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More than just shooting Bambi

One hundred years ago — or even 25 or 50, for that matter — it would have been inconceivable that hunting would actually be on the decline around the nation, much less here in Suffolk. Yet that is exactly the situation that exists, and the decline is marked by the fact that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, is having trouble garnering interest in applications for permits to hunt deer and bear during the short upcoming seasons at the refuge.

Chris Lowie, who manages the refuge, told the Suffolk News-Herald that only 70 permits had been issued as of Sept. 7. Only 29 of the 100 available bear licenses had been issued by that date.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has been used to getting 350 to 400 applications for the hunts, which give hunters the opportunity to pursue their game in an unspoiled wilderness area.

Hunting in the swamp is certainly not an activity for the faint of heart. It’s a swamp, after all, which means that it’s hard to navigate on foot, that it can be cold and wet and that getting through all the underbrush — not to mention getting a clear shot on the game — can be challenging, to say the least.

But those challenges clearly didn’t hold back hunters in the past. Something obviously has changed.

Lowie and others have noted that the decline in interest for hunting could be tied to a general trend among younger Americans toward indoor activities and toward less demanding outdoor pursuits.

Folks at the Izaak Walton League, a conservation group that includes a large number of hunters, seem to agree. “If you weren’t raised hunting or fishing, it’s very hard to be exposed to it,” Tim Doxey, media chair for the Suffolk-Nansemond Chapter, told reporter Alex Perry this week. In other words, the fewer hunters there are today, the fewer hunters there will be tomorrow.

Whatever one’s perspective on hunting as a sport, it stands to reason that reduced exposure to the outdoors — and to outdoor pursuits — could result in reduced understanding of the conservation matters that many hunters understand implicitly. Hunting, for example, helps keep Virginia’s deer population healthy.

A report from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries notes that protective game laws and efforts to control and stabilize populations since the early 1930s — when white-tailed deer had been nearly wiped out from the state — have resulted in the population rebounding to nearly one million of the animals, twice the number estimated to have lived in Virginia at the time of Jamestown’s founding.

The Izaak Walton League is doing its part to encourage, if not hunters, then at least people with an appreciation of the outdoors. Its annual teddy bear hunt puts a neat twist on the sport for youngsters, whose “game” for the day is of the stuffed variety, rather than the living variety.

Hunting has a long history in Virginia, and there will long continue to be those who enjoy it as a sport and as a way to help, counter-intuitively to be sure, conserve the species. Organizations like the Izaak Walton League are to be commended for their commitment to keeping the tradition alive, while encouraging even those who never desire to pick up a shotgun to still head into the woods for the chance to commune with nature.