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Perspective: A PR Problem for Field Sports

While Americans overwhelmingly support hunting and fishing, public approval is slipping—and we may be to blame.

Perspective: A PR Problem for Field Sports

Seventy percent of Americans approve of hunting deer—the highest rating of all game species. (Photo courtesy of Leupold)

The good news: more than three-quarters of Americans approve of hunting, fishing and recreational shooting. The bad news: that supermajority of supporters is declining, according to a survey of national attitudes concerning our field sports that was released last year. The slipping support comes after nearly 30 years of increasingly favorable attitudes toward hunting and fishing, and it has caused some conservation leaders to suggest that we participants need to do a better job of projecting the public benefits and personal joys of hunting and fishing to Americans who may have no familiarity with the activities.

The “Americans’ Attitudes Toward Legal, Regulated Fishing, Target/Sport Shooting, Hunting and Trapping” survey was released in August by the Outdoor Stewards of Conservation Foundation (OSCF), a non-profit organization that uses research to recruit a new generation of what it calls “HATS.” That stands for hunters, anglers, trappers and shooters.

The survey of more than 2,000 respondents from every region of the country and demographic group was conducted last spring. It’s the latest in a 30-year string of similar surveys—conducted roughly every three years—that track public attitudes toward regulated hunting, fishing and trapping, and recreational shooting. Considering responses from the previous survey in 2019, public approval of field sports was down across the board and for some activities was the lowest that surveyors have registered in 30 years.

Overall, public approval of legal hunting dropped 4 percentage points over the past two years, from about 81 percent of Americans in 2021 to 77 percent of Americans in 2023. Approval of recreational shooting dropped 3 percentage points, and approval of recreational fishing also dropped 3 points, to 90 percent favorability.

Respondents were asked not only if they strongly or moderately approve of those activities, but also if they strongly or moderately disapprove of them. The disapproval rating was also among the highest recorded in the decades-long survey. Seventeen percent of Americans strongly or moderately disapproved of legal hunting, 18 percent disapproved of recreational shooting, and 5 percent disapproved of fishing.

The take-away, according to OSCF Executive Director Jim Curcuruto, is that we shouldn’t dismiss the survey results as an aberration.

“The results of this study make it clear that the outdoor community, from manufacturers and retailers to wildlife agencies, media and NGOs, have a lot of work to do,” says Curcuruto. “We need to put more money and effort into campaigns to increase the cultural support for hunting. Some of it is obvious. If you’re posting on Facebook and talking about ‘killing-and-grilling,’ you are not helping the cause. When we talk about hunting and shooting, the words we use are incredibly important, and the way we portray what and why we do matters.”

DRILLING INTO RESULTS

Let’s get this out of the way: Public attitudes toward trapping are perennially low, with only about 54 percent of Americans approving of regulated trapping and 28 percent expressing disapproval with the activity. The latest survey reconfirmed that tepid support. Conversely, public attitudes toward sport fishing are generally high, with about 90 percent of Americans in the 2023 survey saying they either strongly or mildly approve of “legal recreational fishing.” But that’s a drop from 93 percent support in 2019.

When it comes to public support for hunting, nearly every means and method saw declines. Hunting either to protect humans from harm or for wildlife management purposes had the highest approval rating, at 78 and 77 percent, respectively. Hunting “for the meat” had a 75 percent approval rating this year, down considerably from 84 percent in 2019. Surprisingly, hunting “to get locally sourced food” or “to get organic meat” showed major declines in approval, down 11 and 14 percentage points, respectively, from a similar question in 2019. Given all the public attention on hunters’ ability to get wild, organic meat during the COVID-19 pandemic, this softening of approval surprised many conservation leaders.




Regarding game species, deer and wild turkey hunting had the highest approval ratings, with 70 percent of Americans approving of deer hunting and 69 percent of Americans approving of turkey hunting. Hunting for rabbits, ducks, squirrels, elk and alligators all had approval ratings of more than 55 percent. But when respondents were asked about legal hunting for black bears, doves, grizzly bears, wolves and mountain lions, public disapproval exceeded approval.

Surveyors used U.S. Census data to get a demographic cross-section of respondents, and that level of inquiry revealed some interesting trends. While 77 percent of Americans strongly or moderately approved of legal hunting, only 65 percent of Black or African American residents approved of legal hunting. The group with the lowest approval of legal hunting—at 61 percent—was Hispanic or Latino Americans. In terms of age groups, while 81 percent of Americans 55 or older approved of hunting, only 69 percent of respondents from 18 to 34 years old approved.

Generally speaking, the groups that had the highest favorability toward hunting—not surprisingly—are those who have hunted, shot recreationally or fished in the past three years; live in a rural area; are male; are white or Caucasian; are 35 years or older; live in the Midwest; and reside in a small city or town. The groups with the lowest approval of hunting are those who did not fish or shoot in the past three years; are female, are Black or African American, or Hispanic or Latino American; are between 18 and 34 years old; live in the Pacific West; and reside in a large city, urban area or suburban area.

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IS IT OK FOR OTHER PEOPLE TO HUNT?

For more than two decades, surveyors have asked respondents whether they agreed that others can hunt in accordance with regulations. The idea is to get a feeling for indirect support, even if respondents themselves don’t hunt.

This year, 86 percent of respondents strongly or moderately agreed that it’s OK for other people to hunt. That’s a significant decline from 2011 and 2019, when 95 percent and 92 percent of Americans, respectively, said it’s OK for other people to hunt. It’s a question that may have implications for ballot initiatives or other electoral attempts to regulate hunting or wildlife management.

Mark Damian Duda, executive director of Responsive Management, which conducted the survey, says this particular question is worth paying attention to, because it reveals hardening attitudes about hunting.

“We are definitely losing support among younger Americans. We [sportsmen and -women] are not talking to Black or Hispanic communities, and we need to do a better job of reaching urban people and women,” says Duda.

Curcuruto thinks a lack of communication and larger cultural divisions are influencing Americans’ attitudes toward hunting, shooting and fishing.

“Now that people are increasingly picking sides, I think there’s a perception that if people belonging to [a certain] group do these things, then [those from the other side] automatically oppose it,” he notes. “And of course, that’s accelerated when people don’t have personal, positive experience with these traditional activities of hunting, fishing, trapping and shooting. The outdoor industry has done a poor job of promoting all the positive contributions that HATS make to wildlife conservation, the economy and nature. With only one side of the story being told, it is not hard to see why public acceptance is waning.”

It’s up to us to help tell the other side of the story, but Curcuruto notes that communication—via social media, mainstream media and even individual conversations—must be mindful to not alienate people who might not know the basic mechanics and motivations of killing animals in order to manage wildlife populations. That can be a complicated and nuanced conversation to have with people who don’t hunt or fish themselves, but it’s increasingly important that we get the details right.


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