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Hunting, fishing surge in U.S. but dip in Iowa

Orlan Love, CR Gazette –

While national hunter and angler numbers have increased dramatically during the past five years, that trend is not reflected in the sale of Iowa hunting and fishing licenses.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, announcing the preliminary results of a survey it conducts every five years, recently reported a 9 percent increase in hunter numbers and an 11 percent increase in anglers.

This is “great news for America,” Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said during the Aug. 15 announcement.

Hunters and anglers, he said, spearhead conservation efforts with their time and labor and provide most of the funding for state wildlife agencies through licenses, permits and user fees.

In pursuit of their recreation, hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers also spend more than $145 billion a year — the equivalent of 1 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, Salazar said. (story continues below chart)

Those increases reversed a decline that had been under way nationally since 1996 and may still be under way in Iowa.

During the five years covered in the Fish and Wildlife Service study, Iowa resident hunting license sales have fallen from 184,551 in 2007 to 160,474 last year — a decline of 13 percent. Sales of Iowa hunting licenses to nonresidents have declined almost 50 percent during that same period — from 37,795 in 2007 to 20,313 last year.

During that same five-year period, annual resident Iowa fishing license sales have slipped from 310,628 in 2007 to 297,139 last year — a decline of 4.3 percent — while sales of annual Iowa fishing licenses to nonresidents actually increased slightly from 14,596 in 2007 to 15,158 last year.

But license sales don’t tell the whole story, according to Joe Larscheid, chief of the Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Bureau.

The Fish and Wildlife Service survey, based on interviews, reflects an interest level increase that may or may not be reflected in license sales, said Larscheid.

DNR officials are actually quite pleased with Iowans’ level of interest in fishing and attribute recent dips in license sales to widespread periodic flooding that discouraged fishing license sales in 2008, 2010 and 2011, Larscheid said.

In 2009, Iowa issued 380,929 fishing licenses of all kinds, including 325,613 annual resident licenses, which established the modern record since the advent of electronic licensing in 2001. Sales in 2012 are on pace to challenge that record, Larscheid said.

Larscheid said the DNR’s walleye fingerling stocking program, its lake restoration program and its expansion of trout fishing opportunities have all contributed to high angler satisfaction, which translates to license sales when weather is favorable.

The long-term decline in Iowa hunting license sales is more problematic, according to DNR spokesman Kevin Baskins.

While deer, turkey and waterfowl hunting have remained popular among Iowans, the state’s steadily and steeply declining population of pheasants — once the state’s foremost game animal — has hurt license sales.

As recently as 2000, nearly 168,000 hunters pursued pheasants in Iowa, but by the end of the decade that number had shrunk to 60,000.

In addition to the decline in pheasant numbers — attributed primarily to the ongoing conversion of grassland to cropland and a succession of inhospitable winters and nesting seasons — DNR officials cite several other contributing factors including the loss of access to hunting grounds, the rural-to-urban population shift, which has severed many Iowans’ ties to the land, and increasing competition, especially from electronic entertainment, for the attention of teens and young adults.

Baskins said a potential rebound in pheasant numbers, facilitated by the first mild, dry winter in six years, and the addition of a dove hunting season in Iowa — the state’s second season opens Sept. 1 — are expected to contribute to an increase in hunting license sales this year.

The survey found that in 2011 13.7 million people hunted, 33 million fished and 71 million engaged in wildlife watching. Per participant spending was $2,484 for hunters, $1,262 for anglers and $775 for wildlife watchers.

Additional analysis will be required to pinpoint the causes of the rebound in interest in outdoor pursuits, according to Sylvia Cabrera, survey chief for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Youth recruitment efforts by conservation groups and state fish and game agencies will likely be a factor, she said.

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