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Sportsmen's Group Aims to Protect Our Outdoors Heritage

The Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation brings lawmakers together to seek solutions to challenges that impacts the future of hunting, fishing, trapping and sport shooting.

Sportsmen's Group Aims to Protect Our Outdoors Heritage
Photo courtesy of Howard Communications

When we hunt, fish or shoot, our concerns are usually on a local scale. We consider options and mull over decisions based on specific and narrow circumstances: That gobbler on the next ridge is hot! Bass are just about ready to spawn at the lake down the road. The gun range shouldn’t be crowded on a Tuesday afternoon. Our plans and actions focus on a limited area and time, because conditions can vary from place to place and from one day (or hour) to the next.

But if we think about the future of hunting, fishing and sport shooting—the challenges our favorite activities face and ways we can address them—it’s helpful to broaden our view beyond a particular township, county and even state to include the entire nation. That’s why every year the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF) brings together legislators, conservation organization leaders, state and federal fish and wildlife agency staffers, outdoor industry representatives and policy professionals from across the U.S. for its National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses Sportsman-Legislator Summit.

The CSF works with state and federal legislators, as well as governors, to protect and enhance the rights and privileges of hunters, anglers, trappers and recreational shooters across the nation, and that hinges on sound policymaking to safeguard our heritage in the future.

Playing a key role in this strategy is CSF’s National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses (NASC), a network of state legislative sportsmen’s groups that includes about 2,250 state lawmakers representing all 50 states. Every NASC member is also a member of his or her own state’s legislative sportsmen’s caucus, working with fellow elected officials from all parties to craft laws, policies and initiatives that benefit hunters, anglers, trappers and shooters, as well as fish and wildlife conservation. These caucuses are also on the front lines in helping to defeat bills that are harmful to our outdoor traditions and the scientific management of fish and game. The Annual NASC Sportsman-Legislator Summit is an event where state lawmakers can become more informed on the challenges and threats to our outdoor pursuits and conservation, on both a state and nationwide level, and share ideas for addressing them to achieve victories for sportsmen. In addition, attendees learn proactive strategies for advancing our outdoor interests.

At the most recent NASC Sportsman-Legislator Summit, held last fall, presenters and attendees focused on five factors that will impact the future of hunting, fishing, trapping and sport shooting. Identifying and understanding these factors is important for not only lawmakers but also anyone who participates in these sports, as we must make our support for legislative actions that protect and promote our heritage known to our elected officials. In addition, legislation, policies and initiatives can shape the way we participate in our traditions, recruit others to enjoy them and promote them to the public. Consider the following when taking stock of our heritage and acting to ensure our sports, and their benefits to conservation, remain for future generations.

Tracking Participation, Attitudes and Emerging Issues

The good news: More than 70 million Americans, about 27 percent of the U.S. population, participate in hunting, fishing or sport shooting, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2022 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. This includes more than 14 million hunters, nearly 40 million anglers and more than 46 million sport shooters.

In a typical state, however, only about 32 percent of hunters are considered avid—those who purchased a license at least four years out of the past five or who purchased a lifetime license in the past five years—reported Mark Damian Duda, executive director of Responsive Management. The rest of hunters are either “churners” (about 29 percent)—purchasing a license two or three years in the past five—or “one-timers” (about 39 percent)—purchasing a license just one year in the past five.

Duda noted that license database and survey data analyses indicate that frequency of participation comes down to generation: the latter half of the baby boomer generation (those born between 1955 and 1964) is the driver of hunting avidity. As this generation ages, its participation in hunting is expected to wane. Among other generations, challenges to hunting participation include a changing demographic makeup of the U.S., changing wildlife values, a lack of access and, in some cases, increasing anti-hunting sentiment.

There are a couple bright spots, Duda pointed out. Women’s participation in hunting has been increasing since the 1980s. He recommended that retention programs address making women feel more comfortable hunting; preparing women to be more competent, successful and confident in the field; and enabling women to become more autonomous and independent when preparing to hunt. In addition, there is a strong interest in hunting among military personnel. Duda said that agencies and organizations interested in recruiting a more diverse hunting population should look to the military.

Like hunting, angling is also subject to an aging participant base and license churn. From 1991 to 2022, the number of anglers ages 55 and older increased by about 15 percent, according to a study by Southwick Associates. The likelihood of license churn increases with age, making retention of anglers increasingly important. Duda suggested that agencies simplify the license-buying process to boost retention and battle churn.

An emerging trend among fishing participation: Saltwater anglers are becoming a greater proportion of the total population of anglers. Duda explained that the percentage of anglers who fish in saltwater increased from 25 percent in 1991 to almost 32 percent in 2022.

Major trends in sport shooting include a rise in firearm ownership, with as many as 197 million more firearms entering U.S. circulation since 2009, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s adjusted NICS firearm background check data. Polls by Responsive Management, Gallup and the Pew Research Center show that 30 percent to 33 percent of Americans own a firearm and 40 percent to 45 percent of households have a firearm. In addition, 17 percent of sport shooters in 2022 were new shooters, reports the National Shooting Sports Foundation.


Since the Pittman-Robertson federal excise tax on the sale of firearms and ammunition helps fund wildlife conservation through the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Program, Duda noted it is vital that sport shooters who are not hunters understand the importance of Pittman-Robertson money. He pointed to a Responsive Management study that found 47 percent of non-hunting sport shooters and firearm owners were not familiar the Pittman-Robertson Act or the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Program. Once educated on these conservation measures, however, 86 percent of these groups supported the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Program.

One trend sure to be the topic of ongoing discussions among sportsmen’s groups is the nationwide decline in public approval for hunting, fishing and sport shooting. Data collected by Responsive Management for the Outdoor Stewards of Conservation Foundation shows that 77 percent of U.S. residents aged 18 and older approved of hunting in 2023, down from 81 percent in 2021. As for fishing, 90 percent of the population approved of the sport in 2023, down from 93 percent in 2006, 2011 and 2019. There was a similar decline in approval of sport shooting, down to 78 percent of the population in 2023 from 81 percent in 2019 and 2021.

Duda noted it is important to maintain cultural support for hunting and shooting, lest approval numbers slip further, with effective campaigns and programs. He urged legislators to be aware of the major reasons why some campaigns and programs fail, such as: not allocating appropriate and adequate financial and personnel resources to efforts; not securing buy-in from an agency, organization or community; not specifying outreach goals and program objectives; not identifying target audiences and crafting effective messages to reach them; and not running programs and campaigns long enough.

Educating the Public

One effective solution to maintaining public support for our sports could be through the establishment of state wildlife councils. Folks who do not hunt, fish or trap generally tend to be unaware of the significant role that sportsmen and women play in conservation. In addition to being an integral part of a state’s history and heritage, hunting and fishing are necessary tools for managing natural resources and serve as strong pillars of a state’s economy. The sale of hunting and fishing licenses, along with excise taxes on outdoor sporting goods, provide a state’s fish and wildlife management agency with the funding it needs to manage the state’s resources.

The non-sporting public, even though it doesn’t contribute to the management of state lands, waters and wildlife through the existing funding model, nonetheless enjoys the many benefits of state agency management paid for by hunters, anglers, trappers and shooters. It is important to educate this substantial portion of the population on the contributions of sportsmen and women, and that is where a state wildlife council comes into play.

Using the Michigan Wildlife Council as an example, Duda and Shannon Lott, deputy director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, highlighted the effectiveness of marketing campaigns designed to inform the public on the significant contributions that hunters and anglers make toward natural resource management efforts. Established in 2013 through legislation shepherded by the Michigan Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus, the Michigan Wildlife Council is funded by a $1 share of each hunting and fishing license sold in the state, which totals approximately $1.6 million annually. The council is comprised of nine members appointed by the governor and who represent varying interests related to hunting and fishing.

The success of the Michigan Wildlife Council’s educational initiatives and outreach is shown by steady public support levels for hunting and fishing, even as those levels have decreased nationwide. In Michigan, 84 percent of residents approved of hunting in 2023, according to data analyzed by Responsive Management. This represented a 1 percent increase from 2022—a small increase, sure, but an increase all the same. A larger increase was seen among Black residents in Michigan, with approval of hunting going from 68 percent in 2022 to 78 percent in 2023.

Duda and Lott noted that reversing declining trends in participation and support in our time-honored outdoor traditions, which are critically important to the health of fish and wildlife and their habitats, may require other state legislatures to establish a wildlife council through their state’s legislative sportsmen’s caucus. Currently, Colorado is the only other state that has established a wildlife council. CSF will be actively working alongside the NASC caucuses and members to advance this issue in other states in the years to come.

Developing Future Conservation Leaders

In 2023, the CSF created the Collegiate Sportsmen and Women’s Coalition (CSWC) as a proactive endeavor to educate college students with diverse backgrounds and interests on the benefits of hunting, angling, trapping and sport shooting for conservation and public policy engagement. The need stemmed from identifying a gap that existed between students studying wildlife management and public policy, and their outdoor experience in hunting and angling. The coalition seeks to fill educational gaps as well as experiential gaps.

Through the coalition, students interact with, learn from and aid state legislative sportsmen’s caucuses through policy engagement on key issues affecting sportsmen and -women. These experiences and relationships provide students with the tools they need to be effective leaders and conservation advocates.

In addition, by engaging college students, the CSWC educates one of the most important demographics for recruitment, retention and reactivation efforts, as well as positively influences the public’s perception of hunting, angling, trapping and recreational shooting. Students get information differently than other generations and are actively working to develop lifelong views and values while in school. Peer mentorship through CSWC engages non-hunter groups such as locavores and other young adults who generally enjoy the outdoors and have favorable views on conservation but are unaware of the connection between hunting and angling and conservation.

Currently, CSWC is active (or nearly active) at the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, Hillsdale College, Clemson University and Louisiana State University. The CSF plans to bring the CSWC to more colleges and universities in the future as it works with NASC members to build further connections on campuses.

Providing Informational Updates on Recent Court Decisions

Although distinct from the legislative and regulatory processes that fall under the purview of NASC members, legal decisions can impact the scope of the respective laws and rules made by legislators and agency heads. During the Sportsman-Legislator Summit, lawyers presented on recent court decisions and developments to update policymakers on firearms, habitat protection and public land access.

Josh Savani, managing director of the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action’s Research and Information Division, presented on the impacts of New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen, a Supreme Court decision that held the right to carry a pistol in public was a constitutional right guaranteed under the Second Amendment. It is critical for pro-sporting policymakers to be aware of the Constitutional protections that are in place regarding firearms when legislating.

Shelby LaButte, assistant director for the Center for Conservation Excellence at the National Wild Turkey Foundation, presented on the impacts of two cases. The first of these was Sackett v. EPA, a Supreme Court decision that held the Clean Water Act to only extend to wetlands that are continuously connected to relatively permanent bodies of water. Following this decision, states are left to determine the degree of protection that wetlands now excluded from the Clean Water Act are afforded.

The final case presented during the session was Iron Bar Holdings, LLC v. Cape, a Tenth Circuit case currently on appeal that concerns whether what is commonly referred to as “corner crossing”—where hunters attempt to pass between parcels of public land when those lands are not adjacent, but rather arranged in a checkerboard pattern with two other parcels of land, which are privately owned—constitutes trespassing. Primarily relevant to attendees from the western United States where these checkerboard land patterns are common, lack of access is one of the most important factors leading to declining numbers of hunters, and it is imperative for legislators to be aware of potential barriers for sportsmen and -women to enjoy the outdoors.

Enshrining Our Rights to Hunt and Fish

While we may view hunting and fishing as inherent rights, ongoing attacks by anti-hunting and animal-rights groups erode our abilities to participate in these pursuits of happiness. A solution is enshrining these rights in state constitutions through Right to Hunt, Fish and Harvest Wildlife (RTHF) amendments that protect these activities in perpetuity, explained CSF Southeastern States Director John Culclasure.

Vermont was the first state to adopt RTHF in 1777. Since 1996, 22 more states have added RTHF amendments to their constitutions. In addition, the Florida legislature passed RTHF in 2023, and it will be on the ballot for voters to make a final decision on acceptance this year.

Culclasure explained RTHF language consists of several key components:

  • Recognition of an individual right to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife.
  • Preservation of the state’s power to regulate these activities.
  • Codification of the Public Trust Doctrine.
  • Preemption of local regulation that frustrates comprehensive, statewide wildlife management.
  • Protection of traditional hunting methods such as trapping, the use of archery equipment and hunting with dogs.
  • Recognition of hunting and fishing as preferred means of managing wildlife, rather than unproven contraception schemes and unwarranted use of government “sharpshooters.”
  • Clarification that private property rights are not affected or diminished.

The CSF outlined some recommendations for hunters and anglers interested in adopting RTHF if they reside in a state that currently does not have an amendment. First, coordinate efforts with sportsmen’s organizations that have a history of working on RTHF, and use RTHF language that has been vetted by these organizations. Coordinate with the respective state fish and wildlife agency to earn its support for RTHF. Understand the legislative and constitutional amendment process, and properly follow procedures. Ensure adequate financial support exists to undertake the necessary PR and media campaign in advance of the vote. Finally, identify pro-sportsmen legislators to champion RTHF.

Hunting, fishing, trapping and sport shooting all come with challenges if we are to ensure Americans will continue to enjoy—and build on—our heritage in the future. Thanks to CSF, NASC and sessions like the Sportsman-Legislator Summit, we can rest assured that important work is being done on our behalf. It’s up to us, however, to lend our active support.

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