Americans enjoy wildlife without carrying guns or fishing rods

Americans are spending as much money pursuing wildlife with cameras, fishing rods and firearms each year as they are spending at casinos, theaters, golf courses, professional sports arenas and amusement parks combined.

Americans are spending as much money pursuing wildlife with cameras, fishing rods and firearms each year as they are spending at casinos, theaters, golf courses, professional sports arenas and amusement parks combined.

That's the finding of the 2006 national survey of outdoor recreation released Monday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The survey is taken every five years.

The survey found about 87 million Americans -- about 38 percent of people age 16 and older -- observed wildlife, fished or hunted last year. They spent $120 billion doing it.

The number of people watching birds and wildlife increased 13 percent from 1996, from 62.9 million to 71.1 million. Their spending increased by 19 percent, from

$37.5 billion to $44.7 billion.


But the number of people hunting and fishing continues to fall. About 30 million Americans fished last year, down 15 percent from 35 million in 2001. Anglers spent $41 billion in 2006, down

16 percent from 1996.

Hunters saw a 10 percent decline in participation from 1996 to 2006, from 14 million to 12.5 million. Hunters spent $22.7 billion last year, 14 percent less than 1996.

About 31 percent of all Americans watch birds or wildlife; 13 percent fish and 5 percent hunt, the survey found.

In Minnesota, the number of anglers dropped from 1.6 million in 2001 to 1.4 million in 2006, almost 12 percent over five years. That number includes nonresident anglers. Hunter numbers dropped from 597,000 to about 541,000 over the past five years, or more than 9 percent.

The news affects not just how Northland residents recreate, but how the region's tourism-oriented economy changes to adapt to fewer traditional "hook-and-bullet'' visitors and more people who want to watch and photograph birds and wildlife.

"This expenditure of $120 billion highlights the benefits of these activities on national and state economies," survey economist Jerry Leonard said in a statement releasing the data, noting about 1 percent of the entire U.S. economy is based on wildlife. "Much of this activity occurs in places which rely significantly on wildlife-related recreation expenditures for their economic well-being."

Gene Shaw, director of public relations for Visit Duluth, said bird watching has become a significant contributor to the economy.


"The popularity of Hawk Ridge is incredible now, and even what we're seeing on the Lakewalk with the falcon [watching] site downtown,'' Shaw said. "The problem is that birders are mostly quiet. You don't notice them like a marathon runner or a Harley rider ... or a guy pulling a $40,000 bass boat. But they're out there.''

Resource agencies are trying to figure out how to tap into wildlife watchers who don't have to buy licenses or stamps that pay for conservation programs.

Ryan Bronson, hunter recruitment program supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said Minnesotans still lead the nation in per-capita fishing participation and rank in the top six for hunting per capita. But the trends aren't good.

"The big societal problem that we're facing is that the number of young adults participating [in hunting and fishing] has crashed while the baby boomers are starting to slow down and participate less as they get older,'' Bronson said. "It's not a good combination.''

A recent DNR study already showed that the percentage of Minnesotans ages 16-44 who bought fishing licenses dropped 10.7 percent from 2000 to 2005. And the overall percentage of Minnesotans older than 16 who bought a fishing license has dropped from nearly 40 percent in 1969 to 29 percent in 2005.

Last year alone, Minnesota lost 4 percent of its anglers, and fewer young Minnesotans are fishing than in any previous generation.

Resources agencies are concerned not just with declining license revenue for conservation projects but also with the possibility that fewer people will be advocates for wildlife. The decline has coincided with an increase in the percentage of Minnesotans living in urban areas.

"It's great we have more people watching wildlife, but that doesn't help pay the bills,'' Bronson said. "It helps make the case'' for conservation funding that comes from sources other than license sales, he said.


In the survey, wildlife watching is broadly defined as anyone who watched, fed or photographed wildlife. To be counted, participants must either take a special interest in wildlife around their home or take a trip with the primary purpose of seeing wildlife. Simply watching wildlife at home or on another trip is not counted.

The National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation has been conducted every 5 years since 1955. It's considered the best measure of participation and spending in wildlife-related outdoor recreation.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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