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Economy puts more hunters in woods

| Sunday, Oct. 19, 2008

Wall Street's woes may put more hunters in the woods this fall.

A new report examining trends in license sales in all 50 states found that, when the economy goes south -- and when new housing construction in particular slows -- more people hunt.

The impact is not felt equally in all states, said Mark Damian Duda, executive director of Responsive Management, the Virginia-based outdoor recreation company that did the survey. It showed that Pennsylvania gained far fewer licenses in 1992, 1999 and 2004 -- the only three years between 1990 and 2005 when hunting license sales climbed nationally -- than other states, for example.

But on a whole, a slow housing market sends more people hunting, he said.

"There's a very important statistical relationship between housing starts and license sales in states that saw an increase," Duda said. "There's something going on there."

It could be that a slow housing market simply gives would-be hunters time to get into the woods.

Duda's survey found that 22 percent of active hunters nationally work in the construction, carpentry, plumbing, electrical and craftsman trades. No other profession or group of professions produces as many hunters.

Those fields account for most of the 575,000 jobs lost in the housing market since February of 2006, said Bernard Markstein, senior economist and staff vice president for the National Association of Home Builders in Washington, D.C., so it might be that any additional people hunting are out of work.

"Past surveys have shown that the number one reason people give for not hunting is lack of time, so if they're not working, maybe they have that time," Duda said.

Not everyone is willing to make a direct link between housing starts and license sales, however.

Todd Holbrook, assistant director of the wildlife resources division of the Georgia Department of National Resources, which commissioned Duda's work, said factors such as changes in license types, marketing and outreach efforts, and even weather can influence license sales as much as economics.

"There are a variety of factors correlating with those ups and downs," Holbrook said.

In Pennsylvania, conventional wisdom has always been that a poor economy actually causes licenses sales to drop, particularly among non-residents, added Jerry Feaser, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

So far this year, that's been the case. Through the end of September, resident hunting license sales were down 1 percent, while non-resident license sales were off 10 percent.

"Our information tends to run counter to (Duda's survey)," Feaser said.

This year may prove the ultimate test of Duda's link between home construction and hunting.

New housing starts nationally as of the end of August were as low as they've been since January of 1991, Markstein said. Construction of single-family homes in particular has dropped 65 percent over the last two years.

"That's the largest decline in the post-World War II period," he added.

The question now is whether such drastic conditions will convince people to buy a license and go hunting or just stay home and save their money.

"This is not only a slow housing year, it's the extreme," Duda said. "It will certainly put this idea to the test."

Game commission needs more 'loyalty'

Economic conditions -- good or bad -- might influence hunting license sales in part because so many people are seemingly casual about the sport.

Georgia -- using a point-of-sale license system similar to the one the game commission is working to develop right now -- found that only slightly more than half of its hunters are "loyal" license buyers, said Todd Holbrook of the state's Department of Natural Resources. They buy a new license as soon as the old one expires.

The other half go six months to four years or longer between buying licenses, he said.

"What we've found is that there's a heck of a lot of churn," he said.

If the game commission -- which has seen hunting license sales drop from a peak 1.3 million in 1982 to 924,000 last year -- and other wildlife agencies that live on license revenues are to survive, they need to find ways to make those casual hunters more serious, Holbrook said.

"It's good for them, it's good for the resource, and it's good for cash flow," he said.

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