Will hunting become a rich man's sport?

Hunters spend $21 billion annually, according to the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation.

The pile of green bucks generated by hunters is even more impressive when you learn they support more jobs than top U.S. airlines (at more than a half-million) and they spend more than $2 billion on food, another $2 billion on guns and ammo and $4.6 billion on gear.

I think that people should spend as much money on hunting as they want to … and can afford.

If you want to pay $20,000 for an elk hunt at the Tejon Ranch in southern California or $25,00 or more to hunt argali sheep in Tajikistan, $40,000 to hunt the "big-five" Africa, or even shell out $300,000 for a sheep tag, like winning bids at recent Foundation for North American Wild Sheep conventions, that's great.

The money goes to good ends. Wildlife conservation is supported by hunters' dollars all around the world.

But if hunting becomes exclusively a rich man's sport, it would spell the death of hunting as we know it.

I am reminded of this as I buy my annual California hunting license, which now costs $34.90. That license enables me to hunt squirrels, crows and rabbits. But if I want to hunt anything else, I must pay more.

An annual upland game bird stamp is $7.10. With that I can now hunt quail, pheasants and chukars.

A California waterfowl stamp is $14.95 more. The federal duck stamp is another $15.

We are now at $71.95 to hunt small mammals and birds. Don't forget the shells. Is that a hole in your waders? It surely is a hole in the wallet.

I can remember when a license, duck stamp and a box of shells cost $15 or less, and I'm not even eligible for Social Security, yet.

A sum of $71.95 for small game and birds to some people is a fortune.

What about a place to hunt? An annual duck club membership in the Golden State may cost you from $500 to $100,000 or more. A seat in a four-man blind in a rice field in the Sacramento Valley leases out for $1,000 a season.

OK, there are some state wildlife areas that have no entrance fee, but to hunt the choice state or federal refuges in the Sacramento Valley, it's $14.75 a day — unless you buy a season pass, which is $117.85. Neither of which, mind you, is a guarantee that you will get out because of the lottery system.

Access to "A" areas, where the birds are clustered, is by reservations first. An application for the lottery drawing for the reservation is $1.30 per day. Five applications for five days cost $6.55. They need to be in three weeks ahead of your hunt date.

I have hunted in California for nearly 30 years and I have been drawn once for a reservation. (I did get a limit that day, by the way.)

Getting drawn for a reservation on an "A" refuge is about a 2 percent chance.

Otherwise, you arrive and queue up in a "sweat line," which starts the night before, and go out as the lucky morning hunters leave. I have always gotten out if I wait long enough, but … you get the idea.

To hunt California deer, it's $23.35 for a first deer tag. For some zones you can buy tags over the counter; for others, you have to apply early to get into a drawing, especially for big mule deer on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range.

A tag for one California wild pig now costs $16.80. This is to hunt a species that apparently was responsible for the recent outbreak of e-coli bacteria in California spinach and destroys corps with a passion. You figure that one.

These are all resident prices. Non-resident prices are much higher.

The only break in licenses we get in California is if you are a juvenile or a disabled veteran.

My Scottish ancestry moved me to go online and do some comparisons.

In Alabama, a general hunting license is $15. You can shoot two deer a day in Alabama … and it's free if you are 65 or older.

In Texas, a general license is $23.

An Alaskan resident hunting license is $25. A state duck stamp is $5. Hunters 15 and younger or 60 and older are free. Low-income hunting licenses sell for $5. A resident tag for brown bears or grizzlies is but $25.

A Michigan resident license is $15. In Oregon it's $22.50. Pennsylvania charges $20.

In Montana it's only $8 for a Conservation License. To hunt and fish for everything but wild turkey, the Montana Sportsman License costs $70. The same package in California would probably cost twice that much.

In the Golden State there is no senior license; but if you are 62 or older, you are permitted to buy a lifetime license for $389.25. This may seem a lot to some, but the California Lifetime Hunting License for ages 10 to 39 is $639.75.

Nationwide, federal and state wildlife agencies receive about $847 million from hunting and trapping license fees and excise taxes. In some states license fees pay nearly all of the state resource agency budgets. Across the board, hunting revenue represents about 65 percent of state agency budgets.

This system is increasingly being challenged. For example, from 1991 to 2001, "The number of all hunters declined by 7 percent, while the number of big game and migratory bird hunters remained constant," according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service release. "The decreases occurred in small game (-29%) and other animal (-26%) hunting."

One of the sharpest declines comes out of California. In 1970 there were 690,000 hunting licenses sold. Last year, 262,328 resident hunting licenses were sold.

A dramatic decline in the deer herd due to habitat loss is one explanation for the decline, but rising license fees are discouraging. I believe California now has the most expensive resident hunting licenses in the country.

In Nevada, a one-day non-resident license for upland game and waterfowl costs $21, but you have to buy a non-resident upland game and non-resident duck stamp, each of which cost $10. If you want additional days as a non-resident, it's $8 a day.

When it's cheaper to hunt in another state as a non-resident, there's something seriously wrong.

Raising the cost of licenses might make up for declining license revenues in the short run, but in the long run it will drive down the numbers of hunters even further.

And, like it or not, the number of hunters who hunt each fall and keep coming back is what is critical to keep hunting as a recreational opportunity for everyone.

Hunters may be generating a lot of money these days. But if their destinations become increasingly out of state or out of the country, state resource agencies in places like California will suffer.

When hunting license fees cease to be a major source of revenue for agencies, the future of hunting in those states becomes less certain.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.