Last year’s hunting season saw millions of sportsmen and women of all ages head to the fields and woods to give the great American pastime a try.
Hunting recruitment efforts were successful as interest in hunting remained high through 2021. That’s led to an interesting dilemma this year. All that harvested game means something more. Hunters are helping families in need around the holidays. The flip side of that is wild game processors are backed up and hunters are scrambling to get their harvest ready for the freezer.
Numbers Continue Looking Good
Hunting participation reversed course after years of slow decline and kicked up a gear in 2020 as millions of Americans sought outdoor recreation during the pandemic. Overlapping record-breaking firearm sales, including gun purchases for hunting, hunting permit and license sales have also witnessed an uptick. Some areas have seen a cooling off, but recruitment efforts paid dividends as strong numbers of hunters have gone afield in 2021.
Ohio deer hunters went out in strong numbers. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife reported more than 70,000 harvested deer during the state’s first portion of deer gun season, eight percent above the same period last year.
The boost was almost identical in West Virginia. Hunters harvested 42,600 deer during the two-week firearm season, a mark 10 percent higher than the 2020 total.
In Illinois, the first firearm deer hunting period saw good weather and higher numbers of deer harvested compared to 2020. Illinois hunters harvested 50,300 deer compared to 47,147 during the same period.
Missouri Department of Conservation Cervid Program Supervisor Jason Isabelle praised Missouri hunters’ success during the 2021 season of 14,890 deer harvested, slightly below 2020. “Prior to last year, the average harvest during the three-day antlerless portion had been just under 8,000 deer. So, although we were below last year’s mark, this year’s total was well above the average harvest over the last several years with the shorter season.”
Iowa and Montana were successes too. “To a large degree hunters have figured out where the critters are and they’ll travel to places they’re more likely to be successful,” Montana biologist Scott Hemmer commented. “The near record number of hunters in the field this year was noticed and commented on by many hunters passing through the check station.”
Hunters Feeding Communities
The successes hunters have enjoyed this year means more than memories with family or friends and maybe a mount on the wall. Hunters are harvesting millions of pounds of fresh, healthy meat that can be donated to causes helping families in need during the holidays and cold months. Deer season alone can yield up to 400 million pounds of meat, good for an astounding 1.6 billion meals.
Organizations like Hunters Helping the Hungry (HHH) are ready. Participating hunters take their harvested deer to a processor that packages the venison to distribute to families through food pantries, senior centers, shelters, orphanages and churches. This year marks the 30th anniversary of HHH in West Virginia and hunters crossed a major milestone. They have donated more than 1 million pounds of healthy venison.
“A lot of the people that need this meat from the food banks can’t physically go get it themselves, so this is an amazing service these hunters are doing to help those around the state,” said W.V. Wildlife Center Director Trevor Moore.
Efforts to make it easier for hunters to fight hunger even reached the federal government recently when U.S. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) introduced the Wild Game Donation Act. The legislation would establish a charitable deduction for hunters for the processing costs, as well as allow for additional deductions for the meat processors themselves to participate. The effort to pass the legislation is ongoing.
Game Processing Growing Pains
All the good still comes with growing pains. In Pennsylvania, hunters have had so much success that deer meat processors are having a hard time keeping up. Labor shortages that kept many American businesses understaffed have created bottlenecks for butchers, including some who are turning down processing orders.
“I feel bad for my regular customers, and I’m trying to take deer that were donated for Hunters Sharing the Harvest,” said George Jarmon of George’s Wild Game Processing in Pennsylvania’s Elizabeth Township. “We are at full capacity and the problem is there’s no help out there.”
The successes hunters are seeing still means more meals for those in need, more dollars going back to conservation efforts, more traditions passed on and newer generations of hunters participating in America’s greatest pastime. NSSF’s +One campaign encourages hunters and shooters to bring someone new on their next outing to help continue the cycle.
Larry Keane is SVP for Government and Public Affairs, Assistant Secretary and General Counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.