Loss of licensing fees affects state operations

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Hunting and fishing remains a relatively stable pastime for residents of Alabama, while sports enthusiasts on the national level are facing sharp declines in participations in other states.

New figures from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show that the number of hunters 16 and older declined by 10 percent between 1996 and 2006 &8212; from 14 million to about 12.5 million. The drop was most acute in New England, the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific states, which lost 400,000 hunters in that span.

This urbanization, experts say, is one of the primary reasons for the loss of hunting land, along with a perception by many families that they can&8217;t afford the time or costs hunting entails.

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Some animal-welfare activists welcome the trend, noting it coincides with a 13 percent increase in wildlife watching since 1996. But hunters and state wildlife agencies, as they prepare for the fall hunting season, say the drop is worrisome.

Compounding the problem, the number of Americans who fish has also dropped sharply &8212; down 15 percent, from 35.2 million in 1996 to 30 million in 2006, according to the latest version of a national survey that the Fish and Wildlife Service conducts every five years.

Of the 50 state wildlife agencies, most rely on hunting and fishing license fees for the bulk of their revenue, and only a handful receive significant infusions from their state&8217;s general fund.

Pugh said the funds being lost by lowering numbers of individuals purchasing licenses adversely influences the department&8217;s ability to promote conservation and also limits its ability to enforce current regulations.

However, hunting groups and state wildlife agencies are striving to reverse the decline by recruiting new hunters. Vermont&8217;s Game and Wildlife Department, for example, sponsors thrice-annual youth hunting weekends, offers low-cost youth licenses and teaches firearms safety and outdoor skills each summer at youth conservation camps.

Pugh said the program allows anyone to hunt for free on state dove fields by making reservation prior to the hunt if they bring a youth under the age of 16 to hunt with them.

Another initiative on the national stage is Families Afield, sponsored by three national hunting groups; it aims to ease state restrictions on youth hunting. At least 12 states have obliged, enabling thousands of youths to sample hunting before taking required hunter education courses, including Alabama.

Associated Press Writer David Crary contributed to this article.