Chocolate or vanilla? Why can’t we have both?

In a time of changing demographics and shifting values, State wildlife agencies would benefit from reaching out to non-hunters and anglers, making themselves available to the general public, asking them how to best serve them, and using the powerful feelings that wildlife and wild spaces can evoke to drive conservation. Wildlife agencies should allow and expect everyone that enjoys nature to be part of the effort to conserve it, both through their vote, and their financial contributions. To do this, most agencies would have to fundamentally change, as in many cases their work has been funded primarily with the revenue created from anglers, hunters and shooting sports enthusiasts. This model worked for many decades, but with the number of consumptive users (hunters and anglers) declining, and taking with them the funding model for wildlife conservation, wildlife agencies are staring at a pretty dark future. Here is the problem, although these agencies know they have to change, they face many barriers.  Agencies may feel they are being disloyal to their traditional constituency when bringing other types of nature users, such as birders and kayakers to the table. Traditional users and many agency staff fear their traditions will disappear, and with them all those moments created with loved ones out hunting at the duck blind or drifting along a creek, waiting for a bite.  And for the few agencies that are proactive at reaching out, they just can’t speak the language of these non-traditional users, they can’t effectively communicate with them, so collaboration can become difficult.

This is what I see happening to state wildlife agencies: Imagine a group of people that really like chocolate, so they create an organization to make chocolate, they hire the best and the brightest chocolatiers, and rejoice in the fact that they can pay for chocolate and enjoy the high quality chocolate that is being made. But at some point vanilla starts to become popular, it’s a growing trend amongst the public, and finally the chocolate making institutions realize that maybe they should make some vanilla as well…But how? They only have chocolatiers? They have a long tradition of chocolate specialists that are really good (and proud) at making excellent chocolate. Even if they thought about hiring some vanilla specialists, they don’t even know how to do it, they only speak chocolate and these vanilla specialists are very different from them, have different values. So the chocolate making organizations decide that instead of providing a service to the growing number of vanilla loving people, they will just work very hard at converting them into chocolate loving people. The organizations try to change vanilla lovers by showing them how awesome chocolate is, explaining that the habitat provided by chocolate farms is the some of the best habitat out there, telling them stories of their most memorable chocolate making moments with loved ones, etc. Still, many people keep on choosing vanilla and at some point people will take the power away from chocolate making organizations, and give it to more flexible and adaptive organizations, the ones that have a culture of serving the public, all of the public, and not just a small group that likes only one flavor.

When attending a recent conservation conference I participated in several meetings and roundtables that were focused on State wildlife agency relevance and how to better reach out to the public and to non-traditional partners. Although the need is out there, many of these talks turn invariably to the traditional idea of: we need more people to hunt and fish, and I heard the same narrative repeated over and over again: “it takes a hunter to make a hunter”, “lets throw more money at hunter and angler programing to “convert” the public”, and “why should I give up my values?”, followed by comments about what a disservice any change would be to the consumptive users that have supported wildlife conservation for decades. I, like many others, have thought about this issue long and hard, and during the last roundtable I said: “Maybe we (State wildlife agencies) are not the organizations that can effectively conserve wildlife and wild places in this changing reality, our organizations are having a really hard time adapting fast enough to the rapidly changing demographics. But we are all clear in our purpose, we all care about conservation, it may be time to start to consider how are we going to support those organizations that are better prepared to communicate with a broader audience”. For many, that was not what they wanted to hear, but others nodded and later found me in the halls to discuss a little further. It was a hard day for me, for all of us. I was sad, and disappointed that this was the fifth year of my career that we had the same conversation, and still a commitment to change seemed very far out of reach.

The week before, I had received an invite to a social hosted by Back Country Hunters and Anglers (BHA). The name of the organization was not very encouraging (more chocolate makers) but the invitation stated that you would get a free beer, and I’m not one to turn down a free beer, so I decided to go. When I got to the pub I found myself surrounded by people talking to each other in an informal setting, asking really hard questions about the role of wildlife agencies, and courageously answering them, sharing their fears, their hopes and their vulnerability with each other. At some point the CEO of BHA jumped onto the bar and addressed the crowd; his name was Land (I am pretty sure he named himself that) and he spoke about his mission and that of the organization he represents: to protect public land and to ensure access to it. He talked about an experience fishing with his daughter, and then said: “I don’t know what you want to do in public land, if you hunt, or bird watch, or follow butterflies around; if you want to protect public lands and access to public lands, then you are my partner and we should work together!” So there it was, a group of chocolatiers ready to work with others towards a common goal, they did not have to agree on everything; as long as they agreed on the importance of public access to nature, they were ready to work together as partners. I became a member of BHA that night and bought one of their T-shirts (I wanted to support them), I was encouraged by this group of people that were willing to get a bigger table and share it with new voices. Although BHA knows the risks of including new and sometimes opposing perspectives to the conversation, they also know that the ultimate goal, the one they can all agree on, is worth the risk and the possible loss.

That was a good night, where I realized I have a place in this process, and others are ready to make the necessary changes and take risks for the much larger and important common goal: to conserve wildlife and wild places. So I ask you, whatever organization you belong to, how ever you think is the best way to conserve nature, find partners towards the common greater goal, because if we don’t succeed there will not be anything left to argue over. I’m a conservationist, and if you believe in conservation, regardless of what you enjoy about nature (fishing, geocaching, learning, hunting, finding your zen…), you are my partner, and we should work together.

Disclaimer: I am not trying to convince you to become a member of BHA , they had no part in the creation of this post and the views expressed within are mine – but if you wanted to check them out – you can do so here.