Across the country, the number of hunters has steadily decreased in the last 50 years thanks to urbanization and a shift in tradition. To an extent, Idaho has bucked the trend but it's becoming clear that something has to change — maybe the hunters themselves.
For the first time in its 120-year history, Idaho Fish and Game has a marketing department — created last year — and as the department's director, Ian Malepeai's task is to help hunting continue to thrive in Idaho.
"In the past, state agencies didn't have a marketing problem," Malepeai said. "They didn't need to market."
That's because existing hunters were doing the work for them. Mentoring has long been the primary way new hunters pick up the practice.
But rather than come to hunting largely through tradition, today's hunters seem to be spurred by a wider selection of catalysts, according to Brad Brooks, director of the Wilderness Society's public lands campaign. That can be anything from a desire for adventure and new challenges to a love for the environment or gourmet game-based dishes.
Fish and Game is happy to embrace them all.
"In Idaho, we represent all hunters and all anglers in the state, and motivations vary," Malepeai said. "We're looking at newcomers who are moving to Idaho for the outdoors and how we can help them become Idahoan."
He said statistics show the number of people passing the practice on to their children is waning nationwide. Since 2000, the number of hunters in Idaho has only decreased about 3 percent — from 217,514 license holders in 2000 to 209,967 license holders in 2018. But the fact that Idaho's population has grown by around 400,000 people in that same time period raises red flags.
"Idaho has actually been able to maintain a steady level of license numbers, but as a percentage of the population, it's not as large as it was in the past," Malepeai said. "Part of it is just the changing demographics of the state."
The percentage of Idaho hunters in their 50s and 60s has increased over the past 20 years, while the percentage of hunters in their teens, 20s and 30s has slightly decreased.
"We're hoping for the best," Malepeai said. "But the fear is the baby boomer generation is just aging out [of hunting]. Our hope is we can keep this as part of what makes Idaho great."
Malepeai pointed out that if hunting and fishing numbers continue to falter, so does the agency's ability to manage Idaho's wildlife. Though the agency is tasked with overseeing all of Idaho's game and non-game animals, the bulk of its funding comes from licenses, tags and permits. Fish and Game gets additional revenue from taxes on hunting and fishing equipment, but the state's share of those funds is determined by the number of license holders in the state.
"Hunting's trying to stay relevant in a society that's changing," said Becca Aceto, a relatively new hunter.
And that means welcoming all kinds.
Youtube and sustainability
For a few years after she first moved to Stanley, Aceto had no need to hunt. She'd grown up in Ohio, part of an outdoorsy family that hiked and fished, but she hadn't forayed into hunting. Her boyfriend at the time offered her extra game meat, as did friends and coworkers on occasion.
After the relationship with her boyfriend ended, so did the bulk of the gifted meat. Aceto's freezer gradually emptied. She hadn't bought meat from a grocery store in years and had become accustomed to the idea of sustainable food — the kind that didn't come from massive farming operations.
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"I realized if I wanted to continue that lifestyle, I had to do it myself," said Aceto, who moved to Boise in 2018 to work for the Idaho Wildlife Federation.
So she bought a gun.
"The first rifle I bought was completely the wrong one," Aceto said. "I hunted very unsuccessfully my first season."
So she bought a new rifle after hours of research, and spent even more hours practicing aiming, shooting, anything to dissolve the kinds of doubts that she'd had in her first gun.
As a field biologist and former ranger in the Frank Church wilderness, Aceto was already familiar with the challenges of navigating land off the grid, but things like shooting and field dressing posed challenges. While she learned, Aceto sought out friends and colleagues to replicate the mentor relationship many hunters grew up with — something she encouraged any aspiring hunters to do.
"Ask questions, allow yourself to be unsure and be a novice," Aceto said.
Being a novice can mean learning in unusual ways. Aceto was alone when she killed a pronghorn last year, quickly realizing that the reality of butchering the animal didn't quite match her research. So she pulled up YouTube videos on her phone to piece together the best method of field dressing the animal.
"I hate the internet, but it's very helpful when you're learning," she said.
So much about hunting may be shifting, but the values are nonetheless rooted in the past.
As Boise and Idaho grow, more "urbanites" may need to join in to keep Fish and Game's funding model — and hunting tradition — afloat. To do that, the way non-hunters see the practice will need to change.
"Hunting is a victim of people not asking questions and jumping to conclusions," Aceto said. "... If this is something that interests you or offends you or confuses you, ask questions. The outdoor community as a whole needs to think of hunting as part of that community, not as an outlier."
Part of the onus of changing that perception falls to hunters, too, Brooks said.
"There is very much an 'I will never apologize' culture in the hunting world," Brooks said. "And then there's also a segment of hunters who ... ask you to be aware of how you portray it to the rest of the world. Nobody's asking you to apologize — just be a good ambassador."
He hopes the ambassadorship, the mentorship, the education efforts from groups like his and Malepeai's and Aceto's will be enough to make Idaho an exception to the decline in hunting participation. Because for many hunters, it's more than a tradition. It's a way to sustain themselves and their surroundings, to form bonds with other hunters and with the wilderness.
"It feels like what I was meant to do," Aceto said. "When I'm out there pursuing an animal, it's like the missing piece of the puzzle. It's a deep connection, deeper than any I've had before."