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Friday, September 21, 2018

Bowhunting Popularity Growing, but only Regionally

As hunter numbers continue to decline overall in the USA and Canada, one bright spot worth noting has been the growth in bowhunting’s popularity in recent years, but only in certain regions. Not every region is experiencing an uptick in bowhunting's popularity.

In Pennsylvania for example there are now well over 300,000 bowhunters who annually take to forest and field, with the vast majority of them purchasing archery licenses primarily to pursue white-tailed deer.

Over the past decade, the number of bowhunters in Pennsylvania has risen steadily, increasing each year from 2007-2008, when 266,841 archery licenses were sold, to 2016-2017, when 341,637 were purchased. In fact, according to Petersen’s Bowhunting, no state in the nation sold more archery hunting licenses in 2016-2017 than Pennsylvania State. The total number of archery participants may actually be even higher since bowhunting privileges are included in the state’s lifetime combination and junior combination licenses, two categories that are not included in overall bow license sales.

Christian Berg, former Hellertown resident and outdoors editor at The Morning Call who’s now the editor of Petersen’s Bowhunting, said the increased interest in bowhunting in Pennsylvania is likely due to a combination of factors. Among these are the state’s relatively short firearms season when compared to many other states coupled with the fact that the archery season is fairly long, the opportunity for archers to hunt during the rut, the relatively mild weather that accompanies the fall portion of bow season and the fact that both crossbows and vertical bows can be used.

“For serious deer hunters, I believe Pennsylvania’s archery season is extremely attractive from both an opportunity and weather-related standpoint,” Berg said. “Add in the fact that PA archery hunters can use crossbows and you have an easy crossover tool available for longtime rifle hunters who want to take advantage of the archery season.

“I think much of the growth Pennsylvania has seen in archery hunting is not necessarily a dramatic influx of new hunters, but rather a shift in hunting activity generally toward more archery hunting and perhaps a bit less effort during the firearms season.”

In regard to bowhunting opportunities, the southeastern portion of Pennsylvania offers a rather liberal season. In Wildlife Management Units 5D and 5C, the latter of which includes much of the Lehigh Valley, there are more than 14 weeks of bowhunting from Sept. 15-Nov. 24 and Dec. 26-Jan. 26. The rest of the state also enjoys more than eight weeks of bowhunting, with the fall segment taking place Sept. 29-Nov. 12 and the winter session running Dec. 26-Jan. 12.

As for the legalization of crossbow hunting, there’s little doubt allowing horizontal bows has had a huge impact on archery hunter participation and deer harvest, with crossbow usage rising steadily since they were legalized for bowhunting statewide in 2009.

According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) 2017 Deer Hunter Participation Survey, a survey sent to more than 6,000 sportsmen who bought hunting licenses for the 2016-17 season, 61 percent of respondents noted they hunted with a crossbow, while 54 percent said they used a vertical bow.

PGC spokesman Travis Lau said that in 2017-’18, crossbows accounted for 61 percent of the overall archery deer harvest, while in 2014-15 they were responsible for only 54 percent of the take. In contrast, annual overall archery harvests in recent years haven’t changed all that much. For example, in the 2017-18 and 2016-17 seasons, the archery harvest accounted for 34 percent of the overall statewide deer harvest, while in 2014-15, that number was 32 percent.

“I don’t think there is any question the legalization of crossbows for all archery hunters has played the biggest role in increased archery license sales,” Lau said. “Crossbows are taking more of the archery harvest, but the archery harvest [overall] has been more or less consistent.”

When it comes to bowhunting in the Lehigh Valley, where the human population continues to grow and the vast majority of land is privately owned, bowhunting is becoming an increasingly popular tool for helping to manage deer herds.

“I think [the growth in archery hunting’s popularity] has to do with the urban sprawl,” said Joe Filaseta, Bethlehem resident and regional director for the United Bowhunters of Pennsylvania.

According to Filaseta, the region’s abundant deer population, coupled with the fact that the safety zone for bowhunting is 50 yards compared to 150 yards for firearms hunting, makes it easier for bowhunters to access properties in the region.

Berg agreed, noting that for many deer hunters, gaining access to hunt with a bow has proven much more realistic than gaining access to hunt with a rifle, particularly in areas where property sizes tend to be relatively small and deer habitat is fragmented.

“I know from experience that some of the best hunting in the state exists in places such as South Mountain and the suburban woodlots around Bethlehem, and accessing such places with firearms only becomes more difficult as the years go by,” he said. “A similar situation exists around Pittsburgh, where suburban bowhunters have entered numerous bucks into the state record book in recent years.

“Considering that a large percentage of hunters will come from the areas where a large percentage of our state population resides, I would anticipate that archery hunting will continue to be an ever more attractive option for serious deer hunters who want to access some of the best opportunities our state has to offer.”

While bowhunting’s popularity continues to climb in Pennsylvania, that upward trend isn’t always reflected across the nation. According to data from the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service report issued every five years, the overall number of hunters declined 16 percent between 2016 and 2011, from 13.7 million to 11.5 million. During that same period, the total number of bowhunters dropped 19 percent, from 4.47 million to 3.63 million.

Berg noted changing demographics are presenting a big challenge to the future of hunting right now.

“As the Baby Boomer generation ages out of hunting, we are simply not recruiting nearly enough new, younger hunters to replace the older hunters who are no longer physically able to get into the field,” he said. “This is a particular issue for archery hunting, in my opinion, because many older hunters are likely able to hunt a number of additional seasons with a firearm beyond the point where they are no longer physically able to handle the challenges/mechanics of archery tackle.

“If archery hunting is to remain strong going forward, we - the archery industry, conservation groups and archery hunting community - need to do a better job collectively of recruiting new bowhunters and retaining them as part of our community.”

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