Brad Olson spent the afternoon of his 39th birthday in the woods near Grand Forks with his two camo-clad sons, checking trail cameras and deer stands before the North Dakota archery deer season, which opened Friday.
Not even swarms of mosquitoes could keep the boys from tromping through the woods with their dad.
Carter,10, has been shooting a bow since he was 7 years old and already has two bucks to his credit. Younger brother Jackson, 5, won’t be able to hunt for a couple of years, but he loves to fish and will be in the woods with his dad and brother archery hunting.
“They always just wanted to go with me whenever I went into the woods,” Olson, of Grand Forks, said. “I’d never have to drag them into the woods. I remember taking Carter with me when he was still in diapers.”
Assistant store manager at Cabela’s in East Grand Forks, Olson grew up in Hallock, Minn., and started bowhunting as a 14-year-old across the road from his parents’ house on the edge of city limits.
Hunting and fishing opportunities were as close as the back door.
“Living up where we did, if you didn’t hunt or fish, you weren’t normal,” Olson said with a laugh.
Keeping the interest
These days, Olson shares that lifestyle with his sons, but hunting and fishing for many people isn’t as normal as it once was, statistics show, especially among 16- to 44-year-olds.
“Recruitment” and “retention” have become buzzwords as natural resource managers across the country tackle national declines in hunting and fishing participation.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in late August even held a two-day summit on the topic.
“Our total number of license sales has held relatively steady, but our population is increasing, and our hunting and fishing participation as a whole is dropping,” Jeff Ledermann, DNR angler recruitment, retention and education supervisor, recently told Sam Cook of Forum News Service. “That’s a concern for us.”
In North Dakota, officials for the Game and Fish Department say they also have concerns, despite the state’s relative success at keeping people interested in hunting and fishing.
Retaining that interest is crucial for an agency funded by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. Fewer people hunting and fishing translates into less money available to states for conservation.
Still, North Dakota continues to fare pretty well.
Numbers provided by the Game and Fish Department show resident hunting licenses peaked at more than 110,000 in 2007, before dipping to just under 104,000 in 2011 and 96,000 in 2014.
Part of that reduction can be attributed to fewer deer gun licenses and lower pheasant populations as grassland habitat declined.
As goes the hunting opportunity, so goes the license sales.
“We still have the opportunities and the open spaces relatively speaking compared to other places where it’s more urban,” Chris Grondahl, education supervisor for Game and Fish, said. “I think that’s part of why we are still being fairly successful.”
There’s room for improvement, Grondahl says, especially when it comes to retaining youths who complete hunter education as 12-year-olds. It’s not uncommon for young people to spend less time hunting and fishing in high school and college, but they’ll often come back if they had the experience as 12- to 16-year-olds, Grondahl said.
“We have to provide more of an opportunity for that graduate of hunter education before they become interested in other things,” he said.
Schools also can help bridge that gap. At South Middle School in Grand Forks, teacher Mark Bry has offered an Outdoors Club for students since 2007. The club, which typically draws 20 to 30 students, builds wood duck boxes, shoots archery, fishes, hikes and hunts for shed antlers, among other activities, Bry said.
“I hear people say all the time that kids these days do not enjoy the outdoors,” Bry said. “I totally disagree—they do. Many of them just don’t get the experiences they need to have to start the fire.”
Grondahl cites the popularity of the National Archery in the Schools Program and the North Dakota High School Clay Target League as other potential drivers to build hunter numbers. The programs aren’t directly related to hunting, but the odds of kids in the shooting sports getting involved in hunting are higher because of the proficiency they develop, Grondahl said.
“They get interested from that, and if the teacher with them has other activities that involve shooting sports, it just mushrooms out from there,” he said. “School programming is huge.”
Also encouraging, Grondahl said, is the increasing number of women completing North Dakota’s hunter education program. In 2015, 45 percent of the state’s hunter education graduates were women, Grondahl said, an increase of 20 percent in the last 20 years.
Grondahl said Game and Fish this week offered a shooting session near Bismarck for women who had completed the state’s online hunter education course. The program filled to its 20-person capacity in a few days.
The hands-on training helps women become more comfortable with handling a firearm, in turn increasing the likelihood they’ll try hunting, Grondahl said.
“Imagine a woman who hasn’t been around a firearm and someone invites them to go hunting,” he said. “They’ve had hunter education, but I think there’s some anxiety.”
Advanced programs can help alleviate that anxiety, he said.
“When you and I go out with a shotgun and we’re next to someone better than us, you know the feeling,” Grondahl said. “Now think about someone who just steps up to the plate for the first time.”
Fishing license sales in North Dakota for anglers 16 and older have soared to record levels of about 222,000 the past four years, including nonresident licenses, driven by an extended wet cycle that created new lakes and expanded fishing opportunities.
North Dakota now has about 425 lakes, compared to 168 in 1988, Game and Fish fisheries chief Greg Power said. More than 156,000 North Dakota residents have been licensed to fish the past two years.
“Most people that buy a license come back every year, and we’ve really seen that in the last five to 10 years,” Power said. “The last time we looked, 27 percent of North Dakota residents fish, which is a pretty high percentage, and that’s been steady for 30 years.”
The flipside, he said, is that white males in their 50s and 60s continue to dominate resident fishing license sales.
“We really have not seen the uptick in the percentage of women fishing, and that’s despite some targeting or marketing toward females,” Power said. “We probably could and should do more. That would be the only real disappointment.”
Youth anglers are more difficult to track because they don’t have to buy a license until age 16, he said.
Whether hunting or fishing, there’s nothing like quality opportunities to get people interested and keep them coming back. Power said fishing license sales plummeted in the late 1980s and early ’90s after several years of drought.
“Say what you want about the relaxation of spending time with family and friends, if you don’t get a bite, the attention span goes away pretty quick,” Power said. “Thankfully for the past 20 years, there’s something at the end of the line.”
Habitat loss remains an ongoing concern for hunting, which in turn means ongoing challenges for recruiting and retaining hunters, not only in North Dakota, but across the country.
Declining deer populations and a resulting drop in deer gun tags are one reason license sales have dipped in North Dakota, officials say, but so is the loss of pheasant habitat as land in the Conservation Reserve Program returns to ag production.
“In order to retain people, we need habitat and access,” said Mike McEnroe of Bismarck, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manager and president of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation. “There’s no sense in going if there’s nothing out there.
“We seem to be going through a habitat loss period now. That’s not going to be good for wildlife, and it’s not going to be good for recruiting and retaining hunters. There are a lot of challenges.”