Go to any town during the opening morning of deer season and you will likely find a group of hunters gathered at a local diner. Even small towns where there is nothing more than a rail crossing, grain elevator and a dwindling main street have their own gathering place where people are quaffing down pancakes and sausage and talking of the days hunt.
The scene almost resembles the cantina from Star Wars. Inside, they sit around swapping stories about the deer bagged in seasons gone by and those they hope to in the future. But sooner or later the conversation turns to the difficulty of finding places to hunt. It’s a topic we all hear about every year.
Unfortunately, Indiana is 97 percent privately owned, so to have much of a shot at taking a deer, or any game animal for that matter, you pretty much need a landowner’s permission to roam his woodlot.
The hunt for a spot to hunt is an increasingly big part of the sportsmen’s pursuit today. In the terminology of those who follow the problem, “access” is the buzzword. When you ask almost any ardent hunter what their biggest concern is, from the myriad of choices, land access is most often number one.
The increasing difficulty of finding land to hunt is not surprisingly pushing more hunters to hang up their bows or shotguns. In some states, the number of hunters has dropped nearly 20 percent. A recent survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revealed that two thirds of former hunters stated not having a place to hunt motivated their decision to abandon their hobby. In the Midwest, lack of access is causing more sportsmen to park their deer stands and duck decoys.
In American politics, few causes are more potent than those defending threatened heritage symbols. Real or perceived attacks on school prayer, our American flag, and even the etiquette of saying “Merry Christmas” have all been whipped into political firestorms. A comparable frustration exists among sportsmen and land access.
Fanatics have in essence used politics and our government to enforce their extremist views. Those states that have effectively reversed the hunting decline have done so with programs that uses government to open up private lands, voluntarily, to public recreation.
But, even though Americans may not hunt in the numbers they used to, sporting goods stores are not in danger of going out of business just yet. Hunting and fishing still remain major national pastimes. The total number of sportsmen - men and women, who hunt or fish, is just over 40 million, nearly one in six Americans.
But while that’s a crowd, it is still a shrinking one. The decline is related to the ripple effects of suburbanization, the gradual century long movement of Americans from farms to cities and suburbs. Just 30 years ago almost all of us had relatives who lived in the country, relatives who would welcome us back to the farm to hunt on beautiful fall weekends. Now those relatives are largely gone or city residents themselves.
Today, over two-thirds of sportsmen live in metropolitan areas where their children grow up less familiar with firearms, removed from the daily contact with blood and dirt, and often less comfortable with the pursuit of wild game. Descendants of rural America simply don’t have the same strong cultural attachment to the land we once did.
Even so, hunting is unlikely to ever disappear. The ranks of hunters in some regions may dwindle, but hunting itself retains a cultural resonance, calling to mind the spiritual, mental and physical rejuvenation only provided by our natural world. It’s simple. Most Americans think of hunting as a national tradition, one which our country was founded by, even as they tool around suburban interstates in their Subaru Outbacks. Hunting and fishing will always be a touchstone for a world the majority of people will always value, even if their daily lives no longer reflect it.