Although the cultural influence of hunting today bears little resemblance to that experienced by Native Americans prior to European American settlement, the human desire to hunt still dictates the seasonal activities of millions of Great Plains inhabitants. These outings not only affect hunters personally but also generate revenue for rural economies and political momentum for wildlife conservation.
As elsewhere, hunting in the Great Plains is shaped by the diversity of game species present. Owing to the region's paucity of exclusive endemic bird and mammal species (i.e., those found in the region and nowhere else), only greater and lesser prairie chickens are hunted exclusively in the Great Plains. However, because the Plains encompass a zone where both eastern and western species intermingle, the region boasts perhaps the richest array of game animals and hunting opportunities in North America. Primary large game mammals include white-tailed deer, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope, with elk, moose, and bighorn sheep occurring mainly in the montane western or wooded northern peripheries of the region. Furbearers such as coyote and raccoon and small mammals such as cottontails and fox squirrel are also widely hunted. Primary game birds include ring-necked pheasant, northern bobwhite, prairie grouse (sharp-tailed grouse, sage grouse, and greater and lesser prairie chickens), gray partridge, scaled quail, wild turkey, mourning dove, sandhill crane, and several species of ducks and geese.
Opportunities to pursue these species are enjoyed by more than two million hunters living in states and provinces lying entirely or partly within the Great Plains and by hundreds of thousands more traveling from outside the region. In the Plains states and provinces, about 10 percent of the resident population hunts (more than 90 percent of them males), spending a total of 45 million days afield per year. About 74 percent of Plains states hunters pursue big game, 42 percent pursue resident small game birds and mammals, and 28 percent hunt migratory birds. In all, hunters spend more than $3.7 billion per year during the course of their activities in the Great Plains.
The considerable economic and social impacts of hunting have affected regional biodiversity and governmental responsibilities for wildlife conservation. License fees and excise taxes paid on hunting equipment are spent by state and provincial wildlife agencies to buy land for habitat protection and public access, improve habitat on private land, and enforce wildlife-related laws. These funds have also been used to restore species such as elk and wild turkey in areas of the Great Plains where they had been absent for decades. Furthermore, the ring-necked pheasant and gray partridge, native to Asia and Europe, respectively, were introduced in the Great Plains by wildlife agencies and private individuals in the early 1900s to provide additional hunting opportunities. Both species thrived in agricultural areas not generally habitable by native game birds and have become firmly established. In particular, the ring-necked pheasant is now perhaps the most ubiquitous and well recognized of the region's small game species and is responsible for much of the revenue and days afield associated with Great Plains upland bird hunting. As a rather ironic testament to its cultural importance, the Asian native is the state bird of South Dakota.
Hunting-related customs and laws vary markedly within the Great Plains. For example, Kansas hunters traditionally shoot prairie chickens in late fall as they fly into crop fields to feed, whereas Nebraskans traditionally walk through rangeland and shoot them as they flush. However, perhaps most important are regional differences in methods used to gain access to hunt on private land, because this is where most hunting occurs in the Great Plains. In Texas, hunters (particularly those pursuing deer, quail, and turkey) are generally expected not only to gain trespass permission but also to pay the landowner a daily or seasonal access fee. Conversely, in North Dakota, hunters may hunt private land without the permission of the landowner unless the land has been clearly posted otherwise. Obviously, these variations in private land access can have significant effects on hunter participation and expenditures.
As might be expected from the diversity in species and customs, there is also variation in the reasons people hunt in the Plains. Residents hunt as part of family or community traditions, for food, to experience a tangible connection with nature, or as a combination of these and other motivations unique to each individual. Hunters from outside the Plains come for all the above reasons as well as to take advantage of a quality or diversity of hunting opportunities unavailable where they live. Regardless of the reasons, people will likely always hunt and in turn value places that best provide the necessary ingredients for that experience. Judged by this standard, the Great Plains is one of the most highly regarded hunting regions in North America.
See also NATIVE AMERICANS: Hunting.
J. Scott Taylor Nebraska Game and Parks Commission
Federal-Provincial Task Force for the 1987 National Survey on the Importance of Wildlife to Canadians. The Importance of Wildlife to Canadians in 1987: Highlights of a National Survey. Publ. CW66-103/1989E, 1989.
Kellert, Stephen R. "Attitudes and Characteristics of Hunters and Antihunters." Transactions of the Forty-Third North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference 43 (1978): 412–23.
U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. 1996 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. Publ. FHW/96 NAT, 1998.