The old, hand-painted, wooden sign reading "HUNTING LICENSE" bears testimony to a by-gone era. The 24-inch-high, 40-inch-wide, double-sided sign came from the front of Alvin G. Stone’s small store near Pine Apple in rural Wilcox County. Suspended from a bracket over the front door of the store, the sign was visible no matter which way you were traveling on Highway 10.
Traded for a professionally-lettered sign reading "HUNTING & FISHING LICENSES SOLD HERE," the old sign is now in the guest bedroom at the hunting camp. Thumb-tacked to the bottom right-hand corner is a notecard that reads, "A gentle reminder…" - a reminder to guests that they need to buy a license.
In 1924, a Resident State Hunting License was priced at $3. A non-resident or "alien" license was $25. Licenses of any type were only available at the probate judge’s office in the county courthouse.
Fairly early on, it became apparent to folks that having licenses available more places than the county courthouse worked to everyone’s best interest. So, approved and bonded license agents were given authority to sell hunting and fishing licenses at retail establishments widely distributed across the landscape. Many small store owners came to appreciate the increased traffic associated with license sales. The small issuance fee was never going to make anybody rich, but, if customers who came to the store to buy a license bought other items, it added to the bottom line and customer goodwill.
Convenient and easy access to licenses was critical to adequately fund the arm of state government charged with management and protection of wildlife and fisheries resources. The cumulative effect of hunter- and angler-funded work through the years is manifested in the relative abundance of furred, feathered and finned creatures now enjoyed by all of society. For an interesting comparison of this abundance, go to www.huntingheritagefoundation.com and click on Tom Kelly’s "The Bad Old Days." It’s under Promoting Public Understanding of the Profound Benefits of Hunting/75 Years of Wildlife Restoration.
In Tom’s words, "The good old days are right this very minute." And it didn’t happen by chance. You and I, and the license-buying hunters and fishermen who came before us, paid for it all. In like fashion, we are now paying for the work of the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division to ensure a bright future for abundant wildlife and fisheries resources for generations to come.
Serving in the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources under six different commissioners, I saw them all make hard business decisions related to license sales. With the ever-increasing high cost of printing sequentially numbered, carbon-copy license books and public expectations of more readily-available licenses, many changes were made through the years. Antiquated and costly hard-copy license books gave way to electronic license sales. Now, you can purchase hunting and fishing licenses over the telephone, on the Internet, at probate offices/license commissioners or at retail businesses with electronic license sales capabilities. However, unfortunately, many of the small retail establishments are no longer license agents due to lack of Internet access.
In addition to being far more cost-effective, one of the primary advantages of electronic license sales is the ability to capture legible, useful data about license-buyers. Several years ago, the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation paid for extensive demographic analysis of licensed anglers. The Alabama Wildlife Federation was requested to pay for the same type of analysis of licensed hunters and very graciously agreed. The results were clear: Most hunting and fishing license buyers in Alabama are hard-working middle-class people. Most are not advantaged economically or otherwise. Comparisons of year-to-year license databases revealed there is a huge turn-over among license buyers on an ongoing basis as high as a third every year. Unlike those of us who are avid, committed and maybe even advantaged, as many as two-thirds of Alabama’s hunters and anglers do not participate as frequently as every year. Other states across the country are experiencing the exact same kinds of revelations.
Some folks find that hard to believe, but the facts do not lie. Those in denial, bless their hearts, come up with all kinds of "explanations" such as "lifetime licenses are making up the difference." WRONG. Lifetime license holders are an integrated part of the statistical analysis. The more self-absorbed people tend to be, the harder it is for them to get their heads wrapped around the concept that everybody is not like them. Some elitists very shortsightedly are of the sentiment that we should not be concerned with the masses. Some extreme elitists think the masses are the enemy.
Hard-working, middle-class people are the backbone of hunting and fishing in Alabama. And we had best all be concerned with keeping as many people hunting and fishing as we can. Remember, every person’s license counts exactly the same in paying to put conservation enforcement officers and wildlife biologists on the ground and to carrying out the programs ensuring abundant and healthy wildlife populations. Every license counts the same in determining Alabama’s apportionment of three-to-one Sportfish and Wildlife Restoration dollars. And it works the same at the polling place - every person gets one vote, regardless of socio-economic status. It’s the American way.
A comparison of license certification numbers for Alabama hunters from 1985 through 2010 shows a loss of 35,760 licensed hunters, from 293,907 to 258,148. There was an upturn in the early-to-mid-90s, but an overall general decline of over 12 percent. Alabama fared better than many states during the same time frame. Recent reports on hunter participation give reason to optimistically hope for an increase.
The hunters we have been losing first are the less-than-advantaged, less-avid or less-committed hunters. In many cases, these hunters are the very people who are in and out of the small, independent stores that are no longer license agents. Because these stores are no longer license agents, most no longer even get the "Official Alabama Hunting & Fishing Digest." This is why the Hunting Heritage Foundation, in partnership with the Alabama state chapter of NWTF and H. T. Hackney Co., a large grocery wholesaler, published and distributed 10,000 copies of the "Alabama Hunting & Fishing Almanac" last year. Our hope is that this targeted approach, aimed at the segment of hunters we are losing first, will help change the direction of hunter participation in Alabama. The "Almanac" very simply sets out the seasons and limits, and, most important, rules and regulations, and proved to be quite popular with hunters of all sorts. The "Almanac" will be published again this year. Look for it free at your favorite small grocer.
Corky Pugh is the executive director of the Hunting Heritage Foundation.