In recent years, a new group of unlikely hunters have headed to the forests in search of prey and then some. With their new perspective and enthusiasm for the sport, the new hunters are ushering in what I believe to be the next golden age of American hunting.
Hunting has traditionally been a sport dominated by white people, mainly men. The latest National Survey of Fish, Game and Wildlife Associated Recreation reported that more than 90 percent of hunters were Caucasian and more than 70 percent were male. Statistically, that is still true. But the tides are turning. Organizations like Hunters of Color, Diversify Outdoors, Uncharted Outdoorswomen, LGBT Outdoors and many more are working to dismantle the barriers that have kept minorities out of the hunting community for generations.
Consider Avery Toledo, a Puerto Rican who last November found himself at a hunting post, armed with a crossbow, silently waiting for a deer to approach the shooting range. Surrounded by the sounds of the forest: the birds, the wind, the squirrels, he watched the sky fade to pinks and purples as the sun rose through the trees. He suddenly saw a flash of brown at 70 meters. It was a deer chasing a doe. They passed quickly and too far out of range. Although he couldn’t shoot, that moment was still years in the making.
Toledo has always been drawn to the outdoors. He and his father bonded while fishing on the Broad Channel in Queens when he was younger.
“That kind of outdoor event was what we had in common,” Toledo said. “It was an unspoken dream of ours to go hunting.”
Toledo’s father died many years ago, but his dream of going hunting lived on. His desire to meet and go hunting has been renewed in recent years. He cites a few reasons for this, including the appeal of harvesting his meat, developing a specific skill set, being a steward of the land, contributing to conservation, recognizing wild connections, and being part of the natural life cycle.
“There is a primitive feeling within, I will say that as a man who lives a very hectic life, there is something that is very instinctive, very primitive, that I wanted to get in touch with,” Toledo said. “I’ve always had the desire to go hunting. It’s a feeling that grew.”
According to a recent study published in The Journal of Wildlife Management, Toledo’s yearnings are not unique.
Researchers at North Carolina State University, with partners from state wildlife agencies, surveyed more than 17,000 students at public universities in 22 states. The survey classified participants into active, potential, expired, or non-hunter categories. The researchers sought to explore college students’ interests, impressions, and participation in hunting. The results showed that most of today’s hunters fit traditional white and male demographics: 74 percent were male, 84 percent were white, and the majority had a rural background. But respondents reported that they were interested in hunting, like Toledo, and were much more diverse.
Those students who had never hunted but were willing to do so (labeled as potential hunters in the study) reflected the diversity of the general US population. This mix of potential hunters proved to be more diverse than the active hunters surveyed. Of those surveyed, 38 percent identified as Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, Asian, Native American, or other, and 43 percent were from urban backgrounds.
The report said potential hunters were more likely to be from a racial or ethnic minority than active hunters. They were also more likely to be women. This means that if potential hunters follow their interests and pursue hunting, the figurative hunting landscape may look different from now or before.
This should not be a reason for those who have been part of the hunting community for decades to feel threatened. Instead, this shift in demographics should be cause for celebration. A flood of new hunters could stabilize hunting participation numbers, which for many years before the pandemic were in steep decline.
Hunting participation in the United States peaked in the 1980s, when nearly 17 million hunters were buying licenses. The last five-year report released in 2021 by the US Fish and Wildlife Service reported 11.5 million hunters. The current population of the United States is 326.7 million people. Participation in hunting has been reduced to around 3.5% of the national population.
Fewer hunters overall equals fewer dollars spent and less support overall for the conservation of America’s lands, waters and wildlife.
While it is still too early to see what the momentum of the pandemic and the work of the aforementioned organizations have done to the demographics of hunting in the United States, at least anecdotally, the next phase of American hunting will be more diverse and inclusive. People from diverse backgrounds and mindsets participating in hunting have the potential to create a golden age of hunting that is vibrant and robust, with room for everyone.