Waterfowl Hunter Numbers Continue to Decline

Canada had 10% fewer waterfowlers last season, while the United States dropped 8%

Fewer people hunted ducks and geese last year in North America than during any season in the past 60 years. Delta Waterfowl continues to advocate to renew and recruit hunters to pass the tradition to the next generation.

By Paul Wait

Fewer people hunted ducks and geese last year in North America than during any season in the past 60 years.

After a one-year uptick in 2020 presumably because of COVID-19 closures restricted other recreational activities, the number of waterfowl hunters in both the United States and Canada has resumed a downward slide.

According to statistics from the Canadian Wildlife Service, 125,635 residents hunted waterfowl during the 2022-2023 season. That’s the lowest number since Canada began tracking in 1966, and represents a 75% decrease from the country’s high of 505,681 resident waterfowl hunters in 1978. For further context, Ontario—the province with the most resident duck and goose hunters—had 150,994 waterfowl hunters in 1978, compared to just 44,091 last season.

In the United States, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Migratory Bird Hunter Activity and Harvest Report shows waterfowl hunter numbers slipped to 913,700, an 8% decrease from 2021-2022 season participation and the lowest tally since 1962. Together, 1.04 million waterfowl hunters were active in North America during the 2022-2023 season.

“More people are falling out the bottom—exiting hunting—than are coming in the top,” said Joel Brice, chief conservation officer for Delta Waterfowl. It’s people aging out, and a percentage of people losing interest.”

The Baby Boomer generation, people born from 1946 to 1964, have represented a high percentage of the waterfowl hunting population for the past half century. The oldest of the Boomers are now 77, while the youngest are 59. The median age of a Boomer is currently 68.

Studies have shown that hunters begin to drop out around age 70.

“There’s a huge time urgency to fixing this problem,” Brice said. “When that big mass of hunters that are in the system hit age 70, we’re going to see a noticeable decline.”

Hunters aging out would be less problematic if most Boomers who hunt successfully passed down the tradition to their children and grandchildren.

“Hunting has been a hand-me-down tradition for centuries—handed down from parent to child—and that’s a broken or nonexistent model in most households across the country today,” Brice said.

Urbanization, loss of access, less free time, and cost are frequently cited as reasons not to take up hunting. In addition, people who try waterfowl hunting but don’t stick with it often point to a lack of ducks/geese and complex regulations as factors.

Delta Waterfowl has prioritized R3—hunter recruitment, retention, and reactivation—for the past 25 years, and remains a continental leader continually working to boost hunter numbers through mentorship programs and public policy advocacy to maintain and increase hunting opportunities.

By the late 1990s, Delta’s leaders had recognized that waterfowl hunter numbers were declining. The Duck Hunters Organization first jumped into the R3 movement in 2000, pushing for the adoption of Waterfowler Heritage Days in Canada, a special weekend hunting opportunity for youth to hunt with experienced mentors. The effort was successful, and spawned Delta’s First Hunt, a chapter volunteer-led hunter recruitment program that has mentored nearly 90,000 participants in the past 20 years across the continent.

Strong hunter participation is important to ensure the future of waterfowl hunting in North America.

“The number of hunters matters for political relevancy and conservation funding, but that’s not why individuals hunt,” Brice said. “The smaller the pool of hunters, the more easily we can be dismissed. As the population is growing, even if the number of hunters stays the same, we are a declining percentage and viewpoint of society.”

R3 programs have continued to grow and evolve, pushing for a balance between youth-focused and adult-focused hunter recruitment—specifically targeting more people ages 18 to 30, according to Brice.

“At that age, a lot of people don’t have a mortgage or the responsibility of kids yet,” he said. “They’re trying things, and if they are interested in waterfowl hunting, young adults can adopt hunting more quickly than younger people. A new recruit typically has to go duck hunting more than once with someone else before they feel comfortable enough to do it on their own.”

Delta’s First Hunt Program is growing. During 2022-2023, 46 percent of the organization’s chapters conducted a hunter recruitment event. Of those, 54 events were focused on adult recruits.

“We are heading in the right direction,” Brice said. “By mentoring young adults, we get an immediate hunter who can then teach their own children to hunt. The payoff is both immediate and long-term, restoring the hand-me-down tradition of hunting.”