One of the rich traditions of South Carolina is giving way to a more suburban mindset, meaning hunters are becoming one of those harder-to-find species.

Interest in the pursuit is declining across the country, with the average age of a hunter getting older, according to a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey

Younger people, who tend to favor video games and e-devices, don't want to do it as much, even as interest booms in nearly every other outdoor activity.

There's a lot at stake: sportsmen and women nationally spent more than $80 billion on equipment, trips, licenses, fees and land use in 2016.

In South Carolina, hunting license sale numbers appear to be holding their own. But with the population growing, the consistency is not keeping up. And with an expected loss of license revenue coming in, it means less money for the conservation work needed to keep lands open and available to hunters, hikers, birders, bikers, campers and photographers. In other words, the public at large.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources operates on a $106 million budget, and about three-fourths of it is paid by fees as well as public and private grants. The fees help for conservation as well as hunting and fishing operations, freshwater hatcheries and its hunter education program. 

Hunters say there's a bigger loss looming if the sport contracts and the code of responsible hunting erodes.

"It taught me to work hard, respect nature and just the enjoyment of the outdoors," said lifelong Aiken County hunter Dusty Blair, who is teaching his two daughters the pursuit.

"I think it's made me a better person," Blair added. "They have a choice, but I want them to be able to do it and to know how to do it."

Participation plummets

Nearly 17 million people hunted across the country in the early 1980s. In 2016, 2 million fewer people did, even though the population grew by 100 million.

Those numbers don't startle longtime hunters in South Carolina, who have seen the drop in interest with their own eyes as the hunting heritage faces big pressures.

Developments keep cropping up as the population grows. Far fewer people in the state grow up using the outdoors and fewer of their parents grew up on the land. More often, prospective wildlife officers have to be trained what to look for, something that a generation ago they came knowing, according to DNR officials.

More children and adults find their pastimes in front of screens, or organized team sports, on top of the growing concern about guns. For a lot of kids, killing game is no longer cool.

Jacob Johnson, 18, of Ravenel, looks like a lot of the kids at West Ashley High School — the trendy shades, the ball cap turned backwards, the bling. But he's one of fewer teens interested in the outdoors on campus each year.

The ball cap is camouflage. Johnson grew up hunting. He took his first game at age 5, a wild hog, in Florida. It was, he said, the proudest moment of his childhood. His father hunted, his grandparents hunted. It's a family tradition that continues to put food on the table, he said.

But he finds more schoolmates not only don't hunt, they are fully against it, he said.

"Honestly, I don't know what to tell you why. Some people grew up around it. Some people didn't," he said.

Bringing youth back

Lifelong outdoors people like Rhett Bickley, a S.C. Department of Natural Resources wildlife officer based in Charleston, began to notice a dip in participation a few years back.

"It just got to where for a number of years you didn't see any kids hunting," Bickley said.

In response, DNR launched a series of programs to try to stem the decline: Youth shooting competitions, youth hunting days, and the "Take One, Make One" hunting mentorships.

Since then the number of issued licenses — the only real measure DNR has — appear to have stabilized. Because of the array of annual, multi-year and lifetime licenses offered, it's difficult to make a comparison. But about 200,000 hunting licenses have been sold year-to-year since 2014.

Annual Junior Sportsman license sales have climbed modestly, from 4,419 in 2014 to 6,609 in 2016 and 5,715 in 2017.

But even the tradition's strongest supporters can't say if that's a evidence of a recovery or just a temporary bump from recent popular television hunting shows.

"It's not a huge uptick of interest. I don't know if there's a popularity or a 'coolness' quotient to it," Bickley said.

Concerns about guns might be growing, but respect for the instilled values of hunting is still strong. Gun safety groups tend to step around the question.

The Academy of American Pediatrics, which calls for strict controls over the purchase and handling of guns, doesn't address hunting or provide training tips for children learning to hunt, said Lisa Black, spokeswoman. Instead, it promotes gun safety and storage tips and drives home statistics on the dangers of guns. 

But one way or another, the days are gone when 10 or 12 trucks would pull up in the field for a hunt and six or 10 kids would jump out with the adults, Bickley said.

Rather than get discouraged, he's become everybody's uncle, the game warden who will take your child out and teach him to hunt, so long as a parent or family member is teaching him or her, too, he said.

"If you wait until your child is 'old enough to hunt,' you have already lost your kids to something else," he said.

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Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.