Deer hunting in NY could be crowded this year as license sales explode
Sue Jerzak of Honeoye has lived in Honeoye for 18 years and a particular thought has crossed her mind from time to time. It’s about an annual pilgrimage, and plenty of people around her are part of it every year, but she’s never been part of it.
This autumn, that will change. Because after plenty of thought and consideration, Jerzak finally pulled the proverbial trigger and is now licensed to hunt whitetail deer.
“I’ve wanted to try it for years,” said Jerzak, 45, who took the Department of Environmental Conservation’s mandatory Hunter Education Course. “I have friends who hunt, but I grew up in Rochester … I’ve always had an interest, but nobody to do it with.”
Jerzak is not alone. And if the numbers for 2020 are any indication, she and plenty of other new hunters won’t be alone in the woods when the regular season (gun) for deer in the Southern Zone opens at sunrise on Nov. 21.
DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos on Sept. 10 tweeted that the sale of hunting licenses on Day 1 this year was three times the number sold on Day 1 of 2019. This comes on the heels of news earlier this summer that the number of people who registered to take the Hunter Education Course was nearly double the total number that took the course in 2019.
“There is anecdotal evidence that more people are hunting this year,” said Kelly Stang, DEC Wildlife Biologist and Hunter Education Course coordinator. “License sales for a number of resident hunting licenses were up this past spring over the same time period last year. What we don’t know yet is if they were new hunters or hunters who just had more time this spring to actually get out turkey hunting.”
More numbers, more concerns
To be sure, the trend is a bit of a surprise. And while many experienced hunters are pleased to see the possibility of more hunters in the field after years of declining numbers, there are some concerns.
But at its root, many hunting officials are trying to identify the source of the surge. The DEC is in the works of developing a survey to gain a better understanding of the motivation but it is apparent that the coronavirus pandemic is a big part of it.
The impact of the pandemic has changed daily life in countless ways, including shortages at grocery stores. Plenty of food items are in demand and even if the supply is there, prices have trended upward.
That’s especially apparent for meat, which saw a tremendous spike in prices during the early part of the pandemic after several supply chains were disrupted. The prices have rebounded a bit since then, but it appears more New Yorkers are not willing to take that chance again.
So when Glen Adams, a DEC certified hunter safety instructor of LeRoy, first learned of the increase in people registering to take the safety course, he was impressed.
“It really struck me,” he said. “20,000 is the number I heard at first and I thought that was a lot.”
By Aug. 10, the DEC said that number was up to 71,108 who registered to take the course and 37,004 who completed it. In 2019, 20,000 people completed the course. Bowhunters require an extra course and in 2019, approximately 9,000 completed the course. In mid-August, approximately 7,000 had completed the bow course.
In total, more New Yorkers were certified to hunt big game in the first eight months of 2020 than in all of 2019. Licenses for trapping are up as well and on Aug. 10, the first day New Yorkers could purchase their hunting licenses for the upcoming deer season, the DEC reported license sales of $922,444. Last year, that figure for the first day of sales was $347,103.
“That’s just phenomenal,” said Adams. “I can’t really explain it other than the ease now of getting the classes going on-line.”
Indeed, because of the pandemic, the DEC in March switched hunter safety courses to a virtual setting. The bowhunter course went virtual in July. In the past, people could take part in the course on-line at home and print the homework portion of the course. Students then brought that homework to the in-person portion of the class — sometimes called the range day — that finished the certification process and allows the purchase of a hunting license.
But with the virtual instruction, the in-person instruction is not happening and that’s where firearms safety is not only stressed but practiced. So missing that element, along with not seeing students physically complete the coursework are a couple of the main concerns for instructors.
“Who exactly is taking the class?” said Adams. “And we usually have the range day portion where we have students hand off a gun properly when crossing an obstacle. And then we learn to track animals … That’s the fun part, where we help more people get through it.”
Adams said the importance of the range day is that it allowed instructors to watch and see who is paying attention.
“We can see if someone is fooling around and we have the right to fail that student,” he said. “But in the time I’ve been doing this (17 years), it’s happened just once.”
By early September, the DEC resumed in-person hunter safety courses but said the virtual courses will remain indefinitely as an option.
As for Jerzak, she has relied on the help of friends to learn firearm safety, something she admits she was uncomfortable with initially.
“I’ve learned a lot,” she said, adding that she spread out the six-hour course over a few days. “There are the common sense things and things I didn’t know like how to respect other people and their property (as a hunter). A lot of things I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.”
The combination of the course and firing a shotgun under the guidance of friends has helped with the comfort zone and she’s ready to be in the woods in November. She didn’t quite credit the pandemic for providing the final bit of motivation to get her certification but taking the course and getting out to hunt helps fill the abundance of time on her hands.
“I definitely have more time on my hands,” she said. “I literally go to work and then home. So really, I had no reasonable excuse to not do this.”
Run on canning supplies
As impressive the rise in hunting numbers is, there is more evidence of a shift for people to be more self-reliant. Especially when it comes to food.
In addition to deer hunting being a big part of the autumn process for many, so too is food preservation. While it’s difficult to pinpoint numbers, there is no question more vegetable gardens were planted this season.
This spring, at the height of the pandemic concerns, vegetable seed sales “surpassed any year in history,” said Russell Welser, Senior Resource Director at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ontario County. “That obviously tells you that a lot of people are gardening for the first time, gardening to get back into it or extending what they already grow.”
The impact is showing up at stores that sell canning supplies. Jars, lids and rings — and even apple cider vinegar that’s used as a pickling agent — are difficult to come by and a recent round of phone calls to five different local stores that sell these supplies offered the same explanation: We have nothing.
What’s more, dates and times for future shipments of supplies were unknown.
Welser said he hasn’t had an uptick in people requesting information or help with canning food, but there is plenty of on-line instruction that could account for that. Still, the empty shelves are an indication that more people than usual are preserving food.
“With COVID, there is a fair number of people out of work and lots of people have time on their hands,” he said. “There is no easier way to feed yourself than to grow your own.”
Welser also is among the new hunters in New York. He took the state course because now seemed ideal, he said.
“For a lot of people, it was the unknown,” he said. “We had shortages on food and even toilet paper, so is it going to be like that again? … We’re seeing increases all over. More people are going out to hunt, more people are trapping furs for money and any number of outdoor activities. I think most folks are thinking they just want to do something.”
That observation is in line with what Stang of the DEC is seeing.
“All outdoor recreation is on the rise in the state during the pandemic, and with a greater interest in obtaining local food it would make sense that more people are interested in starting hunting or getting back into hunting for the same reasons,” she said.
In many ways, the surge of new hunters and trappers can be seen as a positive. The money generated by license sales goes back to the land in the form of support for conservation projects and the protection of natural resources to benefit anyone who enjoys the outdoors. In addition to the record sales on Day 1 of the licenses, the DEC said that the first two weeks of sales have generated more than $6.2 million compared to $3.5 million over the same time period last year.
Add to this the increased interest and participation in canning food, and Welser believes the return to food gathering basics can be a long-term benefit.
“It’s rather refreshing that folks are … getting back to nature,” he said. “That’s the positive of the pandemic if there is a positive.”