I was scrolling through my Twitter feed as my youngest daughter drifted off to sleep on an evening in late March when a piece from National Public Radio caught my attention.
"Decline In Hunters Threatens How the U.S. Pays for Conservation."
We have seen these reports many times in the last decade. Hunters are dropping out at a greater rate than they are being brought in.
Now when I see the numbers, though, it strikes a different chord. The 2-year-old lying on my shoulder that night and her 5-year-old sister have done that to me.
I clicked the link and read the NPR piece word-for-word. It cited a 2016 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that breaks down how many people use the outdoors today. A total of 11.5 million people hunted in 2016, just 5 percent of the U.S. population 16 years and older. That's almost half of what it was 50 years ago and down from 13.7 million hunters in 2011.
I read that piece a couple days before Mark Anderson had stopped in to talk with me about a trip that the Viking Sportsmen's group in Alexandria is taking local students on to the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota. On April 17, they will leave at 6 a.m. and spend the day getting an up-close view of the abundant waterfowl that rely on this refuge, while also getting a tour of about 5,000 acres of native prairie that has never been touched by a plow.
Anderson, who is one of the leads of the Junior Viking Sportsmen, thought they would have more students signed up for this trip by now. There were about 30 kids committed to attend last week and there is room for more.
Not long ago, the Junior Viking Sportsmen regularly had 25-30 kids take part. This year, it's down to about five who regularly attend, Anderson said.
"We just want to keep them interested in the outdoors," Anderson said. "It's totally funded by the Viking Sportsmen. There isn't a high school group out there that doesn't cost the parents something. We try to do field stuff, but when we have limited numbers it's more difficult."
The Viking Sportsmen and almost every outdoor group I know of has shifted their philosophy over the last decade to invest a huge portion of their resources toward getting kids involved in the outdoors. It's hard to argue that it's not working to a certain level. The annual Youth Outdoor Activity Day at the Alexandria Shooting Park drew more than 2,000 kids last year.
The trap shooting league in Minnesota just sent out a news release announcing they expect almost 12,000 students to take part this spring, the most participants the league has ever had.
What I wonder, though, is how many of those kids are translating that interest into becoming lifelong hunters? It's important for everyone who loves the outdoors because, as the system currently works, hunters and anglers fund conservation in this country.
The NPR piece pointed out that $3.3 billion, about 60 percent of state wildlife agencies' conservation funds, come from hunting and fishing related activities. Much of that stems from license sales (35 percent), but hunters and anglers also pay taxes through guns, ammunition and angling-equipment sales that help agencies manage wildlife in this country.
The 2016 survey showed that angling is still a popular outdoor activity in the U.S. with 35.8 million people fishing that year. Anglers spent $46.1 billion on trips, equipment, licenses and other items to support their fishing-related activities. The number of anglers actually increased 8 percent from the same survey in 2011.
Then we get to the number of people who enjoyed the outdoors by watching wildlife through activities like birdwatching or outdoor photography. That reached 86 million in the 2016 survey.
In total, more than 101 million Americans - about 40 percent of the population - actively participated in some sort of wildlife-associated recreation. The importance of that was an economic impact of an estimated $156.3 billion spent on equipment, travel, licenses and fees.
It is impossible to look at those numbers and not see how important outdoor enthusiasts who do not necessarily hunt or fish are to the future of hunting and fishing in this country. The question then becomes, how can we all help each other?
I do think we need to find a way to tweak the user-play, user-pay model to better represent how many people are using the outdoors today. I also know that hunters and anglers cannot view the hikers, bikers, photographers and bird watchers as an enemy.
We need them on our side, and I believe hunters could do a better job of explaining why it is that many of us are so passionate about hunting.
I have often thought about this on a personal level - why do I hunt? I hunt because I want to feed my family year-round with an animal that I take myself. I want that animal to have every chance of surviving when I enter the woods by using its instincts. I love that chess match of trying to get a whitetail within 30 yards of me and my bow.
I have felt remorse standing over every deer I have ever shot since falling in love with bow hunting after college, but this is a part of life. I eat meat and death is a part of that.
More often than not, the animal wins in our one-on-one matchup. I've watched deer scent me, pick my movement and turn and run after simply coming across the trail I walked in on. They are amazing survivors. I appreciate them more every year because I hunt them.
I have explained that to every one of my friends who love the outdoors but do not hunt or fish, and I have yet to have one of them not respect that position.
I don't have all the answers to the numbers crunch we are seeing when it comes to conservation in this county. I do believe that all of us - hunters, anglers, every outdoor recreationist - need to be in this fight together if wildlife is going to stand a chance long into the future.