Bob Shannon is an avid hunter, a fishing guide and owns a tackle shop, but he sometimes struggles to get his own son out into Vermont's woods and fields.
"He'll be sitting there with the video games," Shannon said of 9-year-old Alexander. "I finally had to lay down the law last summer: 'If it's a nice day, you're outside.'"
Shannon's challenge reflects a larger problem plaguing many state governments: Revenue from hunting and fishing license sales is plunging because of waning interest in the outdoors.
"We're losing our rural culture," said Steve Wright, a regional representative for the National Wildlife Federation. "There are so many distractions, and we're not recruiting young people into hunting and fishing."
Sales of Vermont hunting and fishing licenses have dropped more than 20 percent over the past 20 years, leaving the Fish and Wildlife Department pleading with lawmakers for more money.
Other states report similar drop-offs:
- Arkansas hunting license sales dropped from about 345,000 in 1999 to about 319,000 in 2003.
- Pennsylvania sold about 946,000 hunting licenses in 2006, down from just over a million in 1999, and a peak of 1.3 million in 1981.
- Oregon had 100,000 fewer licensed anglers last year than in 1987, and 70,000 fewer licensed hunters.
- West Virginia sold 154,763 resident hunting permits in 2006, a 17 percent decrease from 1997.
The trend means trouble for some fish and wildlife agencies, which use license revenue to finance preservation programs for endangered species like peregrine falcons, bald eagles and loons. Game wardens also help with law enforcement, joining searches for lost hikers and skiers.
Fishing for new revenue
In the search for new sources of revenue to support fish and wildlife programs, Vermont lawmakers are weighing legislation that would dedicate part of the state's sales tax revenues to the Fish and Wildlife Department.
"The issue here is that most of our fish and wildlife agencies were set up to fund conservation, based predominantly or entirely on one set of users" — hunters and anglers who pay license fees, according to Dave Chadwick, senior program associate with the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies in Washington.
"They're shouldering the whole burden for a benefit and an amenity that we all enjoy," Chadwick said.
Other fundraising strategies range from sales taxes on outdoor sporting goods, as in Texas, to Florida's surcharges on speeding tickets, said Douglas Shinkle, a policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Some states are trying to boost efforts to recruit new people — especially young people — into hunting and fishing.
A West Virginia legislator has proposed offering hunters' training courses in public schools, allowing seventh- through ninth-graders to opt for instruction in topics ranging from survival skills to gun safety.
Arkansas has used some of its dedicated sales tax revenue to recruit new hunters. However, the state's hunter education program graduated 11,891 people under 30 years old last year, down from 16,596 in 1998.
An uphill battle
Vermont sponsors youth hunting weekends, typically three a year. Oregon has started youth mentoring programs that match kids up with experienced hunters. Minnesota has two staff members reaching out to the state's burgeoning Southeast Asian population, said Jay Johnson of the state Department of Natural Resources' hunter recruitment and retention program.
Wright said it might be an uphill battle because of everything from video games to the growth in structured activities like team sports and music lessons.
But Shannon said he has met with some success. After he laid down the law with Alexander last summer, the boy went out fishing almost every morning, he said.