Talk about leaving money on the table: If deer gun-hunting participation rates for Wisconsin males had stayed stable the past decade, the Department of Natural Resources would have sold about 726,100 gun licenses last fall, or 105,000 more than the 621,094 actually soldtotal.
That's 31,388, or 4.5 percent, more resident and nonresident gun licenses than the record 694,712 sold in 2000.
That's one of many worrisome findings in the February 2011 report, "Declining Deer Hunters," a study on Wisconsin deer hunting participation conducted by Dr. Richelle Winkler at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Applied Population Laboratory.
Winkler also notes residents alone bought 644,991 gun licenses in 2000 but only 602,791 in 2010, a 6.5 percent decline, even with 10- and 11-year-olds buying licenses for the first time in 2009 and 2010.
No doubt Wisconsin has enough people to generate record hunter numbers. But when analyzing the ratio of hunters in each male age group, Winkler found increasingly smaller percentages hunting deer each year since 2000.
For example, 33.5 percent of 40-year-old males hunted deer in 2000, but only 25.5 percent of 40-year-olds hunted in 2009. Or try this: Of males age 39 in 2000, 34 percent hunted, making them the most likely residents to hunt. In 2001, at age 40, their participation rate had already dropped one point to 33. By 2009, at age 48, 28 percent were hunting.
Many observers assume the aging of "late Baby Boomers" (154,000 male hunters age 43-55 in 2009) is reducing sales, but that's a minor factor. It will worsen with age, but for now this group is more active than their predecessors at this age.
The greater concern, Winkler says, is smaller numbers of younger hunters, such as the 105,400 male hunters age 24-36 in 2009. In fact, the steepest participation declines were males 25-44. In 2001, 31 percent of males in that group hunted deer. By 2009, 23 percent were hunting.
Deer hunting is also not recruiting many young males. In 2000, 29 percent of 15-year-old Wisconsin boys hunted deer. By 2009, that rate was 24 percent.
These trends began about 1980. Although Baby Boomers hunt in greater numbers than all previous generations, their children — as a group — don't share their passion. Winkler found hunters age 20-30, the "Millennials," were few in 2010.
She wasn't surprised. Previous research found Millennials less likely to participate in any outdoor recreation than previous generations. Recent attitude studies by the Leisure Trends Group reported Millennials less likely to agree with this statement: "It's important to be outside as much as possible."
Perhaps more puzzling, Winkler found eastern Wisconsin males less likely to hunt than those in western counties. It makes sense that participation rates were higher in southwestern than southeastern Wisconsin, because the southwest is largely rural. But participation rates were also higher in northwestern than northeastern Wisconsin, though both regions are equally rural.
In analyzing each county's hunting participation rates, Winkler found hunting declined most in northeastern Wisconsin and in counties with significant "retirement migration" and lakefront development.
As discussed in previous columns on Winkler's research, although hunting's popularity declined in Wisconsin the past decade, it plunged earlier, faster and more deeply in most other states. Although it's convenient to blame all woes on the DNR, varying declines among male age groups suggest causes more subtle — yet powerful — than anything a state agency could concoct.
But when seeking causes, it's natural to cite problems we see, or think we see. For instance, for all the claims that deer hunting is worse now than ever, seven of Wisconsin's top 10 gun-season deer harvests occurred since 2000, and the other three between 1995 and 1999. Yet hunting participation rates declined every year since 2000.
Plus, issues like herd estimates and earn-a-buck rules more likely affect active hunters than prospective hunters. Those who conjecture could also claim that beginners simply dread hunting with grumps forever fuming about the DNR and deer estimates.
Either way, slowing the decline in hunters appears as difficult as changing society itself.
Patrick Durkin is a free-lance writer who covers outdoor recreation for the Green Bay Press-Gazette. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.