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Texas parks lure outdoor enthusiasts
Birds Beat Bullets

Of the 38 million U.S. residents who hunted, fished or watched wildlife in 2001, nearly 5 million did so in the Lone Star State. Those 5 million spent $5.4 billion, or about $1,100 per person, according to the 2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

The FWS works with state wildlife departments to conduct its survey every five years to gauge participation and the economic impact of fishing, hunting and wildlife watching, Joyce Johnson of FWS said.

While the $5.4 billion spent in 2001 is less than the $6.5 billion, or about $1,400 per person, that hunters, fishermen and wildlife watchers spent in 1996 in Texas, the number of people coming to the state to participate in those activities increased by about 200,000 from 1996 to 2001.

The great outdoors
The 2001 survey, which included statistics for 1991, 1996 and 2001, reported that nearly 126 million U.S. residents took to the great outdoors in pursuit of nature in 1991. In 1996, that number dropped to about 112 million, but it increased in 2001 to more than 113 million.

In Texas, the overall participation rate since 1991 for wildlife activities also declined. In 1991, more than 5 million U.S. and state residents enjoyed Texas wildlife. By 1996, that number dropped to 4.7 million, then in 2001, it slightly increased to 4.9 million.

Since the FWS conducts its survey only every five years, state agencies, like the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), track information during the in-between years. In its 2003 annual report, TPWD tracked the number of hunting and fishing licenses it issued to residents and non-residents to gauge participation rates.

According to the report, the number of hunting licenses decreased nearly 3,000 from 2001 to 2003, and the number of fishing licenses decreased more than 52,000. The number of combination hunting and fishing licenses, however, increased by almost 25,000.

In 1996, the FWS survey began asking outdoor enthusiasts why they did not participate more in outdoor activities. In the 1996 survey, of the more than 49,000 hunters and fishermen polled, nearly 65 percent said they did not fish or hunt as much as they would have liked to. More than 60 percent cited family and work obligations or not having enough time as the main deterrent to outdoor activities. Only 4 percent cited rising costs, including trip and equipment expenses, as a significant factor. That 4 percent remained consistent in the 2001 survey.

To generate an additional $14 million in funding for wildlife programs, TPWD increased license and other park fees in 2003 for the first time since 1996. Most state resident fees increased by a few dollars, with the general fishing and hunting licenses increasing from $19 to $23 a year. Many non-residential fees also swelled, with the non-residential fishing fee increasing from $30 to $40, and the hunting fee rising from $250 to $300. A combination hunting and fishing license sells for $42, up from $32 in 2002, and is only available to Texas residents. A lifetime combination license is available for $1,000.

"In my opinion, Texas has the greatest deal in the world," said Robert Cantrell, owner of Texas Outdoors, a sporting goods store in Fort Worth. "A fishing license for $23, with all the water in the Gulf--that's a dirt-cheap bargain. That's 50 cents a week."

Ron George, a TPWD deputy director, said the rates went up to correspond with the increased cost of living, but he doesn't expect the higher prices to affect the number of licenses sold during fiscal 2004, which ends in August.

"The normal pattern when you increase a license fee is there is a dip in the number of people, but an increase in revenue," George said. "That didn't happen this time. The number of licenses sold increased, even with the increase in the cost of fees."

TPWD will release its 2004 annual report in January 2005, and George anticipates it will show an increase in license sales.

"We attribute that in part to some really good hunting years, good rainfall in Texas, good wildlife production, and people [being] aware of that," George said.

For the birds
During the last 10 years, Texas and the nation experienced a decrease in traditionally popular outdoor activities, like hunting and fishing, and an increase in wildlife-watching activities, said Shelly Scroggs, the nature tourism coordinator for TPWD.

"[Wildlife watching is] a lot more accessible to the general public and the urban public we're becoming," she said. "You can do it in your backyard; you can do it at the city park; you can view the beauty of nature anywhere."

More than 3 million wildlife watchers generated nearly $1 billion in Texas in 2001, according to the 2001 FWS survey. Although the number of participants was down by nearly 400,000 from the number counted in 1996, the amount of money they spent climbed from $300 per person in 1996 to more than $400 per person in 2001.

In the 2001 survey, 31 percent, or more than 66 million of the U.S. population 16 years old and older, fed, observed or photographed wildlife, pumping more than $38 billion into the national economy. That's fewer people than in 1991, when more than 76 million watched wildlife, but more than the 1996 total of 63 million, Johnson said.

To capitalize on the national interest in wildlife watching, TPWD is creating more wildlife viewing sites, Scroggs said. A wildlife-viewing site is an area set up and maintained by the state or federal government to allow the public to view wildlife, or an area that is known to be inhabited by certain animals, fish or birds. In 2001, TPWD added a wildlife management area in Brazoria County.

"There are a number of different places that the public can go; state parks, state wildlife management areas," George said. "We have 52 wildlife management areas, around 250 state parks, there are national wildlife refuges, national parks, national forests, national grasslands, [and] a lot of county and local parks."

Funded by Texas Department of Transportation grants, corporate sponsorships and donations, TPWD raised nearly $1 million to launch a series of birding and wildlife viewing maps in 2000. The maps follow the Gulf Coast shore and point out viewing opportunities, Scroggs said. The department has handed out more than 300,000 Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail maps and, in 2003, it launched the Heart of Texas and Panhandle Plains Wildlife Trails map, which covers Central Texas all the way up to the Panhandle. The newest map, Prairies and Pineywoods Trail, will be available in January 2005 and covers the northeastern portion of the state.

In an effort to boost hunting and fishing in Texas, TPWD stocked public waters with nearly 13 million more fish, from almost 52 million in 2002 to more than 65 million in 2003, and made it easier to obtain fishing and hunting licenses. TPWD now uses point-of-sale machines, which print out a license when a user purchases one, meaning machines don't run out of licenses, George said. The point-of-sale machines are available at licensed vendors, usually sporting goods stores.

TPWD also allows participants to obtain a last-minute license via telephone at 1-800-895-4248.

"Dial a number and a person will sell you a license over the phone and give you a number that you can write down and present to a game warden if asked in the field," George said. "It's one of those user-friendly things we try to provide."

TPWD also sells licenses through its Web site. Hunting and fishing seasons depend on the animal or fish captured, with open season dates varying by each county. Information on each county and animal is available at TPWD's Web site, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/hunt/regs.

Ann Holdsworth