By Nicola Whitley, Public Affairs Division Chief, New Hampshire Fish and Game Department
This past year’s 2023 ACI Conference in Stateline, Nevada, provided a chance for attendees to share tips, get to know each other, explore the beautiful Lake Tahoe area, but most of all gain knowledge and insight. The wide range of presenters did a great job, in my opinion, and I have been to many a conference over the years.
One session I was particularly interested in was the “National and Regional Results of the Wildlife Viewer Survey: Enhancing Relevancy and Engaging Support from a Broader Constituency.” Dr. Kelley Langhans of Virginia Tech highlighted some of the most interesting and helpful results. Rather than go through all of that, especially since many of you were there, here is the link to view the report https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/handle/10919/111539.
What I would like to point out though is that wildlife viewing is one of the fastest growing activities in the United States, according to a report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 2018. Read that sentence again. This was before COVID folks. We know what happened beginning in 2020. Also, one-third of adults in the country identify themselves as wildlife viewers. This is enormous! According to the 2020 census there are about 258,200,000 adults living in the United States, so that is over 86 million people who enjoy doing the same thing. You can see where I am going with this.
We have to figure out ways to bring these folks more into the fold, as it were. There are many reasons, but they are supporters of the work we do, even if they don’t realize it. They could be convinced potentially to buy licenses in the future, but they also bring other revenue dollars to our states and some of our agencies, they support conservation and wildlife, they live in all parts of the country including urban areas, and they are already participating in activities that support us such as helping to collect data and participating in civic engagement around conservation.
It can be difficult, especially at the fish and game agencies, to convince some internal folks that the times have to change and we can’t just target hunters and anglers anymore (pun intended). We as conservationists need to serve wildlife and all residents and visitors of our states. One of Dr. Langhans conclusions was that we should, “Respond to the demand for agencies to develop programs and engage viewers through providing increased information on where, how, and what wildlife to view, and additional programs and support for wildlife viewers.”
The challenges are reaching them, since they are a very diverse group and don’t necessarily self-identify as we would classify them, finding the staff and resources to provide more opportunities and information, and monetizing our interactions with them. Again, there will be some direct cash flow such as park pass sales, but much will be either indirect, such as tourism dollars that result in sales tax revenue for some states, and some dollars will be missed if they say take a hike on public land and only purchase boots.
We all have many challenges to face now and in the years to come, as this conference helped us to see more clearly, and doing a better job of making wildlife viewers feel included is one of them. So, I am taking this information back to my agency and will be working on some new initiatives. I look forward to comparing notes and sharing ideas with all of you on this important task in the future.