By Steve Bauer
Since 2001, hunting participation in the United States has declined while the overall population has increased, meaning hunters now make up only 4 percent of the U.S. population that is 16 years or older. How much influence the declining health of the hunting industry has on the powersports market can only be guessed, but it’s a hot topic because more than 60 percent of all new ATV buyers describe themselves as hunters, according to an independent survey conducted by Napsi, a national outdoor recreation research company.
The answer to the question of how much influence the hunting industry has on ATV sales really depends on whom you ask. Manufacturers insist there is little, if any, link between declining hunter numbers and ATV sales, yet some in the hunting industry say there is an undeniable correlation between the two.
Jeff LeFever, marketing manager for Polaris’ ATV division, says it’s not how many hunters that count, but how much they’re spending.
“From our perspective, we do not see a direct correlation” between reduced ATV sales and the declining number of hunters, LeFever said. “While the numbers of hunters are down, the dollars being generated by the hunters who are out there has increased quite a bit. So the hypothesis there is that the decline in hunters might be the more casual or recreational hunters, and the hunters who are buying ATVs would be the ones who tend to be more serious about it, where it’s more of a lifestyle than it is an occasional hobby.”
LeFever says the bigger issue for Polaris as an ATV manufacturer is the common set of issues that plague both industries — land access and trail development.
“These are clearly the top issues for the long-term health of our industry, and it has a significant impact on the hunting industry as well,” he said. “So I think we have more of a common, shared set of factors than we do a direct correlation.”
Mark Duda of Responsive Management, a research firm specializing in natural resource and outdoor recreation issues, believes that based on the drop in hunting numbers and the studies his firm has done on the percentage of hunters who are also ATV users, there is a correlation that can be made.
“I don’t see how you could look at the numbers and not see one affecting the other in some fashion,” he said. “The research we’ve done on ATV usage is similar to others I’ve seen published, where you have more than half of ATV users as hunters. Even with hunters spending more money, there are still fewer of them out there to spend it.”
ATV usage among hunters
One statistic LeFever points to as an example of why the decline in hunters has had such a small impact on sales is the low percentage of buyers who purchase an ATV primarily for hunting.
“Our numbers indicate that industry wide, about one out of every five buyers purchases an ATV primarily for hunting,” he said. “So when you’re talking about 20 percent of a small group, the numbers would have to drop significantly for us to see an impact (in sales).”
A different statistic that LeFever says is also watched closely, however, is ATV hunting usage numbers, meaning ATV owners who don’t buy an ATV specifically for hunting, yet still use it to hunt as part of their recreational activities. That number is drastically higher, between 60-65 percent depending on the research survey.
Duda says the fact that more than half of all ATV users are hunters should cause concern for ATV manufacturers because issues like urban sprawl will undoubtedly force many riders to give up their activities in the near future.
“There is a clear and direct relationship between urbanization and a decrease in hunting numbers,” he said. “We’re up against some pretty important demographic trends, and that’s where urbanization takes its toll. The first problem is that people in urban areas aren’t exposed to the hunting culture, so they don’t become hunters. The second one is just the fact that there is a natural decline in hunting opportunities and access because of urban sprawl, so urbanization is a very lethal, double-edged sword for the health of the industry.”
A natural relationship
One fact that isn’t disputed by either industry is that common issues–land access and trail systems– put them in a unique partnership. LeFever says Polaris keeps a close eye on issues affecting the hunting industry, and that the company’s Trails Grant program is one example of how the ATV industry is ensuring that there will be land and trails available to benefit both ATV riders and hunters for generations to come.
“The issues faced in the hunting industry tend to arise on a state-by-state basis, and that’s how we tend to watch it and track it,” he said. “And our Trails Grant program is one way we can affect those discussions and affect responsible riding at the local level. It’s really driven by the people who buy our product. And that program in its short life has already given around $500,000 to 36 states. So we’re spreading the reach and the numbers add up over time.”
LeFever also says the relationship between hunting and ATVs will always be vital, and based on the partnerships Polaris has with some major players in the hunting industry, the future looks bright.
“(Hunting) is obviously a high portion of ATV usage and even just the consumer makeup is very similar and the land-access issues are similar,” he said. “The best indicator we have is that we have very strong partnerships with both Mossy Oak and Browning. And our ATV and UTV sales of our Mossy Oak and Browning editions continue to be one of our most popular sellers. And I only see that getting stronger in the future.”
Duda believes the relationship between the ATV and hunting industry is a vital one, because together they can have a bigger influence on a local level helping to maintain areas for people to ride and hunt.
“Hunting participation has been declining since the late 1970s,” he said, “but there’s still nearly 13 million people per year that go hunting on a regular basis. That doesn’t even factor in that there are probably in the neighborhood of 25 million people who are hunters, who although might not be out in the field every year, they still do hunt. So I think people should put into context those findings. I think there’s an enormous amount of opportunity out there. But as long is there is urban sprawl occurring in this country, it’s going to have a negative effect on both hunters and ATVs.”