NACHES — October’s modern firearm elk season drew some of the biggest crowds of the year for hunting stores in Yakima County, where the herd remains one of the state’s biggest despite recent declines.

Oak Creek Ace Hardware manager Jason Christianson said it turned out to be a good season for business, with plenty of locals and loyal customers from Western Washington gearing up in Naches. But he’s also heard plenty of complaints from customers about the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s 70 percent reduction in elk permits over the past two years, as well as similar reductions of opportunities to fish for salmon and steelhead.

“When the salmon numbers go up, then the fishermen numbers will go up, too,” Christianson said. “And then just without having a steelhead season on the Columbia the last two years really has kind of hurt sales, too, and licenses.”

Indeed, a large part of the story of Washington’s wildlife populations and opportunities for hunting and fishing can be told just by looking at license sales. In Yakima County, WDFW records show the amount of people who bought a fishing or hunting license fell by 107 to 25,430 from fiscal year 2013 to 2019, even as the county’s population grew by nearly 2% to 251,446 in 2018, according to census numbers.

A much more dramatic downturn can be seen across the state, where the population increased by more than 20% from 2000 to 2018 as it neared an estimated 7.5 million people. Wildlife Department records dating back to 2002 show a decrease of almost 12% in hunting licenses sold annually during that time, along with a drop of almost 10% in annual sales of fishing licenses.

Fewer hunters, fewer sales

Chuck Tveter, the owner of Hammers Gun Shop in Union Gap, kept his shop closed last week to hunt for elk but came up empty, just like well over 90% of the region’s hunters in recent years.

He places some blame for fewer hunters squarely on the Wildlife Department for changing regulations and moving the season up a few weeks into October. Tveter said a later season would make it much easier to find elk in places such as Oak Creek, where the animals come down to lower elevations as snow falls in the Cascades and the foothills.

He’s seen some negative effects on his business, which sells some hunting and outdoors gear but focuses primarily on guns and accessories, similar to other stores like Gimme Guns in Selah and Lotsa Guns n Stuf in Yakima. Several hunting stores have closed in an increasingly competitive market, and Christianson said Oak Creek Ace Hardware stopped selling guns earlier this year when new regulations made it no longer financially viable.

Tveter’s frustration with the Wildlife Department and its policies is evident, and it’s clear he’s not alone. He and Christianson said they often hear from customers fed up with Washington’s limited hunting enough to drive significant distances for a better experience.

“I know quite a few people that go to either Idaho or to Montana for hunting,” Tveter said.

He barely sells any fishing gear these days, since closures or low daily maximums destroyed many incentives for anglers. Christianson said a one-fish limit on salmon fishing for most of the summer left many unwilling to make the long drive down to the Columbia River.

Oak Creek Ace Hardware and Bi-Mart offer the only locally owned options left with extensive inventories capable of competing with big box stores such as Cabela’s, Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods. Christianson said it’s critical to know what’s selling and stay aware of trends, such as a recent shift among elk hunters from guns to a bow, even though it requires more dedication and smarter planning.

“There’s a lot of people into archery, just because the seasons are longer,” said Christianson, who’s been at Oak Creek Hardware since it opened 13 years ago. “You get early season, late season and then the opportunity to get cows.”

But those early seasons were reduced locally as well this year after the Wildlife Department decided archers were killing too many antlerless elk. The recent trend of significant reductions likely led to what Wildlife Department deer and elk section manager, Brock Hoenes, said was a 6% decrease in Yakima’s region for quality hunts and bull elk, even as the statewide total increased by about 5%.

No easy solution

Falling license sales also brought financial cost for the Wildlife Department.

According to records dating back to 2012, hunting license revenues peaked just above $18 million in the 2016 fiscal before falling below $17.6 million for 2017 and slowly rising the past two years. Fishing revenues hit nearly $28 million in 2015 but fell all the way to $25.5 million in 2019, the lowest total since 2012.

A bipartisan House bill to impose a 0.2% sales tax on recreational and outdoor purchases above $200 with some exceptions would generate an estimated $9.8 million for the state’s wildlife fund through 2025. But the bill stalled and failed to draw support from either Washington Retail Association president Mark Johnson or REI Government Affairs Director Mark Bereika, showing a disdain for new taxes that could be also be heard from Christianson and Tveter.

National numbers released by U.S. Fish and Wildlife show an aging hunting population threatens to make current declines even worse as baby boomers grow older and stop participating. However, Christianson said locally he sees plenty of potential for recruiting new hunters — so long as they’ve got something to hunt.

“There’s a lot of young people coming in,” Christianson said. “I just wish there was some more opportunities for the youth.”

Reach Luke Thompson at luthompson@yakimaherald.com and on Twitter: @luketscribe