The Decline of Hunting and Fishing

In recent decades the number of hunters and anglers in the U.S. has declined both in actual numbers and as a percentage of the total U.S. population, based on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service records of annual hunting and fishing license sales from all states (including U.S. territories and Washington, D.C.) and U.S. Census Bureau data.

Since 1960, the actual number of hunters has increased until peaking at 16.7 million in 1982, after which it began to decline.  The numbers started to climb again after 2010 but remain well below the 1982 peak. In 2020 there were 15.2 million hunters in the U.S.

In relative numbers, the percentage of the U.S. population that hunts has been on a steady decline since at least 1960, when there were 14 million hunters, representing 7.7 percent of the total U.S. population of 180.7 million people.  In 2020, hunters represented only 4.6 percent of the U.S. population. Even at the 1982 peak, hunters only represented 7.2 percent of the U.S. population.

Between 1960 and 2020, the actual number of hunters grew by 8.6 percent, but the U.S. population increased by 83.4 percent, nearly ten times as fast.

The actual and relative number of anglers has also declined but not by as much. The actual numbers of anglers peaked in 1991 at 30.8 million, then declined gradually until ticking up slightly in recent years. In 2020 there were 29.2 million anglers in the U.S.

The relative numbers of anglers has also declined over the past 40 years. In 1960, there were 19.1 million anglers, representing 10.6 percent of the total U.S. population. At the 1991 peak anglers represented 12.1 percent of the total population. In 2020 that figure fell to 8.8 percent.

Between 1960 and 2020, the number of anglers increased by 53.4 percent, more than six times as fast as the increase in hunters but still far less than the 83.4 percent growth in total population.

The data clearly show that the percentage of Americans who hunt and fish continues to decline, a trend that threatens the revenues of state wildlife agencies. It is also the reason why most state wildlife agencies have embraced R3 efforts  to “recruit, retain and reactivate” hunters and anglers in order to boost the number of license buyers.

Total Number (millions) 1960 1982
(peak hunting year)
(peak fishing year)
2020 Change
Hunting licenses sold in U.S. 14.0 16.7 15.7 15.2 8.6%
Fishing licenses sold in U.S. 19.1 30.0 30.8 29.3 53.4%
U.S. Population 180.7 231.7 253.5 331.4 83.4%

Number of hunting license buyers as a percentage of state population

Number of hunting license buyers* as a percentage of state population

The chart above was created using 2021** data from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and 2019 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

*Hunting license buyers include both residents and nonresidents for each state.

**The data reported by USFWS historic license sales is listed by “calculation year.” Calculation year is the federal fiscal apportionment year with a two year lag. The US government fiscal year runs from October 1 to September 30. So, the USFWS national hunting license data for calculation year 2021 (as is used in the above chart) is actually for licenses purchased for the year ending September 30, 2019. This is an important distinction, because this data does not reflect any COVID or Presidential election year spikes in license sales.