularly can attest their fear of being shot was certainly not unfounded. When asked if he would be hunting again he said no. Although I will certainly try to change his mind and provide him with a more legitimate hunting experience, the memory of his first public land hunt will stain his perception of hunting for some time. I believe that is the case with an ever growing number of new hunters.
A Different Approach:
Having had many poor experiences trying to convert new hunters through public land hunts, I decided to take a different approach with my oldest son. My son had been around hunting and had helped me process wild game on my guided hunts since he could walk (pictured below my son helping me skin and cape a bull at 5 years old).
Just before his 8th birthday my son expressed a desire to start hunting himself. Knowing if I could successfully initiate him to hunting I would have a hunting partner for life, I took this very seriously. I wanted him to have the best experience possible, and because he wasn't old enough to hunt big game in the United States, I took the extreme step of taking him back to the place where I had one of my best hunting experiences, South Africa. My son spent a week experiencing the entire gambit of hunting emotions. From the lows of unsuccessful stalks and sitting in an acacia bush for 4 hours during a rainstorm, to the highs of putting a 3 hour stalk on a wildebeest and making a great shot at 280 yards. My son came home from that trip hooked. All he talks about it hunting, all he wants to do is go hunting. We have been on several unsuccessful hunts since that time (if you define success as harvesting an animal), but the great memories from his first experience carries him through the less than great experiences of later hunts.
Now I know that not everyone can take their child to Africa for their first hunt, and I am not implying that everyone should do that. I am also not implying that all new hunters need to have some out-of-body hunting experience to love it. I am simply illustrating the point that because my son had an excellent first hunting experience he is more likely to continue hunting. Excellent hunting experiences are easier, in my (relatively informed) opinion, to encounter on private land (or at least limited access land) than public land. Perhaps the correlation between high public land states and low hunting participation rates is simply that people are growing tired of the public land experience year after year. They are tired of the bureaucracy of the public land tag system. Tired of other public land hunters.
States that have significantly more huntable private land allow hunters to make more of their own rules and permit them to enjoy their hunt knowing they won't be disturbed by someone else's carelessness. For this reason, tens of thousands of hunters eagerly buy affordable private land hunting leases each year so they can hunt undisturbed. Private land hunters (or leaseholders) invest in the animals on their property. They dig food plots, they keep poachers away, they care. I believe that is why we are seeing much higher hunting participation in states with less public land. Maybe I am wrong, but those promoting socialized public land will need to provide a better explanation. As mentioned previously, the argument that decreasing the amount of public land will result in lower hunting participation rates is entirely unfounded in the data. Texas and Pennsylvania have very low amounts of public land (and very different wild game species) and yet they lead the nation in hunting participation. Why?
Why This Conversation Matters:
Currently hunters make up less than 4% of the national population. With the Baby Boomer generation comprising the largest segment of hunters (and largest spenders) it is easily foreseeable that within the next 10-15 years hunters will see a significant decrease in their ranks. We are in the middle of a major recruitment crises and if we don't change something we will soon become a very fringe element of society (statistically speaking). As I pointed out in a previous article, one of the major problems with socialism in land ownership (such as our current public land) is socialism almost always tilts towards using resources for what the greatest number of people derive the most benefit from, minority interests be damned. When hunters constitute an extreme (and ever shrinking) minority interest, socialized public land use for hunting becomes extremely vulnerable. As President Trump recently illustrated with his waffling on African trophy imports, very little prevents sweeping actions from taking place very quickly. When you are hedging your hunting rights on access to federally owned and controlled public lands, you are doing so at the mercy of a political system that is very prone to dramatic policy shifts on a regular basis. The entire body of our elected representatives and courts will change within decades. The idea that an ever changing political body will always place the interests of a very small, and shrinking, percentage of Americans at the forefront of public land policy is naive.
As I mentioned several times previously, I am not advocating for the privatization of public land or for any public policy relating to public lands. I am still working through my own ideological views on this topic. My intent is simply to point out the obvious flaws in current mainstream arguments being used by many hunters and hunting personalities. By pointing out these flaws, my hope is that hunters can better formulate their advocacy positions in a way that will best serve the future of our heritage. The points I am attempting to make in these three articles are perhaps best summarized as follows:
Federal public land is a clear form of Marxist socialism that we have integrated into our political system. Socialism of land (i.e. abnegation of private property rights) has never been a friend to hunters, or any human for that matter.
Because socialism is generally the most inefficient way to manage resources, and it historically has not served the interests of hunters, we should at least evaluate non-socialist alternatives that provide us with the same objective (i.e. maximum amounts of accessible wild land). In The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith estimated that lands owned by the government were only about 25% as productive as comparable private land. I believe there is evidence that is true with relation to wild game management. There are a number of non-socialist (or at least less socialist) options I am not seeing discussed, including wildlife conservation easements that run with the land, irrevocable conservation land trusts, cooperative wildlife management units, and a great many private organizations like the American Prairie Reserve who are accomplishing an incredible amount through non-socialist means. These options at least merit discussion.
The data suggests large amounts of federal public land correlates with lower hunting participation rates. Why that correlation exists merits real evaluation. I have not seen anyone even discussing it.
I do not know what the solution to public land is. One of the problems with integrating socialist constructs into a political system is they are damn hard to get rid of. Social Security is unanimously accepted as a disastrous experiment with American socialism. It is extremely inefficient, wasteful and one of the worst investment schemes Americans could participate in. It is, however, here to stay and we can't get rid of it. Public lands, though not as obviously harmful, are similarly ingrained in our system. I don't know if we could ever convert to another system even if we all agreed there was a better system to be had. I do know, however, that using flawed arguments that contradict clear evidence, while supporting a socialist ideology that has historically been proven to be an enemy to hunters, is not a good long-term strategy. Let us put aside tribalistic group thought and engage in a productive discussion on the best approach to future preservation of our hunting heritage. It might be federal public lands, it might not be, but it merits real discussion.
Phillip Nelsen is an attorney, college professor, author, entrepreneur, professional hunting guide, life member of Safari Club International and various other hunting rights organizations.