SPOKANE, Wash. — Fall used to resonate with the sound of rifle fire in rural Washington, as hundreds of thousands of hunters took to the woods in search of deer and waterfowl.
But increasing urbanization and competing time demands have turned hunting into a declining sport in this state. While 10% of Washington residents bought hunting licenses in 1970, only 4% bought them in 1998.
"The volume of land taken up for people to live makes less habitat available for wildlife," said David Ware, game division manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
But it's not just population growth. Increasingly, private land is off-limits to sportsmen, or they must pay fees to hunt there.
And as the hunter population ages, many of their children would rather play soccer or use a computer than walk through the woods in cold weather.
The number of hunting licenses issued in the state peaked in the 1970s at about 350,000 a year, Ware said. Only 229,000 licenses were issued in 1998. While many Western states draw large numbers of out-of-state hunters, Washington sells only about 3,500 nonresident licenses a year.
Reduced sales of hunting licenses mean less money for wildlife management programs, officials said. A license to hunt deer, elk, bear or cougar is $66 for residents and $660 for nonresidents. A small game license costs $30 for residents and $150 for nonresidents.
The trend is different in other Western states, where the number of hunters is rising, said Ryan Lutey of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, based in Missoula, Mont.
On the East Coast, hunting is actually booming because the whitetail deer population is strong, officials said.
Ironically, many of Washington's hunting areas are crowded because of the state's relatively big population and small size compared to other Western states.
"Washington has more hunters per acre than any other state in the West," said Rance Block of Spokane, Eastern Washington representative for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
Crowds tend to reduce people's enjoyment of hunting. Washington residents also increasingly have to drive farther from urban areas to find hunting grounds, as the state loses some 200 acres per day to development.
Hunting costs are on the rise. While it used to be rare to pay to hunt, sportsmen now are paying up to $270 for a day of hunting for geese or ducks on private land in the Columbia Basin.
As a result, hunting is more popular in rural areas. Only about 2% of Seattle residents and 5% of Spokane residents bought hunting licenses in 1998.
But 15% of Stevens County residents purchased them, including 750 people who packed Clark's All-Sports in Colville to buy licenses the day before hunting season opened this year.
The opening of deer season in early October is Colville's version of Mardi Gras, packing motels, restaurants and stores.
Tim Nizich, general manager of Clark's, said this year's hunter numbers were about average at that store.
Numbers would likely be even higher, except that the mule deer population is suffering at higher elevations around Colville.
"The biggest problem up high is the abundant cougar population," which preys on the deer, Nizich said.
The state's elk herds also are suffering because their habitat has been degraded by 70 years of fire suppression, Block said.
Trees that would have burned in natural wildfires are instead growing so close together that they block sunlight from reaching the forest floor, Block said. That reduces the food for elk.
"We are seeing some levels of starvation for elk in parts of the state, mostly in western Washington," Ware said.
Not all the news is grim for hunting.
Karen Wallingford of Spokane began hunting three years ago after watching her brothers enjoy the sport.
Wallingford, secretary of the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council, managed to bag her deer on her first hunting trip this year. But she's still going on hunting trips because she enjoys being in the woods in the fall.
"I feel like it's gone down," Wallingford said of the number of hunters. "People are so busy."
But Wallingford is teaching her three stepdaughters to hunt.
"They love it," she said.
Before the year is out, hunters in Washington will harvest about 1 million game birds, 30,000 deer, 6,000 elk, 1,000 bears and 100 cougars, according to state figures.
Mule deer herds in Eastern Washington were decimated by a harsh winter in 1997, producing a big decline in the number of hunters, Ware said.
He expects hunter numbers to increase as deer populations rebound. About 8,000 more licenses were issued in 1999 than in 1998, he said.
"Our hunter numbers should respond and be back at around 250,000 per year," Ware said.
The number of hunters of small game, particularly pheasants and ducks, has declined sharply for nearly 20 years, Ware said. The number of small game hunters peaked at about 100,000 in the 1970s and is less than half that now, he said.
Ware suspects it's because most small game hunting occurs on private land, and landowners are more likely to bar hunting now.
Ware has his own hunting woes. He's been to his family's hunting camp in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest several times this fall, but has yet to bag a deer.
"The game division manager can't even kill a deer," Ware joked. "That's embarrassing."
Washington Fish and Wildlife:
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State's Hunting Licenses by Year
Total number of licenses issued, according to the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife.