Monday, Aug. 7, 2017
By Mark Carter
Could a growing urban-rural imbalance in Texas eventually have an impact on hunting?
David Yeates, CEO of the Texas Wildlife Association, believes the state’s ever-expanding population is resulting in an emerging generation with fewer hunters.
After two decades of 20 percent-plus growth, Texas was home to around 28 million people as of 2015. Census estimates place more than two-thirds of them in metropolitan areas, another growing trend. Yeates puts the urban population of the state at 85 percent.
This influx of new people – immigrants, expatriates from other states lured by the state’s pro-business climate – are drawn to where the jobs are. As more kids are raised in Texas cities and suburbs, Yeates fears a generation that could lose its connection to the land, resulting in fewer hunters.
“The urban population today is becoming further removed from the outdoors,” he told America Hunt. “It’s becoming a harder sell to entice kids to get out and hunt because Mom and Dad don’t hunt. I grew up here in Texas in a ranching family, but fewer and fewer have that tie back to the land.”
That’s one trend Yeates and his unique group want to reverse. An independent organization based in San Antonio, and governed by a board of directors, four statewide officers and an executive committee, TWA has roughly 10,000 members. It was founded in 1985 by hunters, ranchers and wildlife managers concerned with wildlife conservation on the state’s private lands.
And in Texas, there’s a lot of private property: state land is 95 percent private, due in large part to the state’s status as a republic before being admitted to the Union in 1845.
TWA’s official mission is to serve Texas wildlife and its habitat, and protect property rights, hunting heritage and conservation efforts. Its three main program areas are conservation legacy, which includes youth and adult education; hunting heritage, which entails the organization’s Texas Youth Hunting Program; and issues and advocacy, such as property rights and funding for state wildlife agencies.
Fishing for hunters
Yeates concedes that Texas faces a recruitment and retention problem when it comes to hunting. Not only does a growing population include less hunters, as metro areas expand and absorb former private property available for hunting, hunters are competing with more hunters on less land.
And while TWA devotes many of its resources to advocate for the rights of private property owners, dealing with issues that impact hunting such as legal ownership of ground water on their own land and preserving landowner rights in the eminent domain process, the organization’s renowned youth hunting program is a primary focus.
Available to kids ages 9 to 17, its aim is to introduce a new generation of youth to the benefits of hunting, benefits that extend both to wildlife and hunter. The focus is on safe, legal, educational and ethical hunts.
Five TWA staffers are dedicated full time to the youth hunting program. Four field officers interact with landowners across the state recruiting kids and leading a structured program that includes hunting and conservation education and introductory youth hunts.
The program has been so well received, introducing 1,200 kids a year to their first hunt, its template has been exported to other states and even parts of Mexico.
Hunting won’t stick with all of them, but many kids who otherwise never would’ve gone hunting are exposed to the outdoors, to the connection hunters feel to the land, and to the harmony of man engaged in conservation.
“Our education programs are reaching out to kids and adults on the importance of resources and conservation,” Yeates said. “It’s a really neat deal. They get to hunt on public land, private land, ranches and more.”
Satellite images of San Antonio in 1991 and 2010 illustrate the population growth in Texas. (NPR)
The number of Americans taking to the woods, fields and mountains to hunt indeed appears to be declining. Statista reports that about 16.6 million Americans went hunting in the fall of 2015, down from just over 19 million in the fall of 2010.
“There are just not as many hunters today,” Yeates said. “And that’s what scares me.” But he sees reasons for optimism. At its recent three-day annual convention, which drew 1,500, Yeates said more money was raised than ever before, and the demographics within TWA's membership are trending younger.
“The culture of being involved and giving back hasn’t been as strong – our boards have usually been all 55 years of age and up,” he said. “But now, I see a lot more people under 50 getting involved. A lot of folks in that 30 to 50 range were active at our convention. It wasn’t just 65-year-olds. The positivity was great.”
Also, Yeates estimates that TWA’s programs now are reaching as many as 600,000 Texans annually, and like-minded organizations are popping up in other states.
Advocacy at its core
Born as a wildlife and landowner advocacy group, TWA’s roots stretch back to a 1985 bill introduced in the Texas legislature that aimed to ban game-proof high fencing, perceived by some as a practice to limit the range of native wildlife and make them easier to hunt.
Yeates said that specific need to educate was the seed that grew into TWA.
“A group of wildlife biologists and landowners said, ‘Hold on a minute. It’s a property right,’” he said. “They killed the bill. They made the point that a lot of the fencing was about keeping animals out as much as keeping them in.
“As it matured, the leadership of the group who fought the bill said, ‘We need to go deeper. Let’s educate youngsters as well as legislators.’ Ever since, we’ve had a robust advocacy presence at the state Capitol.”
Yeates said that big, anti-hunting groups don't mess so much with Texas, where hunting is firmly entrenched in the culture, despite the growing number of residents who don't hunt. In 2015, Texans overwhelmingly passed Proposition 6 which guaranteed the right to hunt and fish in the state constitution.
Prominent anti-hunting groups such as the Human Society of the U.S. and other environmental groups at least "are paying lip service to the value that hunting provides and have embraced hunting as having a legitimate purpose," he said.
In a recent blog post, Yeates noted that greater Houston had more state representatives and senators than the entire state west of I-35. “The urban areas have the votes and the rural areas have the natural resources,” he wrote. “The challenge here is that far too few urban Texans, including legislators, have a sense of relevancy to our natural resources and their importance.”
TWA was created to fight that “natural resource illiteracy.”