Crain’s Detroit: Conservation is a team sport

Fly Fishermen on the Au Sable River

This content was originally published on Crain's Detroit Business on November 9, 2020.

Hunting and fishing contribute $11.2 billion annually to Michigan’s economy. Business, natural resource, government and nonprofit leaders discuss how these activities fund conservation projects – and much more.

State Rep. Leslie Love, co-chair of the Michigan Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus, didn’t grow up fishing – that was an activity taken up mainly by the men in her family. So when she went out angling for walleye on the Detroit River with members of Michigan United Conservation Clubs and the Lake St. Clair Walleye Association, she didn’t quite know what to expect.

“I didn’t know if it was going to be any good,” said Love, D-Detroit. “And it turned out it was the best … to catch it and cook it fresh. It was so delicious, and it gave me a whole new respect for the water and the people I see fishing out of the river.”

Love is one of a growing number of Michiganders exploring the state’s natural beauty through outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing. Sales of hunting and fishing licenses have spiked since COVID-19 emerged, creating a silver lining of sorts for the many businesses and communities across the state that rely on outdoor recreation tourism. 

This is especially good news for Michigan because the revenue generated by the purchase of all those hunting and fishing licenses pays for land and wildlife conservation in our state.

Love joined a panel of business, conservation, nonprofit and government leaders convened by the Michigan Wildlife Council and Crain’s Content Studio, the marketing storytelling arm of Crain’s Detroit Business, to examine the fundamental role of hunting and fishing in Michigan’s economy. The discussion illuminated how hunters and anglers are in the vanguard of environmentalism in Michigan, as stewards of the wildlife and natural resources we all enjoy.

A windfall

In recent decades, hunting license sales in Michigan and nationally have declined as aging baby boomers cut back on hunting and young families with less free time than previous generations chose not to pursue the sport.

This year, outdoor outfitters are experiencing a windfall thanks to a new and renewed interest in activities like camping, kayaking, biking – and hunting and fishing, according to Jay’s Sporting Goods President Jeff Poet. His stores in Clare and Gaylord have already seen a 20 to 30% surge in sales this year as more Michiganders head outdoors in search of safe activities.

“We immediately saw people engaging in outdoor activities because they could maintain social distancing while being entertained,” he said. “We were sold out of kayaks quite early. We’ve seen this trend all year in Michigan and across the country.”

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reports a record number of hunting and fishing license applications, according to Shannon Lott, DNR deputy director. This spring, the department sold 105,000 turkey hunting licenses, smashing the previous record of 83,000 set in 2000. With many sporting goods stores closed during quarantine, the DNR saw a whopping 129% increase in online license sales year over year. 

But what excites Lott most is a significant increase in licenses among 17- to 24-year-olds. Younger people getting outdoors and enjoying Michigan’s vast natural resources is integral to building public support around those resources for future generations, Lott said.

On top of that, young people ages 10 to 16 saw a 144% increase in license sales across all hunting species, jumping by mid-October to 22,624 licensed hunters from 9,284 last year. In addition, the number of female hunters has increased nearly 25% – from 35,619 to 44,425.

This spike in outdoor activity has created another windfall in the form of conservation dollars. That’s because when people purchase a hunting or fishing license, they are funding wildlife conservation and management activities around the state. It’s license sales – not state taxes – that protect endangered species, maintain wildlife habitats and help keep Michigan’s natural resources abundant. In 2018, that amounted to $61 million.

And it’s all crucial to maintaining healthy ecosystems and providing Michigan’s famously diverse range of year-round recreational opportunities.

“License revenue is critical to on-the-ground work that we do. A lot of the work is what the public chooses to get done because when folks apply for wildlife and fisheries habitat grants, that money goes directly into those communities,” Lott explained.

Many Michigan residents may not realize the important role hunting and fishing play in their state.

“We have a sign in our office that says ‘hunters pay for conservation,’ and it’s true, especially in the state of Michigan,” said Amy Trotter, executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC). In addition to licenses, conservation work is funded through sales of hunting and fishing equipment, including ammunition. That money is distributed nationally based on the number of hunters and anglers in each state. In 2018, Michigan received $35 million.

According to a 2019 study conducted for MUCC by Michigan State University’s Eli Broad College of Business, Michigan is home to 1.1 million anglers and 700,000 hunters. The study found hunting and fishing generate $11.2 billion in economic impact annually in Michigan – $8.9 billion from hunting and $2.3 billion from fishing. All of that activity also supports more than 171,000 jobs from Houghton to Hamtramck.

“The research shows economic benefits for local communities in every region of the state. Hunting and fishing are truly vital to continuing Michigan’s prosperity now and in the future,” Trotter said.

A boon to small business

Many businesses see substantial benefit from travel to hunting and fishing locales in places like northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. Many of the 171,000 Michigan jobs supported by hunting and fishing each year are in small businesses like hotels, restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations.

That’s why the Michigan Association of Convenience Stores and Michigan Petroleum Association – which represents around 4,000 of Michigan’s estimated 4,800 gas stations – joined the group Hunting Works for Michigan. It’s a partnership among small businesses such as restaurants, hotels, motels, resorts, gas stations and convenience stores that benefit from license fees, taxes and jobs generated by the hunting and shooting industry. 

For gas stations, hunting season is big business, said Mark Griffin, president of the Michigan Association of Convenience Stores and Michigan Petroleum Association. “Hunters come into our stores and spend a lot of money. My members look forward to seeing all the folks come in wearing hunter orange,” Griffin said.

Chartering the outdoors

The Great Lakes fishing industry accounts for $7 billion annually. Charters, which operate out of more than 100 ports, are a big part of that. According to Michigan Sea Grant, a collaboration of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, Lake Michigan charters alone generated $15.7 million in economic impact in Michigan’s coastal communities in 2016. Charters provide a range of opportunities to catch cold-water species like chinook, coho and pink salmon and rainbow, brown and lake trout, as well as warmer-water species like walleye, perch and bass.

Charter operators have found innovative ways to grow their services – such as the Michigan Catch & Cook program, which allows charter fishing clients an opportunity to take their fresh catch to a participating Michigan restaurant that will cook and serve the fish for them.

Michigan fishing charters closed for a time during the early pandemic. When they reopened, social distancing requirements reduced boat capacity. Some charter captains lost 50 to 60 trips, taking a substantial hit during spring runs of walleye in Southeast Michigan and salmon in southern Lake Michigan.

“But we worked through it,” said Bill Winowiecki, captain of Watta Bite Charter Fishing in Glen Arbor and president of the Michigan Charter Boat Association. And it wasn’t long before the charter industry came roaring back. “As soon as the motels opened up, everything just took off,” Winowiecki said.

And it’s not only fish. Some charter operators also offer ways to connect Michiganders to hunting (and eating), as Love learned when she went on a duck-hunting excursion in Nayanquing Point State Wildlife Area near Bay City with State Rep. John Cherry and two DNR staff members. She recalled a feeling of satisfaction when she showed the trip leaders that she could handle a 12-gauge shotgun.

“I’m a city girl. I’m brick-and-mortar and sidewalks,” Love said. “So to put on those waders, get in a little boat and go out to the blind, sit on these little funky seats, and aim that shotgun up at the right time to shoot the ducks down – it was great.”

Hunters fighting hunger

Beyond what they take home for personal use, the food harvested and donated by hunters makes a sizable dent in food insecurity across Michigan. Michigan Sportsmen Against Hunger is an all-volunteer organization launched in 1991 that connects deer hunters who want to share an overabundance of game with those in need. Participating licensed game processors serve as drop-off locations for deer harvested by hunters and through DNR-coordinated wildlife management.

Executive Director Dean Hall said from its inception through this September, the nonprofit has donated more than 830,000 pounds of ground venison and fed 3.3 million hungry adults and children in Michigan. 

The amount of donated meat has already increased dramatically in 2020, with more than 82,000 pounds collected so far this year. Venison processing is paid for by the state-controlled Sportsmen Against Hunger Fund; when they purchase a license, Michigan hunters and anglers have the option to donate $1 or more to this fund. In the past year, those donations totaled $115,000. 

“Meat is one of the most expensive commodities and hard for food banks to obtain,” Hall said. “Venison is extremely high in protein and very nourishing. Michigan deer hunters are very proud of the fact that they supply tens of thousands of pounds of ground venison to food banks, pantries and shelters all across the state of Michigan.”

A national perspective

Other states are also seeing a growth in outdoor activities amid the pandemic, according to Drew YoungeDyke, manager of sporting communications for the National Wildlife Federation.

“People are taking this opportunity to get outside, whether it’s kayaking or turkey hunting or fishing,” YoungeDyke said. “It’s something that’s going on across the country. Of course, it’s very strong in Michigan because we already have such a strong hunting and fishing culture.”

This spike in hunting interest is expected to continue into firearm deer season, Nov. 15 to 30, which annually attracts the state’s largest hunter participation. More than 475,000 firearm deer hunting licenses were purchased last year.

If that interest continues in the coming years, more hunters and anglers will mean more money for Michigan’s conservation efforts and economy. The DNR and sporting groups are considering ways to encourage participation in the future.

Trotter pointed out that the modern conservation movement was founded by sportsmen in the 1930s – and that future conservation will require a concerted effort.

“In order to continue our outdoor heritage, we must have fish and game. But fish and game rely on abundant habitat and clean water, air, soil and forests,” Trotter said. “It’s a movement that’s been led by hunters and anglers, and we strive to ensure that we’re all in the boat and rowing together.”


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