Nebraska is a turkey hunting destination each spring. There’s plenty of space, three different subspecies of turkey and hospitable rural communities. Nebraska Nice, they call it.
But, as with so many plans, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into the travels of would-be nonresident hunters who annually visit the state. The typical Nebraska turkey season runs from mid-March through May, with staggered dates for archery and shotgun hunting. On March 30, Nebraska Game and Parks closed sales of turkey permits to nonresident hunters in an effort to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.
New forthcoming research from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Chris Chizinski, in collaboration with Nebraska Game and Parks, explored the fallout of COVID-19 on turkey hunting, and found that the pandemic was an economic hit to the state, but may have brought new and returning resident hunters into the sport.
Using data from permit sales, the researchers found that overall, Nebraska Game and Parks sustained an approximately $1.1 million loss due to a decline of 89% in nonresident permit sales. Comparing the 2019 season to 2020, 11,856 less nonresident permits were sold. This is substantial, since nonresident permits are $109, compared to $30 for residents. Game and Parks receives much of its funding for conservation and public land management related to permit sales.
Resident hunters made up some of the gap, purchasing 6,264 more permits in 2020 than in 2019, and more new hunters gave turkey hunting a try. New resident hunters made up 24% of permits sold, and resident hunters that had been inactive for 2-plus years made up 19%. In the year prior, new or inactive returning hunters made up 20% and 13%, respectively, of permits sold. If the new and returning hunters continue hunting in the future, this may lead to an uptick in permit sales in the future, a potential unforeseen benefit of COVID.
“It appears that residents realized maybe that there was going to be less competition for game, which is a perceived barrier to hunting in other research we’ve done,” Chizinski said. “Residents likely thought it was a greater opportunity for them, or they identified it as an activity they could do outdoors, a socially distanced activity safe from COVID.”
Chizinski also used post-season survey data to see if COVID-19 had any impact on the satisfaction of hunters who made it into the field.
“Fortunately, there actually wasn’t much change in overall satisfaction,” Chizinski said. “They didn’t harvest any more than previous years, but they were just as happy with the season as they normally are.
“Interestingly, some of the typical things that bring satisfaction, seeing turkeys or getting the opportunity to shoot, were actually less important this year, compared to previous years. It appears that getting out and being outdoors during this time of stress was more important.”
The downside of hunting during a pandemic was that many hunters reported that lodging and dining options were either closed or had their hours reduced, due to COVID restrictions.
“Some of the comments we got were that they had a hard time finding a place to eat, or to stay,” Chizinski said. “That has real economic impacts on these rural communities that host hunters.”
Chizinski said studying the spring turkey season may be a good predictor of the coming year, as the pandemic continues to play a role in travel and recreational plans, but also for budgetary planning and taking account of other disasters.
“COVID is a worldwide disaster, but it can be any situation where you get a big disruption in the ability to hunt,” Chizinski, associate professor in the School of Natural Resources and lead author on the research, said. “Things like flooding or wildfires, or any event that disrupts potential participation in outdoor recreation has consequences on the ability to manage wildlife and conserve endangered species. It really stresses the need to understand and bring more people to the table for conservation funding and management.
“There is no longer a moratorium on nonresidents (for hunting seasons), but people are still apprehensive about travel. I think for at least the next year, that needs to be considered.”
Chizinski and his team will continue to monitor the effect of COVID pandemic on wildlife-based recreation in Nebraska.