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Where have hunters gone — and why?

DALLAS — A recent reader e-mail asked for my take on the decline in hunter numbers. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the number of American hunters 16 and older dropped 10 percent between 1996 and 2006.

Here are four factors that I believe contribute to the decline in hunter numbers:

1 — URBANIZATION: Urbanization is a major player for two reasons. When you live in an urban area, you don't have the option of getting in a quick duck hunt before work or heading to a dove field in the afternoon.

For most urban and suburban dwellers, a hunting trip is a major outing that requires time and planning and is usually done on a weekend or a holiday.

Urbanization also influences hunting by reducing wildlife habitat. Urban sprawl replaces habitat with housing developments and strip malls. Just ask longtime Dallas residents who once enjoyed good dove and quail hunting on property now occupied by D/FW Airport or other developments.

2 — OPTIONS: Modern society offers many more leisure-time options than when I grew up in a rural area in the 1950s and 1960s. City kids are often involved in weekend activities that include soccer and other sports. Kids' activities become family priorities. When the kids have a game on Saturday, there's no time left for a hunting trip.

I've been in two dove-hunting camps this year, both times on weekends. There were two women in the first hunting group, one in the second. For whatever reason, men do not include their wives in the hunt. Some women don't want to be included, but others would participate if given the chance. More than 90 percent of U.S. hunters are male and 96 percent are white.

There were few kids in either of the two hunting groups. Maybe the moms were driving the kids to their soccer games or the kids decided that the hunting experience wasn't worth getting up before daylight on a weekend.

3 — COSTS: It costs a lot more to go hunting these days, particularly for hunters living in urban and suburban areas. Every cost associated with hunting and travel has risen significantly. Older hunters who truly love the sport will justify the expense however they can.

Younger hunters with retirement to worry about and college funds to accumulate have a tougher time finding the money to spend on hunting leases and extended hunting trips. Hunting was once considered the pastime of everyman. In fact, hunting was how early Americans fed their families. Today, middle-class Americans are being priced out.

4 — PROPERTY: In private property states such as Texas, wealthy sportsmen are buying rural land, converting livestock range to recreational ranches. This may be good for wildlife, but it's bad for the future of hunting.

Livestock ranchers depend on hunting lease income to help make ends meet. Recreational ranch owners restrict hunting to friends and family. Fewer properties available for hunting leases mean higher lease prices.

Interestingly, the number of recreational fishermen has declined more rapidly than the number of hunters (15 percent over the same decade). Fishing water is mostly a public resource, but all the other factors are pretty much the same for anglers.