Voice of Leadership: The Evolution of Evaluating America’s Wildlife Restoration and Recruitment Efforts

Voice of Leadership: The Evolution of Evaluating America’s Wildlife Restoration and Recruitment Efforts

Above: Pilot-biologists are just one example of the professional wildlife managers state agencies employ to assess the success of their conservation efforts, documenting the habitats and life cycles of our renewable waterfowl resources.​

The professionals who work in fish and wildlife conservation are a passionate bunch. They are dedicated to maintaining healthy animal populations, improving habitat and recruiting the next generation of hunters, anglers and target shooters. They work tirelessly to keep a balance between the worlds of water, dirt and concrete and they do a tremendous job maintaining that balance.

But what if these professionals didn’t have to work so tirelessly?

In the 1930s, Allan Mogensen coined the phrase, “Work smarter, not harder.” Almost a hundred years later, that phrase rings true across a wide variety of professions. “Mogy,” as he was known, was big on simplifying things, streamlining processes and improving workflows. His methods increased productivity on manufacturing floors and saved lives with improved procedures in hospital operating rooms.

It doesn’t matter what field you are in as there have always been ways to evolve and become more efficient at what you do. Wildlife conservation is no different. In a complex world, the challenge of managing both animal and human populations may be one of the more difficult job responsibilities out there. Still, these professionals have done a great job, and they are getting better at it each year.

During the 1940s and ’50s, when Mogy was most in vogue with his working-smarter methods, state and federal wildlife agencies were still in their infancy. But thanks to a boost in funding from the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, commonly known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, and the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act of 1950, the Dingell-Johnson Act, these agencies bolstered their staff and initiated a surge of innovation.

Thanks to this influx of new funding, wildlife biologists could better improve habitat and achieve success in restoring fish and wildlife populations around the country. This success did not come immediately. Agencies and their biologists tried many things, evaluating the impacts of their efforts, tossing what didn’t work, sharing their lessons learned and partnering across agencies. They were working smarter.

Careful evaluation of habitat improvement and wildlife restoration efforts was a key to their success. Outcome-based management strategies became central to the training and education of a new generation of wildlife and fisheries biologists. The results of their efforts are what you see today in the form of thriving wildlife populations of what were once threatened species.

Fast forward to the mid-2000s.

With wildlife populations thriving, state and federal agencies began to shift more focus and resources toward human populations as news emerged of dwindling hunter and angler numbers. Luckily, agencies had help. Organizations such as the Wildlife Management Institute (WMI), the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation (RBFF), and the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports (CAHSS), which is set to hold its annual National R3 (Recruit, Retain, Reactivate) Symposium in May, started to work together to this end.

According to many experts, the expansion of the Multistate Conservation Grant Program (MSCGP) in 2019 was central to increased R3 efforts within the hunting, fishing and recreational shooting communities. The MSCGP currently sets aside $6 million annually from excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, motorboat fuel and certain archery and fishing equipment for researching, evaluating and marketing hunting and fishing on a broader scale.

Matt Dunfee, Director of Special Programs at WMI, has been a leader in evaluating recruitment efforts for more than 20 years. As he noted, “Trying to recruit new participants isn’t anything new, but early efforts were underfunded, under-measured, and therefore, a bit rudimentary. It was clear that evaluation templates and standards needed to be created and used before R3 efforts could improve.” Knowing this, and with the help of funding provided through the MSCGP, Dunfee co-led a team of 30 professionals representing outdoor industries, agencies and conservation groups with a charter to develop such evaluation templates and standards.

Progress was made on the development of standards with the release of the Hunting Heritage Action Plan and the Outdoor Recreation Model. These tools moved recruitment efforts into a more uniform approach and helped get everyone on the same page.

Another giant leap in the evolution of evaluating recruitment was taken when the CAHSS released its National Hunting and Shooting Sports Action Plan in 2016. This report laid out a strategic approach to recruitment and is the basis for current efforts. Key among the recommendations was to develop full-time R3 coordinator level positions at each state agency. An essential responsibility of new R3 staff was to evaluate recruitment programs and share success and failures on regional and national levels.

Dave Chanda, past director of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Fish and Wildlife and current Vice President of Industry and Government Engagement at RBFF, was among the first state directors to use some of the recommendations in these action plans.

As Chanda recalled, “When we first started recruitment efforts, we did simple things like ‘Take a Kid Fishing Day.’ As I look back, they weren’t all that successful at recruiting new anglers as the only place we advertised these programs was in fishing publications. We found out years later when we started to do a better job evaluating our programs that these kids were coming from fishing families and were going to learn how to fish from family anyway, so these programs weren’t moving the participation needle.”

Although hunting and fishing recruitment work was being conducted simultaneously, fishing recruitment efforts seemed to outpace hunter recruitment from the start. A reason for this may have been funding. Backed by those in the fishing and boating industry, the RBFF was founded in 1998 and has an annual budget exceeding $10 million that comes from redirected excises taxes on fishing products and motorboat fuel. As Chanda mentioned, “RBFF started sending state R3 fishing coordinators for training at places like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center where they would study successful recruitment programs and learn how to evaluate them.” RBFF also has several staff members with marketing backgrounds who have created successful advertising campaigns such as “Get on Board,” “Take Me Fishing” and its Spanish counterpart “Vamos a Pescar.”

Not to be outdone, in 2018 the Archery Trade Association led an effort to redirect $5 million in excise taxes on archery equipment to a new grant program focused on R3 innovation and capacity building. The fruits of this effort started to pay off with some exciting grant projects initiated in early 2021. Adding to the success of these new projects is the addition of industry partners such as manufacturers and outdoor media that are starting to get on board with recruitment efforts.

Hunters, anglers and target shooters play a central role as the primary funders and stewards of conservation in America. Current and future recruitment efforts must be successful so that more people, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity, can know the joys of the outdoors and lead the next generation of conservationists.

Both Dunfee and Chanda emphasized that restoration and recruitment efforts would not be as successful as they’ve been without continued evolution of evaluation processes, and that is something that old Mogy undoubtedly would approve.

From my experiences working closely with federal and state agency biologists and R3 professionals during the past decade, I’ve found that, even though they are working smarter, their dedication and passion continue to push them to work tirelessly to increase America’s wildlife, hunter, angler and target shooter populations. For their tireless effort, I give them my most sincere thanks.

This article originally appeared in the USFWS Partner with a Payer website.

2021-2022 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. Working to inform, inspire and educate participants within our community, panelists include:

  • Cyrus Baird—Senior Director of Government Affairs, Delta Waterfowl
  • Karen Butler—Founder/President, SLG2, INC DBA: Shoot Like A Girl
  • Eric Morris—Producer & Host - N.onT.ypical Outdoorsman TV
  • Ken Perrotte—President of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoors Writers (AGLOW)
  • Brenda Weatherby—Director of People and Culture, Weatherby, Inc.

Panel Facilitators:

  • James “Jay” Pinsky—Editor, The Hunting Wire
  • Peter Churchbourne—Director, NRA Hunter Leadership Forum
  • Jim Curcuruto—Executive Director, Outdoor Stewards of Conservation Foundation