Seconds before there was a scurrying in the dry October leaves. Though my eyes were wild and alive, I moved my head as slowly and stealthily as I thought hunting required. Desperately, I wanted a squirrel — one of the many I regularly saw each day, at the same time and in the same places — to materialize. And something was certainly moving. That’s when my grandfather leaned close and whispered into my ear. “False alarm,” he said. “It’s just a grinny.” That’s what folks around home called eastern chipmunks. I spied it then, scurrying frenetically from spot to spot, tiny rib cage heaving as its heart raced at its amazingly normal 350 beats per minute. Later a gray squirrel did appear and I took a shot at it as it scampered along a grapevine. And missed. Talk about a bummer. My grandfather came of age in the Great Depression, at a time when white-tailed deer were scarce enough that merely finding a track from one merited mention in the
newspaper. But small game was abundant. He often rode home on the streetcar, shotgun and all, discussing the day’s take of rabbits with admiring passengers, men and women both. I’d boyishly dreamed of stuffing my own praiseworthy game pouch to the admiration of all around. It didn’t happen that day. But over the years I bagged my share of squirrels and rabbits, an occasional pheasant and, periodically, miracle of miracles, one of the ruffed grouse that seemed so elusive. And I still chase them all. That’s outside the norm these
days. At a time when hunting participation overall is falling at a cringeworthy rate, threatening funding for state wildlife agencies that rely on license buyers to stay afloat financially, small game hunters are disappearing fastest of all. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service statistics show that America lost about 5,000 varmint and predator hunters every year from 1991 to 2016. The annual decline in migratory bird hunters over that time was 25,000 a year, for big game hunters 60,000 a year. But small game hunting lost 165,000 people each and every year, on average, over that 25-year span. No brand of small game hunting was spared either. Participation in quail hunting dropped by 43%, squirrel hunting by 58%, and pheasant, grouse, and rabbit hunting by 68% each. And worse is coming. The prospect of small game “hunter extinction” is not far off, said Scott Taylor, National Wild Pheasant Conservation Plan Coordinator for Pheasants Forever and the Midwest Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. “If you look at these linear trends, and you run these linear trends out in time, you can ask when do they hit zero? When do we run out of small game hunters completely?” Taylor asked. “For small game as a category, that’s about 20 years.” The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, which represents wildlife managers across North America, identified that as a “serious national conservation concern” last fall. It put together a task force of sorts to figure out what’s behind the decline, how to reverse it, and — most profoundly of all —whether it’s worth the effort to try. It is to report back with recommendations by fall 2021. But there seem no easy
“ And worse is coming. The prospect of small game ‘hunter extinction’ is not far off ... ”
Ring-necked pheasants have long been a popular gamebird with small game hunters. But wild populations aren’t as widespread as they were decades ago thanks to changes in agriculture that have limited habitat, among other things.
22 • NBS OUTDOOR • Fall 2020
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