Hunting, fishing license sales surge amid pandemic

A boy fishes at Raccoon River Park in West Des Moines on May 22, 2020. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowans looking for a break from isolation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic bought far more hunting and fishing licenses than usual, state records show.

Those sports, and visiting parks and trails, have been among the few activities allowed during more than two months of restrictions aimed at reducing the spread of the coronavirus.

From Dec. 15, 2019, through May 11, 2020, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources sold 68.9% more resident hunting licenses than in the same period a year earlier, 10,617 compared with 6,287. (In 2019, Iowans bought 24,053 annual hunting licenses.)

Iowans bought 53.3% more resident fishing licenses in that same window — 137,547 compared with 89,679. (In 2019, Iowans bought 195,509 annual licenses, 11,227 three-year licenses and 7,106 lifetime licenses.)

The early turkey seasons this year set a record for birds bagged and the license sales soared 36%. 

And in a broader show of strength, sales of DNR’s “durable hard cards,” which are like a driver’s license you can reload with hunting and fishing licenses, were up 195% in that same period. 

Hunting, fishing still accessible during pandemic

What is going on here?

“We believe the main factors are that we’ve had a decent spring so far with the weather and the fact that more people are at home during the COVID-19 pandemic — they have more time to go do activities,” DNR spokesman Alex Murphy said. “We believe that hunting and fishing are two very accessible and readily available activities that are not impacted greatly by COVID-19.”

In recent years, DNR has worked to boost both hunting and fishing numbers, which have dipped as part of a national trend. The now-recovering Iowa pheasant population had declined with the loss of habitat for farming, dropping the number of pheasants killed per year from over 1 million to less than a third of that. The 320,000 roosters bagged in 2018 was the highest number in a decade. 

Fishing had fallen off at times, leading the state to launch special programs to encourage fishing, especially among youths.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Iowa’s fishing license sales dropped 10.2% from 2003 to 2019. In the same period, hunting license sales dropped 13.5%.

Nationally, 4% of Americans over age 16 hunt — about 11.5 million people, the Associated Press reported. That’s half of the hunting population in 1968.

According to the Outdoor Foundation, 45.4 million U.S. residents fished in 2011. In 2017, that figure was 49 million.

In Iowan, hunting licenses fell about 14% in the past decade. 

Future looks brighter for outdoors activities

Now, renewed interest may help boost both hunting and fishing into the future.

Vicki Arnold of Sherill, near Dubuque, is past president of the Iowa Division of the Izaak Walton League of America, which runs programs to encourage hunting, fishing and water quality work. She also is vice president of the Ikes’ national board. 

“A lot of people are recognizing the role the environment plays in their quality of life,” Arnold said. That has shown up in increased membership in the Ikes’ 41 Iowa chapters, and in the number of people signing up to do volunteer water quality monitoring through the nonprofit organization, she added. 

Iowa Ikes chapters now have a combined 4,776 members, up 75 from last year.

Arnold said the increases are not all about COVID-19 and people feeling cooped up after staying at home. 

“People are realizing the environment is important, and there are more opportunities to enjoy it,” Arnold said. “We are seeing people bringing their grandchildren to the programs.”

Social media has bolstered programs, Arnold said. An example: Wisconsin’s Izaak Walton chapter held a “teddy bear hunt” that drew 250 children the first time it was held. 

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds addresses the latest COVID-19 numbers during her daily press conference at the Iowa National Guard in Johnston on Thursday, May 21, 2020. (Photo by Bryon Houlgrave/Pool, The Des Moines Register)

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, at a news conference May 20, announced that state parks would open their restrooms beginning the Memorial Day weekend. Campgrounds and cabins also are open, but playgrounds, museums and lodges are closed. 

“While COVID-19 may require that we enjoy these traditions a little differently this year, it’s important that Iowans get back to spending their summer in the great outdoors, doing things that they love most,” Reynolds said. 

State parks will still celebrate centennial

Reynolds was originally scheduled to headline the top event of Iowa’s state-park celebration this weekend at Backbone State Park, which was established as the first state park 100 years ago this week. That event had to be postponed.

Murphy said the state still plans to mark the centennial year. 

“We’ve had to postpone some events due to COVID-19; however, we are finding other innovative and creative ways to still celebrate Parks 2020,” Murphy said. “There are still seven months left in 2020, so we are hopeful to get to celebrate the centennial with more events in the future.”

“We believe the recent influx in visitors to our parks and lakes shows just how important these areas are and how much they play an integral role in the physical and mental well-being of visitors, and we hope that translates into their passion for celebrating the centennial and connects and inspires them to get involved and continue utilizing these areas for the next 100 years,” Murphy said. 

DNR Director Kayla Lyon appeared at Reynolds’ COVID news conference May 20 from a cabin at Pine Lake State Park in Eldora. She noted that Iowans have been getting outside in large numbers.

“While many of the areas and businesses of the state have been closed to help curb the spread of COVID-19, outside has remained open,” Lyon said. “Iowans have been driven to explore our abundant natural resources. They are utilizing our state parks like never before, and are discovering our natural areas close to home of which they were previously unaware.”