LANSING — Fewer Michiganders are hunting and fishing each year as baby boomers get older, a trend that could wallop the state’s economy and efforts to protect wildlife.
That’s according to a group of lawmakers, conservationists and business representatives who urged the Legislature to entice a younger, more diverse generation outdoors.
Lawmakers must also bolster funding to clean up toxic chemical contamination and address chronic wasting disease in deer or risk more declines in hunting and fishing, according to the Michigan United Conservation Clubs.
The prominent conservation group released a study Monday estimating the economic impact of hunting and fishing at $11.2 billion and 171,000 jobs annually, which would put it in the state’s top 10 percent of industries for job creation.
The study, conducted by Michigan State University researchers with funding from the C.S. Mott Foundation, found that spending on hunting and fishing translated to more jobs in Michigan than in any other Great Lakes state.
Heavily populated southeast Michigan gained the most from hunting and fishing, with about $3.7 billion in economic activity, the report said.
The report “really helps buttress our need for the hunting and fishing economy of Michigan to be maintained,” said Rep. Gary Howell, R-North Branch, who last year served as the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and worked to expand youth hunting and pheasant hunting in the state.
Howell joined Rep. Leslie Love, D-Detroit, in calling for increased attention to the state’s dwindling numbers of outdoorsfolk.
Firearm deer-hunting licenses sold to Michiganders has dropped more than 20 percent in two decades, down to 621,000 in 2017 from a peak of 785,000 in 1998, according to a recent demographic analysis from Michigan Technological University.
Fewer Michigan residents are legally fishing, too: 880,000 in 2014, down from from a peak of 965,000 in 2009, according to a seperate Michigan Tech analysis.
(Department of Natural Resources records, however, show less of clear pattern — and more fluctuation — in total fishing license purchases, including sales to residents of other states. Michigan is second only to Florida in attracting out-of-state anglers, said Dennis Eade, executive director of the Michigan Steelhead and Salmon Fishermen’s Association and a member of the Tourism Industry Coalition of Michigan.)
Other states are seeing similar trends as older baby boomers slow down and interest wanes from younger generations. It bodes poorly not only for the outdoors and tourist economy, advocates say, but wildlife conservation as well.
“Hunters and anglers foot virtually the entire bill for conservation in Michigan and other states,” Eade said. “That’s because hunting and fishing license fees and surcharges are used to pay for the majority of wildlife management and habitat restoration in Michigan and across the nation,” roughly $62 million a year in Michigan.
“A continued decline of that base has huge implications for how we manage conservation of our forests and feels wildlife our lakes, rivers and streams.”
Love is co-chair of the Michigan Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus, and she hopes her leadership — as a woman and a self-described “city-slicker” from a family of anglers — will help identify ways to diversify participation in activities that are largely identified with white men.
She noted, for instance, that her district and surrounding Southeast Michigan has plenty of Spanish-speaking residents, and Spanish-language messaging in some of those communities might bolster more interest in hunting and fishing. That’s something grassroots groups in Nebraska have tried, she said.
Michigan Tech’s demographic analysis of fishing license purchases offers hope for more expansion in one demographic: younger women. Though men still make up 79 percent of Michigan anglers, women’s participation is steadily increasing, that report noted.
Calls to encourage more Michiganders to hunt and fish come as the state’s dealing with a pair of major major threats to wildlife. That includes chronic wasting disease, a fatal neurological disease that attacks the brains of deer, elk and moose.
Michigan has tested tens of thousands of deer for the disease since 2015 when it was first detected in the state, and the Department of Natural Resources has flagged it in more than five dozen of the animals.
Meanwhile, PFAS — “forever chemicals” linked to cancers and other ailments and increasingly being found in Michigan waters and fish, and in at least one deer.
Last October, state officials warned residents in Oscoda, home to the PFAS-contaminated Wurtsmith Air Force Base, not to eat deer in the area after high levels of the chemical were detected in one deer.
Amy Trotter, executive director, of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, said it’s too early to say whether chronic wasting disease or PFAS contamination are directly affecting fishing and hunting numbers, but they could in the future.
Regardless, Trotter said, her group and its allies want the state to pour more resources into each of those problems — to ensure fish and deer remain safe to eat.