An aging, declining population of hunters spells trouble for Wisconsin deer management

Hunters not only help control deer numbers but help fund DNR programs. Recruitment efforts have failed to replace those who stop.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Wildlife managers are trained to face a range of challenges, including the impacts of diseases, invasive species and changing habitat.

But there's a significant one facing white-tailed deer managers in Wisconsin they can do nothing about: Father Time.

The largest cohort of the state's gun deer hunters is now in their 60s and a portion stop hunting each year.

The reasons vary – some lose interest, some have their hunting groups dissolve, some lose access to their traditional hunting spots, some move out of state, some experience poor health and some die – but without sufficient recruitment of new hunters the result has been a declining deer hunting population in the Badger State.

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Through the end of October, Wisconsin gun deer license sales were running about 2% behind last year, said Jeff Pritzl, Department of Natural Resources deer program specialist.

The license sales decline has become the norm in recent years.

"What that is capturing is what has become pretty well known and that is the baby-boom generation, which embraced deer hunting like no other generation before or after, is simply aging out and retiring from deer hunting," Pritzl said Nov. 2 during a deer season media briefing. "As they are slowly and gradually hanging up their blaze orange for the last time, we are losing a couple of percent every year. And we know that's going to continue for the next decade."

A graph shows the ages of Wisconsin hunters in 2022, with license buyers in their 60s outnumbering all other age cohorts.

As Pritzl indicated, the trend is not a surprise.

Social scientists, including Thomas Heberlein of the University of Wisconsin (now professor emeritus of community and environmental sociology), have been examining and documenting a decline in hunting in the U.S. for decades.

In 2016 Robert Holsman, then of the DNR, authored a report titled "What the Evidence Suggests for the Future of Fishing and Hunting License Sales in Wisconsin." Data in Holsman's study showed gun deer license sales in Wisconsin peaked in 1999 when 694,712 (resident and non- resident) individuals purchased an authorization and had dropped to 613,165 gun deer licenses in 2015. It's now continuing the downward trend through the mid-500,000's

And the rate of decline in gun deer hunting was predicted 16 years ago by a team of University of Wisconsin and Department of Natural Resources researchers.

The researchers, Richelle Winkler and Jennifer Huck of UW's Applied Population Lab in Madison and Keith Warnke of the DNR, released a draft of their study in 2007 titled ""

The work used Wisconsin hunter data from 2000 to 2007 and utilized an age-period-cohort analysis to examine the recent decline in gun deer hunters and project the future number of hunters in the state.

It focused on male gun deer hunters, the largest cohort in the state's hunting population and the primary driver of changes.

The authors noted the deer herd in Wisconsin is largely kept in check by hunters who purchase licenses and kill deer each fall. Further, it stated hunting was vital not only to wildlife management efforts but is also an important cultural activity through which people become intricately connected to the natural world.

However, purchases of deer hunting licenses by Wisconsin hunters had declined in the 2000s and, through modeling, the study predicted the drop could become more exacerbated over the coming years.

"North American natural resource management strategies currently depend on hunters and anglers to fund habitat conservation, wildlife management, and land protection through license fees and special taxes on hunting equipment," the authors wrote. "However, hunter participation is declining across the United States, challenging the long-term viability of this approach."

The model predicted a loss of 1.9% of male gun deer hunters each year.

Hunters gather during the 2022 Wisconsin gun deer season to help recover and drag deer after a successful deer drive near Baraboo. With each passing season the average age of Wisconsin deer hunters increases and the number of gun deer hunting licenses decreases.

The authors concluded that if patterns continued, the number of Wisconsin male deer hunters would "decline by more than 10% (55,304 hunters) in the next 10 years and an additional 18 % (88,552 hunters) between 2020 and 2030."

Sixteen years after the draft report was released, the predictions look prescient.

Despite some gains in female and youth hunters, the overall number of Wisconsin gun deer hunters has continued to decline as a larger number of baby-boomers stop hunting.

In 2022 the DNR sold 554,898 gun deer licenses, a 1.6% year-over-year decline.

The research was eventually published in 2012 in Population and Environment, a quarterly peer-reviewed academic journal. Winkler, the lead author, is now at Michigan Technological University and Warnke has retired from the DNR and works as R3 and Relevancy Coordinator for the Midwest Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Pritzl said the DNR is expecting to sell in the range of 540,000 to 550,000 gun deer licenses this year.

He's also expecting the most common age of Wisconsin gun deer hunters to be 61, up from 60 last year.

A random DNR survey of licensed Wisconsin big game hunters in 1968 found 65% were age 39 or younger. 

The aging, declining population of gun deer hunters has resulted in less deer hunting effort, Pritzl said. And combined with regulation changes such as the Legislature's move to eliminate Earn-A-Buck in 2011, it has become harder to hit deer harvest objectives, especially in farmland units.

"It's been a challenge to use hunting harvests to keep the deer population in balance both biologically with the natural landscape and also with human interests and the conflicts that can arise whether it's crop damage or deer-vehicle accidents on the roadway," Pritzl said. "Those (hunters) that remain will need to change their mindset a little bit about appreciating both their role in their own personal pursuits and interests, but also what they're doing for the greater community as a whole. We're just going to have to increase that discussion."