The Great Outdoors

Why aren’t more Georgians putting on orange vests and going hunting? Well, the state’s burgeoning residential and commercial growth has cut down on areas where people can hunt.

A couple of years ago state Sen. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) was able to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to protect the right to hunt and fish in perpetuity. Johnson said it was necessary to make this change in the state constitution to stop an impending threat to one of Georgians’ favorite pastimes.

“For years, animal rights extremists have been systematically campaigning against hunting and fishing throughout the country,” he said. “It is only a matter of time before they set their sights on Georgia. For those who do not think our right to hunt and fish is under serious threat, they need to know that extremist organizations like PETA are lurking in the background.”

His amendment was approved by more than 81 percent of the voters in 2006, but the threat was probably more imaginary than real. There has never been a serious attempt to ban hunting here and there likely won’t be one for the foreseeable future.

As the ballot results show, hunting still enjoys overwhelming support among Georgia’s voters. It also stirs up deep-rooted passions among people from rural districts – I once saw two legislators nearly come to blows on the House floor over a bill to allow deer hunting in a baited field.

But when it comes to actually heading for the woods, however, fewer and fewer people are doing it, judging from the number of hunting licenses issued through the Department of Natural Resources.

DNR officials noted several years ago that the number of licenses has been slowly but steadily declining. The department issued about 330,000 licenses in 2000, but that total has now dropped to about 300,000. During the same period when the state’s population grew by more than 15 percent, the number of people obtaining a license went down by about 9 percent.

It’s not just a Georgia trend either. Nationally, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the number of hunters decreased by about 10 percent from 1996 through 2006.

We put in a call to Mark Whitney, chief of game management at DNR’s wildlife resources division, to talk about this. Why, we asked, aren’t more Georgians putting on those orange vests and firing away at everything on four legs? The simple answer is that the state’s burgeoning residential and commercial growth has cut down on the areas where people can hunt.

“The development of subdivisions and malls has certainly been a factor,” Whitney says. “There’s less acreage to actually hunt on. They charge higher rates now to hunt on farmlands and land leased for hunting. There’s less access for a higher percentage of the population.”

An example of the pressures that business development can put on hunting areas was illustrated last year by the controversy over the Oaky Woods property in middle Georgia. Oaky Woods has long been a favored hunting spot and is also home to a large portion of the black bear population in that part of the state. DNR had been leasing the property from Weyerhauser as a wildlife management area, but the company decided to sell the land and gave the state first shot at buying it.

Gov. Sonny Perdue turned down the offer, an action for which he was heavily criticized in the last governor’s race; some Houston County developers bought the property instead. Their announced intentions are to build about 30,000 homes on the wooded tract.

Not only are areas like Oaky Woods being put off limits to hunters, there is also less interest in hunting among young people. A lot of kids would rather spend their time immersed in video games or playing soccer instead of sitting in a tree stand waiting for a buck to come by.

If someone doesn’t take up the sport of hunting as a youth, he’s not likely to do so as an adult. “You tend to recruit fewer hunters into the hunting family, so to speak,” Whitney says.

The fact that the number of hunters continues to decline means that there is, in one sense, a possible threat to the future of hunting in Georgia.

That threat does not come from PETA activists and left-wing hippies, however. The real culprits are the inexorable march of development and the fact that many people would rather sit around the house playing Mortal Kombat on the Xbox.

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