With their funding so tied to the sales of hunting licenses, hunting equipment purchases and hunters in general, state wildlife biologists and wildlife conservation organizations have for years wondered about the future of hunting.
Sport hunting has gone through a number of generational evolutions in Texas. It started at the end World War II, when G.I.s returned to homes not on the farm, ranch or small towns, but in growing cities around the state. Still, with close ties to the land through family ownership, they continued to return each year to hunt deer, dove, quail, squirrels and ducks.
Unlike their parents before them, the hunts were more about friendship and getting back to the open land than it was about the need for gathering food. Grocery stores and refrigerators changed that.
Then they became parents. In many cases, the family land was sold, and while those Baby Boomers continued to hunt, it was on leases or paid hunts in one form or another.
About the same time, a huge shift was underway from small game hunting to an explosion in the number of deer hunters as white-tailed deer expanded around the state following the eradication of screwworms and the advent of deer management in the 1960s.
Many of the Baby Boomers’ children, Gen Xers, followed their parents into the woods, but in smaller numbers. Instead, more went into fishing, possibly following the evolution of the bass boat. Even today, as Baby Boomers are disappearing, license revenue in Texas from Gen Xers still lags behind that of their parents.
That is when the concern began about what would happen next. Would Millennials follow the path of their parents away from hunting or be more like their grandparents and return to the field to hunt?
Maybe the bigger question to be asked is whether hunting even has a place in 21st Century Texas. Probably surprising to those who don’t hunt, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
“As long as people eat, it will (always be) relevant. The most universal value of hunting is a desire to get high-quality food for family members and friends,” said Matt Dunfee, programs manager for the Wildlife Management Institute.
In Texas, hunting license sales have remained at about $1.1 million a year. The surprising thing is that Millennials, those born since the 1980s, are taking up the flag and their numbers have almost doubled since 2010, according to a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department look at license sales by generation.
However, just as they are more likely to use a modern sporting rifle instead of more traditional bolt-action guns, the younger generation is headed to the blind with a much different view of what is a successful hunt, and it is not trophies. Their interest is more toward food and adventure than trophies.
“It has almost everything to do with an ecological and ethical need to get their own food,” Dunfee said of the young generation’s interest in hunting and other outdoor activities. “We need to be approaching recruitment on a motivation basis and not a skills basis. That is not what they need. Skills and knowledge (of hunting techniques) are secondary.”
That theory is supported by research that has shown that the number of hunters who say they hunt for meat has doubled since 2013, overtaking reasons such as sport and recreation. This idea is fueled in part by the “locavore” movement, a trend of sourcing food locally that is free-ranging and as well as chemically and hormone free.
In a chicken-and-the-egg scenario, Dunfee said that getting Millennials interested in hunting gives them a greater understanding for the need for open spaces and clean water. The thing that motivates them to hunt, however, is the ability to gather food from a locally sustainable source and share it with others.
“Their inherit values align very much with activities outside,” Dunfee said.
He added this change in attitude requires a major shift for state wildlife managers and even parents and grandparents when it comes to introducing this generation to hunting.
“This calls for approaching recruitment on a motivational basis and not skills basis. That is not what they need. Skills and knowledge are secondary to them. They will figure that out on their own,” Dunfee said.
He said it would also require a change in the definition of what current hunters think future hunters should be. Their values are different.
“What we have been doing is not making more hunters, but more people that look like ourselves. We are trying to make a 12-year-old us. There are millions in that generation. If we allow their values, and maybe their political views and their religious views, into the sport, maybe we can save it,” Dunfee said.
Some of these same interests go beyond generations to entire cultures. Dunfee said studies have shown that Hispanics, for example, are very interested in fishing and hunting, but again they are more focused on gathering food. Another component to their interest is family-focused activities.
“We say what (hunting) means to me, they say what it means to (their) family. Come fishing. Bring your family,” Dunfee said.
Women are also going hunting in greater numbers. In fact, they are the fastest growing segment of hunters. For the most part, though, they are less avid and are more likely to move in and out from the sport that has traditionally been white male oriented. Like Millennials and other races, Dunfee said women sometimes feel they don’t fit in.
“They have a hard time seeing their value -- seeing their place. They don’t care as much because their motivation is different,” Dunfee said.
While deer hunter numbers in Texas stay strong at 650,000 to 700,000 a year, the change in who is hunting might also explain upticks in the number of waterfowl and dove hunters. Those are both entry points for young and new hunters.
For those who care about where hunting is going, Dunfee suggests a change in focus. Continue taking your children, grandchildren and wife hunting, but also find potential hunters who are college age or older, those not introduced to the outdoors as youths and mentor them. Just expect their view of the hunt to be different.