When Virginia hunters who had not purchased a license in 2008/2009 were asked in a telephone survey why they didn’t, their answers came as a surprise. Twenty-five percent of respondents said they hunted but it was on private land, and thus they were exempt from purchasing one.
Virginia regulations do allow hunting on private land without a license in specific situations, and hunters take full advantage of that opportunity. That same telephone survey revealed 46 percent of the hunters Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) thought had lapsed were actually hunting on private land.
This is alarming news because it means the agency is losing funds, which could be used for conservation work, in two ways. The first is the obvious loss of license sales money from private land hunters who qualify for an exemption. The second way is less apparent, yet extremely important to VDGIF funding. Fewer licensed hunters means the agency qualifies for less money through Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration. This program authorizes hunters and shooters to pay an excise tax on firearms and ammunition that is apportioned back to the states based on a formula that factors in the number of licensed hunters. Bottom line, those who don’t buy a hunting license reduce federal matching money for VDGIF’s wildlife management and habitat improvement projects.
You’re one of the first to hear about these new research results from Virginia. The reason is I am involved in a marketing communications project with VDGIF. Working with partners such as Mile Creek Communications and Southwick Associates, we assessed current factors affecting hunting participation and license sales in Virginia. Then Responsive Management conducted focus groups and a telephone survey to better understand why some hunters don’t buy a license every year.
We’ll use this information to develop communications messages and strategies aimed at bringing Virginia’s lapsed hunters back into the fold. Year one of this project was funded by the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s Hunting Heritage Partnership, a program that awards grants to support state-level hunter recruitment and retention programs.
The focus groups and telephone survey unearthed a treasure trove of information VDGIF can use to improve its products and services as well as market those opportunities to Virginia hunters. We learned why Virginians hunt, who they hunt with, what they hunt for, how often they hunt and what types of licenses they purchase and how often they’ve purchased a license in the last four years.
The survey also revealed factors that affect their enjoyment of hunting. Survey respondents told us not having enough time, work and family obligations were the top factors that took away from their enjoyment of hunting.
However, not having enough places to hunt and not having enough access to places to hunt were among the top four factors that strongly took away from lapsed hunters’ enjoyment of hunting in Virginia.
We first heard about their dissatisfaction with public land in the focus groups. Participants said they perceived much of the available public hunting land to be overcrowded with other hunters.
In needs to be said that providing hunters with a good experience on public lands is no small task because this group is not a homogenous blob. Hunter expectations vary greatly. Some hunters want a wilderness experience while others want to see a lot of game or have a chance to bag a trophy. VDGIF has its public land management work cut out for them whether they’re trying to attract those Virginians who aren’t buying a license because they’ve dropped out of hunting or not buying a license because they’re hunting on private land.
While there are no easy answers when it comes to managing public lands, this market research project does make several points abundantly clear. Wildlife agencies must understand their customers. They must provide products and services their customers want. And they must be more aggressive about reminding Virginia hunters to buy a license so they don’t miss sharing the hunting heritage with friends and family, connecting with nature and, of course, helping pay the bills of managing wildlife and their habitats.
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