They are fit, young and diverse. They are obsessed with hunting and fishing. And they’re doing everything they can to protect public lands, access to rivers and wildlife habitat.
Membership in Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the organization that held its annual rendezvous in Boise this weekend, is growing — fighting the trend of fewer hunters nationwide.
BHA began around a campfire in Oregon in 2004. It had fewer than 2,000 members five years ago. That’s become 20,000 members today, in 41 chapters across 39 states and two Canadian provinces — and the group expects to hit 30,000 by the end of this year.
More than 1,300 people came to Boise on Saturday, wearing T-shirts that said “Public Land Owner” and “Hunt to Eat,” to participate in seminars about wolves, fish handling and calling bugling elk. More than 3,000 Boiseans joined them at their “Beers, Bands and Public Lands” event Friday at the Centre on the Grove — including Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and gubernatorial candidates A.J. Balukoff, a Democrat, and Lt. Gov. Brad Little, a Republican.
The group’s success appears the latest example of a revolution in public lands advocacy, through which a new generation of outdoor recreationists have turned their hobbies into an effective political voice. Their inspirations include Yvon Chouinard, the climber, environmentalist and owner of Patagonia, who is fighting the Trump administration over monuments and spoke at the rendezvous about public river access.
“I was stunned. I had no idea they would have that kind of a crowd,” Bieter said. “I also was surprised by the demographics.”
The people of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers
Most people in attendance this weekend were in their 20s and 30s, including men and women with children. That’s in contrast to the older crowd of about 200 who participated in Saturday’s Second Amendment rally at the Capitol.
The number of people who hunt has steadily declined since 1980, affecting funding for fish and wildlife management agencies in the process. A 2017 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study found the number of American hunters had dropped by 2 million since 2011, to a total of 10.5 million people.
But that research determined 101 million people over 16 — 40 percent of the U.S. population — participate in wildlife activities as a whole, including angling and wildlife watching.
BHA appeals to hunters, anglers, hikers and others who care about wild places, rivers and public lands. It could help shift the trend, both in national interest and in public-agency wildlife funding.
“Last night I talked to Trump supporters and Trump haters,” said J.D. Miller, of Boise, treasurer of the group’s Idaho chapter. “We’re all here because we love public land.”
That politics has fueled the organization’s growth — in particular, the effort by Western states to force the federal government to transfer or sell public lands, such as national forests and rangeland. Backcountry Hunters and Anglers received attention in 2016 when it was revealed that Donald Trump Jr., a life member, persuaded his father to change his choice for Interior secretary to Montana’s Ryan Zinke.
The group came into its own in early 2017, when Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz reintroduced a bill ordering the Interior secretary to sell or dispose of more than 3.3 million acres of public land.
Angry hunters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts flooded Chaffetz’s office and Instagram account with protests in response to alerts by BHA and other advocacy organizations.
The earlier support for Zinke was based on his record as a state legislator and his opposition to public land transfer. “He was the pick of the litter,” said Land Tawney, a 43-year-old native Montanan who serves as the group’s president and CEO. “He was the best choice from what we had in front of us.”
But soon, Zinke espoused a policy of energy domination and balancing the budget at Interior. He reversed a collaborative compromise on sage grouse and began a White House-ordered review of reducing national monuments using the Antiquities Act, a law first used by Backcountry Hunters and Anglers hero Theodore Roosevelt.
The group issued alerts and began an ad campaign in Montana, generating thousands of comments into Zinke’s office. Its efforts were for naught, as President Donald Trump signed an order shrinking the Bears Ears and Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah.
“It was the largest rollback of conservation in this country’s history,” Tawney said.
However, Zinke has improved policies supporting greater access to public lands and to protect wildlife corridors, Tawney said. They are closely watching how Zinke decides on a proposal to reverse a ban on copper-nickel mining next to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness in Minnesota, where the group has more than 700 members. They hope the ban stands.
“If that happens, we’re going to applaud the heck out of him,” Tawney said. “That’s what’s different about BHA, we call them as we see them.”
The future of fish and wildlife?
At Saturday’s trade show, rendezvous participants sighted rifles and tried out fly rods. They bought clothes from companies like First Lite of Sun Valley, which makes hunting clothing, and Patagonia, which makes gear for everyone from climbers, surfers and hikers to fly anglers.
A new U.S. Department of Commerce report released in February found that outdoor recreation contributed $373.7 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product in 2016, or 2 percent of GDP. The industry’s contribution was larger than that of all mining activities, including the extraction of oil and gas, the federal government reported.
Heather Kusmierz, 36, came from South Kingstown, Rhode Island, to be at the rendezvous and learn how she can make a difference. She left the finance industry to travel the world before coming home to teach computer science. She wanted to take up archery and only could find lessons through a local bowhunters group. She soon expanded her vision to hunting.
“I wanted to produce food from my archery,” she said.
Patagonia’s Chouinard, 79, said recreationists need to stand united to counter industries that want to control public land.
He’s acted on that talk — spearheading the recent move of Outdoor Retailer, the industry’s largest trade show, from Salt Lake City to Denver because of Utah politicians’ support for shrinking national monuments and transferring public land to the states. And in BHA, he sees the wide swath of the outdoor recreation community needed for political success.
“They say that hunters and tree-huggers can’t get together,” Chouinard said. “That’s bulls---. … The only way we’re going to get anything done is to work together.”