That old saying about “slow and steady wins the race” might sound dull to some ears, but it applies to our current situation with hunting. In case you missed it, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently reported that hunting participation was down 16 percent from 2011 to 2016, and that hunting-related expenditures were down 29 percent over that same period. We see those downward hunting participation trends nationwide, which means concerns many voiced for years have come true.
Further, for the first time in my memory, bowhunting participation is down, which surprises many people. Bowhunting has endured a few flat periods over the years, but it always enjoyed a sustained uptick in numbers over time. In fact, we saw double-digit growth in the 1980s and ’90s, and during the past 10 to 15 years many states boosted participation by adding crossbows to their archery seasons. Today, however, the crossbow influx is largely over, and long-term participation trends are flat or declining.
The fact is, we’re facing bowhunting’s first crisis in modern times. Therefore, everyone is discussing how to reverse this trend, and I’m already hearing too many “quick-fix” solutions. Here’s another fact: Nothing will quickly fix bowhunting’s participation numbers. Bowhunting is not a simple recreational activity like bicycling, running, canoeing, geo-caching or even archery. In fact, the bowhunting lifestyle has become increasingly difficult in today’s urbanized, concrete, technology-crazed world.
The first step in the R3 program, recruitment, lays out many essential programs to help a newcomer become interested in bowhunting. Explore Bowhunting, Explore Bowfishing, 4H programs, Salvation Army efforts, Izaak Walton League of America, and community parks all help towards this goal. Photo Credit: John Hafner.
Before we succumb to impulses to spend our limited funds and valuable time on quick fixes, let’s remind ourselves about what’s required to go bowhunting. Newcomers need…
- Time to dedicate to bowhunting;
- A support network or help from a friend, mentor or family member;
- Access to archery equipment;
- A minimum degree of shooting proficiency;
- Broadheads for their arrows, and sights, rests, stabilizers and dampeners for their bow;
- Hunting apparel (clothing, footwear, etc.) to stay comfortable while afield;
- To understand hunting regulations in the city, county or state where they’re hunting;
- Access to huntable land and a way to get to and from it;
- A blind or treestand to hunt game, or the skills to stalk animals;
- A working knowledge of animal habits, habitats and behavior; and how weather (especially wind) affects them;
- Someone who can answer questions and solve problems that arise;
- And the tools and know-how to take care of any animal they kill.
Having written all that, I’m sure I missed a few things. Suffice to say, bowhunting is not as simple as camping, basic nature photography or the other common pastimes.
Therefore, we must immediately commit to three strategies:
- Accelerate the recruitment of new bowhunters;
- Initiate efforts to reactivate lapsed bowhunters or those who no longer hunt;
- And work hard to retain bowhunters who are sustaining our industry.
These strategies aren’t new, of course. We’ve long known that recruitment, reactivation and retention (“R3”) are the only ways we’ll grow hunting participation. What’s new is our sense of urgency. We must stop any further losses from our ranks while also turning more people into bowhunters.
Fortunately, the ATA has been active on all three fronts. Here’s a quick update:
Over 10 years ago, Emily Beach and the ATA’s outreach and education staff developed a curriculum, Explore Bowhunting, which is now taught in 22 states. In fact, over 75 percent of Explore Bowhunting programs are operating in schools. Emily and her team expanded Explore Bowhunting’s reach this year by introducing a Spanish version of it, Explora Caza con Arco. Further, the ATA team introduced an Explore Bowfishing program this year in five states. This new program is expanding opportunities for kids and beginners to get outdoors to shoot arrows at fish.
In addition, ATA has worked with the 4-H Club, Salvation Army, Izaak Walton League of America, and community parks and recreation programs that help introduce kids to bowhunting. And when the National Archery in the Schools Program started, ATA provided implementation grants to state wildlife agencies so they would appoint staff and provide funding for archery programs for their schools.
Although archery isn’t bowhunting, it’s essential to bowhunting. NASP, for example, reports that many of its students have become bowhunters. Further, several states have embraced recruitment efforts by recently adding Scholastic 3-D Archery to their recruitment efforts, and the early outlook is excellent that S3DA will boost bowhunting participation.
Lapsed bowhunters likely have equipment that’s ready to go. They also have suitable clothing and accessories, know the licensing systems and regulations in at least one state, and have ideas about where they can go to hunt. In other words, they’re all dressed up and ready to go, but something keeps stopping them at the door. Photo Credit: John Hafner.
Sadly, little has been done to reactivate hunters (and anglers, for that matter). I say “sadly” because of all the people most likely to resume participating, former bowhunters face the fewest challenges of anyone.
Lapsed bowhunters likely have equipment that’s ready to go. They also have suitable clothing and accessories, know the licensing systems and regulations in at least one state, and have ideas about where they can go to hunt. In other words, they’re all dressed up and ready to go, but something keeps stopping them at the door.
That’s why ATA staff members, led by Dan Forster, are working this fall with Responsive Management, a renowned research firm, and several state wildlife agencies to see if we can reactivate lapsed bowhunters. We’re currently targeting over 300,000 former bowhunters in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania with appealing messages intended to rekindle their bowhunting spirit. We’re testing messages with four themes in hopes of learning which images trigger a license purchase. The message appeals to the excitement and “back to nature” roots of bowhunting; as well as the organic, all-natural value of wild-game meat; and the vital social bonds of bowhunting with friends and family.
After the season, we’ll survey all the people we contacted to verify the degree of success we had, and ask questions to better understand those who didn’t buy a license. We need to know what obstacles keep them from bowhunting so we can determine what our industry and state-agency partners can do to get them back into the woods.
Meanwhile, we reached an agreement earlier this year with the NFAA to work with Bruce Cull, Brittany Salonen and their team to position NFAA as the organizational home for beginning bowhunters and bowhunters who simply want to enjoy hunting. The Pope and Young Club has long been there for bowhunters who like to enter their best animals into a record book and be associated with serious, world-class bowhunters. We’ve never before had a national organization that gives bowhunters a convenient way to associate with other “Joe Average” bowhunters.
ATA’s team, led by Jennifer Mazur, is implementing a plan for NFAA to become the source for Explore Bowhunting and Explore Bowfishing. In addition, we’ll work with NFAA so their members can find support in local ATA-member retail shops and among other partner organizations. We also plan to use Bowhunting 360 as a social and digital platform for newcomers to learn about bowhunting, share bowhunting experiences, and recruit NFAA members. We’re excited that ATA and NFAA are collaborating to provide a place that millions of everyday bowhunters can call home, and help sustain their bowhunting passions.
Sometimes we forget that beginning bowhunters often aren’t that fascinated by archery equipment or the kill. Bowhunting reveals a world they never knew existed. They learn how to get close to wild animals for the first time in their lives. Nature’s sounds intrigue them, and its vastness and power remind them of our human limitations. Photo Credit: John Hafner.
As you can see, the ATA and our partners are striving to grow bowhunting, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Until recent years, many in our industry lacked a sense of urgency about this problem. But now that they feel that pressure, it’s time to double down on what works: recruitment, reactivation and retention. Bowhunting is a process, and the speed at which we can initiate this process in communities depends on funding and staffing. With increased commitment, a slow, steady effort will win this race.
Finally, we also must remember that bowhunting immerses people into nature. This experience is as much personal and emotional as it is technical. Each time people bowhunt they enjoy experiences that develop into a healthy, positive lifetime addiction.
Sometimes we forget that beginning bowhunters often aren’t that fascinated by archery equipment or the kill. Bowhunting reveals a world they never knew existed. They learn how to get close to wild animals for the first time in their lives. Nature’s sounds intrigue them, and its vastness and power remind them of our human limitations.
The intensity of being alone in nature, as opposed to the world where we spend most of our time, forces a pause we all need. Hopefully, we can deliver a bowhunting escape to the uninitiated so they can find some serenity in their hectic lives. After all, life is truly better when you bowhunt!