It’s a tricky moment for the hunting industry, but it isn’t all bad news
COVID-19 has torched the economy and upended almost every aspect of modern existence, but hunting—with its wide-open spaces and small-scale, low-risk situations—is one aspect of life you’d think would have been unaffected.
You’d be wrong.
The pandemic has turned the hunting world on its head, from all but shuttering international outfitters to spiking costs for landowner and auction tags and driving up demand for domestic hunts. That reads like very bad news for an industry that was already seeing declining numbers, but there’s still good news and opportunities for hunters.
Hardest hit so far are the international outfitters, with travel to popular hunting destinations including South America, Europe, and New Zealand almost 100 percent shuttered by travel restrictions. New Zealand, fabled for free-range opportunities on red stag and Himalayan tahr among other species, closed its borders in late March and is unlikely to reopen them until there’s a vaccine. The stag and bird-hunting ranches are similarly shuttered in Argentina, where a total travel ban is in place through at least September 1 — and likely well beyond. And mainland Europe has completely sealed off its borders to Americans until the US brings down its infection rate, meaning no ibex or fallow deer in Spain and no roe deer, wild boar, or pheasant in France.
“Argentina closed its borders in the middle of March, so we lost our big game and bird hunting seasons,” says Patrick Geijo of Argentina Big Game Hunting. “So far we have done about one percent of the business we expected to do in 2020.” Joelle Weynants of Hunt Trip Spain says it’s the same in Europe: “The borders are closed and probably will remain so. If we can’t do our autumn season, we’re looking at a 90 percent loss on the year.” She adds that the pandemic is even affecting last year’s business, as severe flight shortages have made it difficult for the company to ship trophies from the 2019 season to successful clients. “It’s been extremely difficult, so we all just have to be patient,” says Weynants.
At the beginning of the pandemic, there was talk of possible workarounds for hunters to bypass travel restrictions, but most operators say that’s a bad idea. “There were suggestions early on of loopholes visitors could use,” says Niall Rowantree, the sporting manager at West Highland Hunting in Scotland. Like many other international outfitters, the company is looking at 90 percent lost bookings on the year. “But I think it's important to work with our local communities and government to remain totally inside the law,” in order to keep everyone safe and stop the advance of this disease.
The silver lining is that a year of rest for the wildlife should mean that populations will be even more profuse and trophies even larger in 2021. Travel restrictions went into place as the rut was just about to start in the Southern Hemisphere. New Zealand even shut all hunting to locals. So animals are very likely to be more relaxed and even bigger next year. “Undoubtedly, many estates and governments will simply reduce their cull in the hope of having more resources in the coming years,” says Rowantree. That’s a good thing for hunters in the long run. And every outfitter we spoke with said they will roll pandemic-affected hunts into 2021 and 2022 without penalties.
The restrictions abroad are raising a different and converse set of challenges for domestic hunters in the United States. Shortages abroad are leading to demand at home. “We’ve seen an absolute frenzied surge of hunting domestically,” says Jordan Christensen, who owns the hunt-consulting agency The Draw. “In a normal year, you’d have a large number of hunters who choose to invest in international opportunities. Because of travel restrictions, a lot of people are doubling down on domestic goals they’ve maybe been sitting on for years.” Christensen says landowner tags nationwide are selling for double and triple what they normally would, and auction tags went for record high prices.
Anxious hunters may have snapped up tags, but the uncertainty of the crisis is also creating opportunities. Though we are all hoping that everyone will remain healthy through this time, the virus means the situation remains volatile. “There are still going to be some very good hunts out there. One day to the next, you can have a guy testing positive for Covid, and he either can’t or will not be permitted to go on his hunt,” says Christensen. “I think cancellation hunts are going to be huge this year.” Christensen advises either scouring the sites of your favorite outfitters daily for opportunities, or, better still, keeping in touch with an agency like his that has relationships with hundreds of outfitters. “They’re going to want to fill vacancies as quickly as possible, so acting fast is going to yield the best chances,” he says.
For those who booked overseas who can’t take advantage of scheduled tags, the situation presents opportunities, too. “It’s a great time for self-reflection. If your goal was Africa or Europe or Asia, maybe step back and realize your passion is as much around the adventure as the actual hunting,” says Christensen. He says that there are still quality hunts in Alaska or remote parts of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho that will feed that passion. At the very least, many states sell over-the-counter licenses, including solid public land options in states like Colorado and Idaho, which means that hunters who have been shut down by restrictions can still get out to chase game. And thanks to hunt consultants like The Draw and subscription services such as Go Hunt, it’s much easier to parse the data on where to start.
Beyond the current situation, the best bet is to postpone international bookings to the coming season so outfitters can make it through, support organizations like the Dallas Safari Club, which is raising money for guide services up against hard times, and think about future seasons. “Hunts from this year are going to roll over to next, and there’s likely discounts for coming seasons too,” says Rowantree. “We have to keep looking ahead.” The game is going nowhere, and the desire will just keep growing.