Hunting, fishing license sales drop to lowest level in history
By JIM MATTHEWS
The final 2014 numbers are in and the number of hunters and fishermen in California dropped to their lowest level in history last year. I think the Department of Fish and Wildlife can pat itself on the back for its monumental effort to drive sportsmen away from hunting and fishing in an unprecedented way.
These are the numbers: In 2014, there were 990,447 annual resident sportfishing licenses sold in this state. This is only the second time the number has dropped below 1 million (the last time in 2011, when it missed the mark by 32 licenses). Throughout the 1970s and into the mid-1980s, annual fishing license sales exceeded 2 million each year, and the peak sales year was in 1981 when just under 2.3 million were sold. As an interesting note, during that time, fishing license sales were almost exactly 10 percent of the state’s growing population. License sales continued to grow on pace with the population until the mid-1980s when the sales numbers began to steadily decline.
While there might still be a few more hunting licenses sold between now and the end of the license year the end of June, the numbers for the 2014-15 year look like they will drop below 245,000 for the first time, setting a new, all-time low mark. While DFW on-line data doesn’t go back before 1970, I have read that hunting license sales peaked in the late 1960s at about 700,000 (there were just under 691 thousand sold in 1970). Numbers have declined steadily ever since. Numbers hovered around 500,000 per year in the 1970s and then declined into the 1980s. They dropped below 400,000 for the first time in 1988 and below 300,000 in 1997. There has been a downward trend of 4,000 to 5,000 per year since then.
Amazingly, the agency’s revenue from sportsmen has continued to grow even as our numbers dwindle. They gouge us with increased license and tags fees, permits or stamps also have annual increases, and there are new individual fees each year for just about anything we might want to hunt or catch. With the money the same or increasing, do you think the state agency cares our numbers are declining? Do they care enough to do something about it?
The DFW is in charge of selling a great “product,” and if the staff wanted to refocus its management, reduce the regulatory burden on hunters and fisherman, and initiate a private-sector type marketing program (like the state has done for Covered California, the health care debacle), they could increase license sales by a minimum of 50 percent in three years. I happen to believe the reality is that they don’t want to increase our numbers again, and they are certainly not investing any of its funding to do so. They don’t want more people looking over their shoulders. They don’t want more accountability.
When fishermen represented 10 percent of the population and hunters were four or five percent of the state’s population, we were a significant “constituency” group that mattered to Sacramento legislators, so we also mattered to the DFW and Fish and Game Commission’s political appointees. A phone call or letter to a representative about declining trout plants or changes in a hunting season meant the DFW and FGC would be called out and there was accountability.
Today, no so much.
There are legislators today who probably don’t know the state plants trout for anglers. Why should they? Anglers are now just 2 1/2-percent of the population, and hunters represent barely a half-percent of the people in the state.
To the rest of the state’s population, the people the DFW is supposed to represent when it comes to non-game and endangered or threatened species, most can’t tell you who or what the DFW does. They don’t know it's Fish and Wildlife that is supposed to be the watch dogs that protect wildlife and habitat. If they did know that, they would gasp in horror and the incompetent job the agency is doing. Why? Because there is no accountability.
Just the condor program is a prime example. The state is supposed to be the coordinator of a broad-based coalition of scientists and researchers from private, state and federal agencies working with this critically endangered bird. After 35 years of supposedly intensive study, we still really have no idea of where or what condors eat in the wild. With all of the birds wearing markers and most with radio telemetry gear so we can track their movements and location, we still only have anecdotal information on where and how they feed in the wild. There has never been a food study done on condors.
This is a critical omission when you have been telling everyone for two decades that lead poisoning from the condor’s food is their biggest threat to recovery. And that lead poisoning -- they have and continue to say -- is caused by lead ammunition remnants left in game gut piles and carcasses discarded by hunters. But then we banned lead ammunition for hunting in condor country, there was a real shocker. It didn’t help. The ban worked for other scavenging birds. Golden eagles and vultures saw their background lead levels decline or disappear. Condors? The after-ban data shows the condors are still getting lead in the same amounts. Now, the so-called experts are scrambling trying to make the data fit the disproven theory. They are grasping at straws: “Hunters must not be complying.” “Poachers are still using lead.” But all the excuses beg the simple question. It’s working for eagles and vultures, why isn’t it for condors? Well, it appears the simple answer is that the assumption about condor lead coming from ammunition was at least partially wrong, probably mostly wrong.
Has the DFW said, “Whoa, we need to finally, once-and-for-all, do a condor food study and see where this lead is coming from”?
No, they are mismanaging endangered species like they have the resources -- the hunted and fished species -- that could make them a mint in license sales if those populations of game and fish were optimized.
I won’t name names here, but there was once a do-nothing biologist I knew in the 1980s (an anomaly back then, because the biologists with the DFG then were mostly hard-working, dedicated troops) that became the butt of a joke. I used to say, “Put him in charge of desert tortoise if you want to assure they go extinct.” He pretty much represents how the entire agency functions today. There are a lot of biologists (excuse me, they are all now “environmental scientists”) who would love to get back in the field and do good things for wildlife, but they are handcuffed today by bureaucrats and supervisors who don’t want to fight the good fight. They are handcuffed by decades of regulations and rules that no one questioned when they were implemented. They are handcuffed a lack of funding (read that “lack of funding” line to mean, “misappropriated funding spent elsewhere on something that doesn’t really benefit anyone or anything in the state”).
In a recent press release, the DFW director hailed one of the top accomplishments of the agency: Wildlife nanny. He didn’t use that term, but he was proud of the time his biologists and wardens wasted on problem wildlife calls. Mountain lions, bears, and other potentially dangerous critters would enter urban California and need 100s of man-hours of time to be tranquilized, caged, and relocated. For many animals, they would end up in the same situation a week or two later. That is an accomplishment? Wildlife nannies: That’s what the DFW has become, a feel-good agency all fuzzy and warm and politically correct.
The wildlife nannies (aka DFW) don’t have the gumption to tell the public that those critters should get a load of 00-buckshot and a necropsy. Potentially dangerous wildlife coming into urban California is a problem we don’t want to give another opportunity to hurt someone. The wildlife comes because they are looking for food; because their population is saturated in the wild and they can’t find food or a home range outside of urban California. They come because we’ve mismanaged the lion, bear, and other wildlife populations beyond all recognition. They keep coming because we want to do the feel-good thing instead of the right thing. But being this wildlife nanny is one of the agency’s key accomplishments?
They have lost their way. And only a handful of us remember or care what the agency should be doing or why. Hunting and fishing license sales are the big picture they refuse to see or address.
[Note: Anglers who want to weigh in on the license decline can go to the new California Sportfishing League’s on-line survey at this direct link: http://www.sportfishingconservation.org/index.php/why-are-license-sales-on-the-decline/.]