New Report: Wildlife-Associated Recreation is Very Big Business

By dgross November 15, 2017

Young Birders at Willistown by Adrian Binns

A report on the preliminary findings of the 2016 National Survey on wildlife-associated recreation provide evidence that wildlife-watching is an increasing economic force in America. Birding is a big part of this. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife report released in September is called the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation: National Overview. A more comprehensive report will be released in December. This report has been published every 5 years since 1955. With so many questions about public support of wildlife habitat and programs, it is very heartening to see that various forms of wildlife recreation are going strong. In 2016, over 101 million Americans, about 40 percent of the population, participated in a form of outdoor recreation that involved wildlife. This includes not only the traditional “consumptive” hunting, fishing but also “non-consumptive” wildlife enjoyment such as birding and nature photography. Check it out at:

Wildlife watching is growing in popularity. If we compare participation in the 2016 survey results with the two previous surveys, there are significant increases of 21 percent and 20 percent respectively. The biggest difference between these time periods is the number of participants who enjoyed wildlife near their homes, an 18 percent increase from 2011 to 2016.

The expenditures of wildlife recreation are staggeringly high with an estimated $156.3 billion spent on equipment, travel, licenses, and fees. Wildlife watchers spent $75.9 billion in their activities. This huge expenditure creates and supports thousands of jobs, the basis for many rural communities’ economies, and represents approximately 1 percent of the Gross Domestic Product.

Bird photography is a popular activity at birding festivals.

Of the wildlife-based activities measured, “wildlife watching” was the most popularoutdoor news outlets which generally reports on “consumptive” wildlife uses. Although there are a whopping 35.8 million people that went fishing and 11.5 million that went hunting, an even greater 86 million people said that they enjoyed “wildlife watching” in 2016, more than fishing and hunting combined. Of these “watchers,” 45.1 million were bird observers — or “birders.”

PSO Field Trip at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in 2014, by Chad Kauffman

Almost 59.1 million—about 69 percent of the wildlife watchers—fed wildlife around their homes. And 11.0 million (13 percent) maintained plantings or natural areas for wildlife near their homes. That is a significant bit of voluntary wildlife habitat management being done by private citizens on private land!

A Red-breasted Nuthatch at a hanging oil sunflower feeder. Suet is another attractant. However, birders should not rely solely on feeders for nuthatches since they are easy to find in conifers. By J. Dingel.

Most wildlife watching takes place near home, but as we all know, birders and other wildlife watchers travel a lot, sometimes internationally, to enjoy wildlife.

Rosalie Edge at the entrance of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, an inspiration to current bird observation and conservation.  Hawk Mountain is a very popular destination of wildlife watchers of all kinds.

Wildlife watching is popular, growing, and big business. These statistics don’t give us just a reason to go “wow!” We can approach government agencies, communities, organizations, and private businesses about their interests with confidence. Birders do not have to take back seat to anybody in demanding services and getting results. They contribute and deserve more attention and respect for their contributions. One of the many ways that birders contribute is their citizen science project participation such as eBird, Christmas Bird Counts, Breeding Bird Atlases, and other bird surveys contributed to conservation organizations, research organizations, and wildlife agencies. The results of this report remind us that there is a need for agencies and organizations to better connect with the growing number of people that enjoy wildlife in a variety of non-consumptive ways and find more ways for this growing demographic to be engaged in contributing more directly to wildlife conservation.

Birders enjoying the Festival at Presque Isle State Park

The full report will be published by USFWS in December. We anticipate more details including state-specific information.

Doug Gross, PGC Ornithologist