Is hunting in trouble?

That’s what some conservation and industry leaders are asking after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released preliminary data from its National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Related Recreation.

The most recent data shows that hunting participation is down. Only 11.5 million hunters took to the field in 2016 – down 16 percent from the 2011 survey. The number of big-game hunters fell 20 percent, and there were also large decreases in the number of waterfowl and upland-gamebird hunters.

Expenditures by hunters also dropped – from $36.3 billion in 2011 to $25.6 billion in 2016. The category with the biggest decrease, 62 percent, was hunting land leasing and ownership.

So what’s going on? Though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service labeled the drop “not statistically significant,” many are worried.

At a time when the numbers of fishermen and wildlife watchers are on the increase, hunting is on the decrease.

Officials blame the aging of Baby Boomers, the lack of access, the loss of wildlife habitat and increasing costs.

“It is time for our community to get serious about the R3 – recruitment, retention and reactivation – of hunters, because the implications for conservation are dire if this trend continues,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Missouri is one of the few states where hunter numbers are holding steady or slightly increasing. But even there, leaders are concerned about the challenges that lie ahead.

“All agencies are struggling with this,” said Sara Parker Pauley, director of the Missouri Department of Conservation. “How do we make sure that we are relevant to the next generation? That’s the challenge.

“We have to minimize the barriers. We have to show people how important the outdoors is to our quality of life.

“The 3Rs—recruitment, retainment and reactivation—have to become a priority.”

Missouri, with its broad funding source, the conservation sales tax—is a national leader in recruiting not only children but adults as well to hunting and other outdoors sports.

But Pauley knows the Department of Conservation and other states can’t stand pat on their efforts. Fosburgh agrees.

He sees the difference the Dingell-Johnson Act has made in recruiting and retaining fishermen. That excise tax allows for a percentage to be earmarked for recruitment and retention programs.

Hunting has the Pittman-Robertson Act, which imposes an excise tax on guns, ammunition and archery equipment. But that measure doesn’t allow for funding of R3 activities, Fosburgh said.

Agencies in Missouri and Kansas have been active in those programs, but help from federal funding could further enhance efforts here and across the nation, he said.

“We must modernize the Pittman-Robertson Act so we can promote hunting the same way we do fishing and boating,” he said. “We need to bring hunter education and licensing systems into the 21st century and immediately address serious threats to hunting like chronic wasting disease in deer.

“We must also focus on expanding access and improving the quality of the hunting experience.”