ALBANY - With the economy in a downturn and the autumn big-game hunting season approaching, conservation officials are seeing an uptick in the number of New Yorkers with hunting and fishing licenses, countering the recent trend.
Nationwide, the economy, a sluggish new housing market and even a growing number of war veterans are some of the unlikely factors affecting how many hunters will take to the field this fall.
By last week, the state Department of Environmental Conservation sold 534,917 hunting, fishing and trapping licenses for the 2008-09 season. That was up about 75,000 from a year earlier, and about 20,000 above 2006.
''We're not willing yet to go out on a limb and say it's going to be a trend carrying through the rest of the season,'' DEC spokeswoman Maureen Wren said. ''There has been a historic decline in recent years.''
The state's big game season begins Sept. 27 with bow hunting in the Northern Zone, including the Adirondacks, followed later by hunters with muzzle loaders, then rifles and shotguns. Bowhunting starts Oct. 18 in the Southern Zone.
Meanwhile, New York this year expanded its junior hunter's license to include big game, allowing 14- and 15-year-olds to shoot deer alongside licensed adult hunters.
That has added scores of teens to the current crop in safety classes around the state. Hunters have to finish the course and pass a written test to buy a license.
''The upswing in license sales this fall is exactly as we forecasted - essentially it's slow housing starts,'' said Mark Damian Duda, executive director of Responsive Management, a Virginia-based company that does surveys on outdoor recreation. He's starting to get reports from retailers across the country, he said, though actual state license data available early next year will be the proof.
The National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation in 2006 showed 34 million hunters and anglers, down about 4 million from five years earlier, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That included 13 million hunters, many of whom also fished.
That followed a generally steady decline from the peak of almost 17 million licensed U.S. hunters in 1982. However, there were slight upticks in 1992, 1999 and 2004, when one common factor was a decline in housing starts, Responsive Management reported in a study published in March.
''It's the economy,'' Duda said. Many hunters who work in construction or related businesses stop hunting when they're too busy working and now have more time, he said.
Downturns could also prompt hunters, 97 percent of whom eat what they kill, to hunt more to fill their freezers, Duda said. ''That's something I have not seen the data yet,'' he said.
Another study showed the primary motivations for hunters in 2006 were recreation, time with friends and family, and getting close to nature. Only 16 percent said it was for food, compared with 43 percent in a 1980 study.
In its peak year, 1984, New York sold 792,226 big game hunting licenses. That declined to 566,053 in 2007.
The major reason hunting has declined is urbanization, said Tommy Brown, senior research associate for Cornell University's Department of Natural Resources. ''We know the whole change from a comparatively rural to urban society has been the big change factor, and certainly that is not reversing,'' he said.
Even if people now leave the city and go beyond the suburbs to the exurbs, they're not likely to start hunting because of impediments that include getting the required training, buying a gun, learning to shoot it, and finding a place to hunt, possibly through a hunting club or on public land, Brown said. ''Access is very much dwindling,'' he said, because of rural land developed into suburbs and rural landowners limiting hunting to people they know.
With large numbers of people in the military now becoming familiar with guns, some who never hunted will give it a try after they get out, Brown said.
''Typically they don't stay with it because it just hasn't been part of their culture,'' he said.