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'Birders' changing Minnesota's outdoor image

This was once the icon image of Minnesota outdoors: a couple gun-totin' guys showing their quarry of pheasants or a grinning hunter posing with a 10-point whitetail.

That's changed, in a big way.

In Minnesota and Wisconsin, the number who watch and feed wildlife has surpassed those who hunt. What's more, the "birders" outspend the shooters, and the trend shows more and more of us will bag wildlife with a camera than with a shotgun.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey shows that in 2006 nearly half (48 percent) of Minnesotans said they were wildlife watchers while 13 percent said they were hunters. Wildlife watchers spent $654.5 million pursuing their sport last year, while hunters spent $475.8 million.

While fishing is enjoyed by 28 percent of Minnesotans (tying Alaska as the highest participation rate in the nation), the 1.4 million anglers spend an amazing $2.5 billion on their sport.

Minnesotans are more active in outdoor wildlife activities than residents in any other state in the nation. But the survey, conducted every five years, also showed that hunter percentages are down and wildlife watching rates are up in Minnesota.

While fishing remains popular in Minnesota, nationally there was a 12 percent decline in the fishing participation between 2001 and 2006 and hunting was down 4 percent over the same period. However, wildlife watching increased by 8 percent, reversing a downward trend from the previous five-year period.

In Wisconsin, the survey said 27 percent identified with hunting and fishing while 39 percent with wildlife watching.

But while the face of outdoors activities in Minnesota is changing to "non-consumptive" uses, embedded in the number are some other trends.

Overall, outdoor recreation has suffered a decline of 11 to 25 percent (depending on the activity) over the last 10 years, something that has brought unwanted results. For example, a 2006 survey by the United Health Foundation found that while Minnesotans are generally healthier than the rest of the country, obesity was up 132 percent.

At least hunting gets folks out and hike — wildlife watching more often than not is confined to backyard viewing involving little physical activity.

For another example, the rate of off-road vehicle recreation continues to spiral upward, doubling every five years, according to an outdoor planning report by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The rise in ATV use presents challenges for trail and wildlife habitat maintenance along with increased tensions between users.

The change in outdoor activity also affects revenue for outdoors programs. Declining license fees and excise taxes on equipment likes guns, ammo and fishing tackle helps protect the very lands that provide habitat for wildlife that some want to shoot but others want to watch.

The instability of outdoor funding in Minnesota has led to a push to constitutionally dedicate a portion of the sales tax for natural resources and the arts, something that nearly passed earlier this year and is expected to be considered again by the 2008 Legislature.

Interesting reports on the changing nature of outdoor activities in Minnesota can be found at the DNR website. Check out "Ten-year forecasts of Minnesota adult outdoor recreation participation, 2005 to 2014" and a draft released last month, "State Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan."

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