Participation in wildlife-related recreation, including hunting and fishing, rose significantly nationwide, according to last week's entry in a series of benchmark reports conducted every four years by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But while federal statistics showed a nosedive in Pennsylvania hunting participation, state Game Commission data shows hunting license sales remained relatively constant during the same time period.
With reports issued in four-year intervals since 1955, the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation is one of the most comprehensive and thorough gauges of America's on-again, off-again love affair with the outdoors. The survey is used by U.S. and state agencies to chart the economic impacts of outdoors recreation and determine funding levels and priorities. Data was gathered through random samples of nearly 50,000 households with information provided by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The 12th report in the series, issued last week, is the first ever to document a reversal in the decades-long decline in hunting participation. Nationwide, hunting increased by 9 percent from 2006 to 2011.
Richard Aiken, lead economist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who was instrumental in preparing data for this survey, said it's probably no coincidence that Americans spent more time hunting during the Great Recession.
"We didn't know what to expect going into it," he said. "I've worked on this survey (series) for over 20 years, and every one showed a decline in hunting from the previous survey. We didn't know where we'd hit bottom; we were prepared for the worst. When we saw hunting and fishing went up and wildlife-watching didn't, that was interesting to us."
Fishing participation grew by 11 percent. While nearly 38 percent of Americans participated in some form of wildlife-related recreation -- an increase of 2.6 million participants -- the number of wildlife watchers remained about 70 million.
The survey showed that 88 percent of wildlife observation, feeding and photography happens around the home. Aiken suggested that people who were laid off or given fewer work hours during the economic slump may have taken advantage of their newly available free time by taking hunting or fishing trips away from home.
"There's also the possibility that hunting and fishing trips can be less expensive than some travel vacations, and while people had more time they didn't want to spend as much money," he said.
The survey reported that in 2011 more than 90 million U.S. residents 16 years and older participated in some form of wildlife-related outdoors recreation, an increase of 3 percent since the previous survey Aiken said the rise was primarily due to a surge in hunting and fishing participation.
Data showed that in 2011, 33.1 million people fished and 13.7 hunted. Many did both -- the total number of hunters and anglers rose from 33.9 million in 2006 to 37.4 million in 2011.
Among hunters, 11.6 million went after big game, 4.5 million sought small game, 2.6 million hunted migratory birds and 2.2 million went for other animals. Eighty percent of hunters resided in metropolitan areas.
Among the biggest surprises in the survey, said Aiken, was a significant drop in Pennsylvania hunting participation, from just over 1 million in 2006 to 775,000 in 2011.
"Pennsylvania didn't follow the national trend," said Aiken. "I expected Pennsylvania to be high in hunting. The number wasn't where I expected."
It wasn't where the state Game Commission expected, either. Pennsylvania sold 945,892 hunting licenses in 2006 and 933,208 in 2011. Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser declined to comment on the disparity, but Aiken suggested a statistical anomaly may explain the difference between the state's documented license sale numbers and the Fish and Wildlife Service's participation estimate.
"Surveys are best at estimating a confidence interval, not a point estimate," he said. "For Pennsylvania hunters in 2011, we are 95 percent confident the correct number is between 558,000 and 992,000, with a midpoint of 775,000. There was a confidence interval around that 1 million 2006 number, too, somewhere around 900,000 to 1.1 million."
Or, he said, people could have bought hunting licenses but didn't go hunting.
Just over 33 million Americans went fishing in 2011. Of those, 27.5 million fished for freshwater species, 8.9 million went saltwater fishing and 89 percent were metropolitan residents.
Whether they hunted, fished or watched animals, wildlife recreationists spent a combined $144.7 billion in 2011, contributing a full 1 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. Equipment purchases accounted for nearly half of spending at $70.4 billion. Travel-related expenses reached nearly $50 billion, and nearly $25 billion went for licenses, land leasing and property ownership.