Declining hunting numbers a concern
Most know the story about how populations of buffalo, elk, antelope and other species were almost eliminated in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Unchecked hunting and trapping led to the extinction of native animal populations in the United States and the decimation of others.
What is less well known is what was required on the part of government to reestablish those populations. In Oregon, for example, the legislature, which managed wildlife prior the establishment of the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, closed all elk hunting in the state for 27 years, with some areas not offering elk hunting for more than 40 years. Significant resources were spent in physically relocating elk into areas where they had disappeared.
Today, we are facing the possibility of seeing the same thing happen again. The difference is, there will be no interest on the part of the general public to spend scarce resources on reintroduction efforts and changes in how predators are managed will make it extremely difficult to recover populations even if funds were found to invest in the process. The truth is, if we lose these populations once again, they are likely lost for good, with the resultant negative impacts on society, and particularly the rural towns and counties that are already struggling to provide necessary services to citizens, and opportunity to future generations.
For the past six years, there has been a dedicated effort to convince the ODFW there are solutions to the problems we face regarding big game populations. Numerous suggestions were submitted that would begin the process of rebuilding. All were rejected, and it has become obvious leadership is incapable or unwilling to take the steps to achieve change.
I am now focusing my efforts on generating political and public pressure on the department to deal with 40 years of failure. I believe it is still possible to reverse the trends, but we must act soon.
This is part of a three-part series on deer and elk hunting in Oregon. The first part will measure the economic losses that have occurred due to declining populations, and thus hunter participation numbers. The second will discuss the underlying reasons behind the population declines and include historic and research data that supports the evaluation of the causes. The third will propose some specific Pilot projects to address the causes outlined in the second part of the report, with the hope we can find some solutions that will result in increasing populations.
For those unfamiliar with big game hunting in Oregon, there are four primary species that provide 90 percent of the economic activity derived from big game hunting. Those four species are mule deer, blacktail deer, Rocky Mountain Elk and Roosevelt Elk. Although there are other species that are hunted in Oregon, relatively small populations and small numbers of tags makes them statistically insignificant when measuring economic activity.
This report doesn’t attempt to determine the actual amount of economic activity that hunting generated in the past, or predict what it will be in the future. Rather, it takes statistics provided by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife on hunter numbers and hunter days, applies a constant value per day to all years and projects economic activity.
The goal is to illustrate what the economic benefit of hunting could be if the ODFW had been able to maintain hunter numbers at the same level from that year going forward.
For a number of years now, all Mule Deer tags have been issued through a controlled draw process, so the decline in hunter numbers is a direct reflection in the reduced harvest ODFW feels the population can support due to decreasing populations.
The decline is obvious when comparing the decline from the height in 1971 to the low point in 2011. In 1971, there were 162,180 mule deer hunters. Adding up the amount of days they spent hunting and multiplied by an impact of $70 per day, there was an economic value of $73.8 million. In 2011, that economic value from mule deer hunters was $29.9 million.
In another 10 years, the economic value could drop by another $8 million, and by 2051, the number of mule deer tags could be as low as 17,692, dipping the money made to $8.05 million.
Unlike the mule deer case, blacktail deer hunting has remained fairly steady through the years. In 1971 — the height of economic value for mule deer hunting — blacktail deer hunters had an impact of $49.1 million, which is just $4 million higher than what it was in 2011.
Unfortunately, the rate of decline has been steady since 1991. If population decreases for blacktail deer continue to force ODFW to reduce tag numbers, the number of hunters will be reduced by 75 percent by 1951.
Rocky Mountain Elk
For 2011, the average days RM elk hunter was 6.7. This calculation does not include travel days, non-hunters who accompany the hunter, scouting trips, etc. Typically, elk hunters must wait several years to draw a tag, and once they do draw, are likely to spend more time on scouting trips, arriving early, etc.
In this case, the height of Rocky Mountain elk hunting in Oregon was 77,935 hunters in 1981. There was a precipitous drop in the last 10 years from 74,000 to 31,000 in 2011— though that number is in question. There is a discrepancy in the statistics posted by ODFW for this year. The summary report for elk reports hunter numbers of a little more than 31,000. The report by unit shows 48,000. Mistakes in the data continue to show up in what ODFW posts is an ongoing problem that needs to be fixed. It is difficult enough to reach conclusions and consider alternatives given the limited data provided. If that data is not accurate, there is no hope.
Just like the cases for both deer populations, Rocky Mountain elk tags are also looking at a big drop off in the next 40 years if rates stay the same. In 2011, 48,315 tags were given. By 2051, that number could be 8,000, resulting in an approximate drop in economic value of $23 million.
For 2011, the average days for Roosevelt elk hunters were 5.8. This is the only trend where there were more hunters in 2011 than in 1961.
Still, it is again in decline, and there could be as few as 24,000 Roosevelt elk tags in 2051 and a decline of more than $10 million in revenue.
If population decreases for all four species continue to force ODFW to reduce tag numbers, as has occurred over the past 10 years, economic activity in 2051 as compared to the economic activity at the high point for each species will be reduced by more than $175 million per year in non-inflation adjusted dollars, a loss of more than 81 percent. If we do not undertake significant change in how we manage these populations, the many benefits provided to the citizens of Oregon by viable, thriving big game populations will be lost forever.
A statement that is often repeated when discussing the lost economic value of hunting is societal changes resulting in fewer Oregonians being interested in hunting. If that were true, one would expect the number of hunters participating in the hunts for different species would also decline in a similar manner and over the same time frames. Although it is true hunter numbers as a percentage of the overall population are in decline, there is data that conclusively shows actual number declines have little to do with overall societal changes. Declines in hunter participation for the four species clearly indicate this.
For mule deer, hunter numbers peaked in 1971, and have been in decline ever since. That rate has increased substantially over the past 10 years. At first glance, this would tend to support the societal influence theory. What is not obvious is virtually all mule deer tags have been limited by ODFW based on population counts.
It has been many years since hunters could purchase a tag over the counter and hunt mule deer. Fortunately, ODFW prints statistics for the number of hunters who applied for a mule deer tag but did not get drawn. All of these hunters obviously wanted to hunt, but were not allowed to by the state. In evaluating hunter interest in mule deer, one must add to the number of tags actually issued the number of tags that could have been issued if more were available.
In 2011, there were 117,400 hunters who applied for a mule deer tag as a first choice. Only 61,000 were given tags. More than 56,000 hunters who wanted to hunt mule deer, and who would have spent money on equipment, were turned down only because declining populations of mule deer would not support additional tags being offered.
Like mule deer, the vast majority of Rocky Mountain elk tags are issued through the draw process. Again, the true measure of hunter interest in these tags is how many applied for a permit. In 2011, 124,000 hunters applied for slightly more than 50,000 tags. This is approximately 74,000 more hunters who would like to hunt RM elk than were ever allowed to hunt RM elk. The evidence is clear there is no drop off in hunter interest in hunting RM elk, just a very large drop in populations, and the number of tags that can be issued.
Overall, for the first time since statistics regarding hunter numbers were collected, all four species saw significant drops in hunter numbers over the past 10 years. Up until 2001, increases in one species at least somewhat offset losses in another. The rate of decline between 2001 and 2011 over the previous 10 years also increased. The evidence is clear, though, the rate of decrease will likely continue to go up, unless significant changes are made in the way big game populations and their habitats are managed.
Impact on ODFW
The total lost income to the ODFW if tag sales had been maintained at highest achieved levels is $6.6 million per year. In fact, the loss is somewhat higher, because a small percentage of tags were sold to non-residents at much higher tag fees, typically more than 10 times the cost of a resident fee.
That is just the start. License sales, preference point fees and access and habitat fees have all been negatively impacted by the failure of the department to maintain deer and elk populations at optimal levels, as required by the legislation authorizing the agency.
In 2008, I had the opportunity to meet with Tom Thornton and Ron Anglin, the top administrators for the Big Game portion of the Wildlife division. I asked them if they had developed a budget that would fully fund the big game department, including enforcement, population management and data collection. The answer was no.
I then asked if it was fair to say the shortfall between their current budget and a fully funded budget would be $5-10 million per year. Both agreed the shortfall would fall within that range. In part two, there will be a detailed discussion of how a lack of funds contributes to the decline in big game populations, but there is no question it is a significant part of the problem.
We are at a tipping point when it comes to maintaining viable populations of deer and elk that will provide a wide range of public benefits, including substantial economic activity from hunting. Precipitous drops in hunting opportunity mirror equally serious declines in populations.
It seems obvious, in light of those declines, public land agencies at the state and federal level should be hard at work developing new strategies and pilot programs to deal with these decreases, but such is not the case. Currently, land management policies on the part of federal land resource agencies and hunter management policies on the part of ODFW are the primary cause of these decreases. None of those agencies have shown the slightest inclination to change, in spite of clear and convincing research and historical data that not only identifies the causes of these declines but suggests possible solutions.
If we do not change the way we manage these populations, there is no doubt big game hunting as we know it in Oregon will continue to decline, and likely disappear in the foreseeable future.
The question is not can we do it. We can. The question is are we willing to do it? The answer to that question, unfortunately, is far from certain.
Editor’s note: Mr. Morris is writing a three-part series on the decline of deer and elk populations and the economic consequences. He expects to be finished with the second part in August and the third part in September. Mr. Morris is a private citizen living in Bend, and he submitted his writings to The News-Register with permission to distribute his report. If you are interested in contacting Mr. Morris, email him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.