Voice of Leadership: Hunter-led Conservation: The Rise and Benefits of ‘NGOs’

Voice of Leadership: Hunter-led Conservation: The Rise and Benefits of ‘NGOs’

It is a unique sensation when one shoots a beloved species. Whether a mallard, Merriam’s turkey, white-tailed deer or elk, we’ve all felt that odd mix of great joy and gentle sorrow while poring over the magnificence of a downed animal. And yet while the emotion of taking wild game is both conflicting and a challenge to articulate, ancient instinct that predates us as homo sapiens nonetheless beckons us yet again to kill and eat.

Here’s the difference: Modern hunters have a sense of obligation to “put back” more animals than we take. And especially in North America, we’ve done so for well over a century.

“One of the worst things you can do for a species whose numbers are decreasing is to take away the ability to hunt it, because hunters will rally around animals they hunt,” said Joel Brice, chief conservation officer for Delta Waterfowl and a member of The Hunting Wire’s Voice of Leadership Panel. “Hunters love wildlife and they will spend serious money to save it.”

A dramatic political movement among recreational hunters took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fueled by alarm over the near-extinction of key species such as the American bison, along with the ongoing destruction of their habitats. This push gave rise to the celebrated North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, and the signings of the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act (aka Duck Stamp Act) in 1934 and the “Pittman-Robertson Act” in 1937.

Coinciding with these hunter-driven conservation ideas was the concept of privately funded, non-governmental conservation groups—or NGOs—such as those known today as Delta Waterfowl, Pheasants Forever, the National Wild Turkey Federation and Ducks Unlimited, to name a few.

Given their independence from government, NGOs have the freedom to advocate on controversial matters. Delta Waterfowl, for instance, has not shied from its past or ongoing advocacy to increase limits on certain duck species, such as pintails, bluebills and eastern mallards.

And while these conversations between NGOs and government biologists are frequently productive—if not uncomfortable—federal as well as state wildlife managers have certainly benefitted from the wildlife research of many NGOs. Indeed, many of today’s conservation leaders, up to and including at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, launched their careers while conducting student research at an NGO.

“Government researchers are somewhat confined in what they can explore,” Brice said. “Their research tends to focus on monitoring the health of populations, while at Delta Waterfowl for instance, we’re looking at research that can be applied to boosting duck production and increasing the efficiency of waterfowl conservation. These two areas of emphasis complement each other beautifully.”

How did NGOs get to where they are today? In many cases, such as that of Delta, it took well-heeled and passionate hunters to get such organizations off the ground. Concerned about duck populations, particularly his beloved canvasbacks, James Ford Bell of the General Mills Corporation first visited Manitoba’s Delta Marsh in 1923. By 1938, Al Hochbaum, a student of Aldo Leopold—considered by many to be the father of wildlife conservation—was sent to the marsh to conduct pioneering waterfowl research. The resulting studies guide core waterfowl conservation efforts to this day, including Delta’s duck production, HunteR3, habitat conservation, and research and education programs.

“Other conservation organizations share a similar story,” Brice said. “A concerned hunter or small group of hunters started a conservation movement that thousands more united behind.”

True to the inclusive sentiment of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, supporters of NGOs range from folks who pay annual membership dues costing less than a tank of gas, to major donors yearly providing small fortunes. But the tie that binds? Regardless the level of support, these hunters share Bell’s desire to conserve wildlife.

“Some would say the support of hunters for NGOs is a way to give back due to a sense of obligation over their killing of animals,” Brice said. “But I think the motivation varies. For some a conservation NGO is an identity or a club they identify with. And still for others, it’s all about the wildlife — people support NGOs because we’re protecting the animals that they love.”

From intensive wildlife management efforts, such as Delta’s Predator Management and Hen House programs, to the cutting-edge research that continues to drive these conservation initiatives, it’s clear that the contributions of hunters are allowing game species to thrive even as others decline in the face of urbanization and other factors.

“Hunters crave abundance,” Brice said. “They don’t necessarily need to shoot a lot of game, but they want to see a lot of ducks. They want to see lots of deer. Abundance suggests health and sustainability to hunters.”

A recent study has caused even those folks who don’t necessarily support hunting to tip their caps to waterfowler-funded NGOs. Published in the journal Science, the research suggests there are a whopping 3 billion fewer birds in North America today than in 1970—that’s more than one out of every four birds gone from the skies—yet during that same period, ducks, geese and swans increased by about 34 million.

“It’s because of the strong constituency of recreational waterfowl hunters who raised their voice, put money where their mouths are and saw to it that conservation programs and policies were put in place,” Ken Rosenberg, the study’s lead author and a senior scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the non-profit American Bird Conservancy, told Scientific American magazine. “Billions of dollars (were) invested into wetlands (and) into wildlife refuges.”

What inspires this massive effort? Motivations vary, but perhaps the visceral, participatory experience of hunting wild game fuels a desire to give back— to support NGOs with our blood, sweat and dollars—more strongly than other forms of outdoor recreation. Regardless, in the case of ducks, geese and other game, it’s undeniable that hunters are willing to invest heavily to ensure healthy populations of wildlife.

2020-2021 The Hunting Wire Voice of Leadership Panel
The Voice of Leadership Panel is an appointed group of outdoor industry leaders who have volunteered to contribute their voices on key hunting and outdoor recreation issues to inform, inspire, and educate participants within our community.

  • Jim Curcuruto, Hunting and Firearms Industry Consultant
  • Mandy Harling, National Director of Hunting Heritage Programs, National Wild Turkey Federation
  • Jenifer Wisniewski, Chief, Outreach and Communication, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
  • Joel Brice, Chief Conservation Officer, Delta Waterfowl
  • Cyrus Baird, Manager of Government Relations, Safari Club International


  • James “Jay” Pinsky, Editor, The Hunting Wire
  • Peter Churchbourne, Director, NRA Hunter Leadership Forum