Saving America’s wildlife is bipartisan, patriotic, and comes with natural ambassadors to elevate the cause—from river otters to monarch butterflies.
State fish and wildlife agencies are on the front lines of America’s fish and wildlife conservation. State wildlife agencies have a legacy of success in recovering many iconic wildlife species, especially game animals and sport fish. However, there is still much left to do. The agencies’ State Wildlife Action Plans identify more than 12,000 animal and plant species in need of proactive conservation attention. Many of these species have lacked significant conservation attention over the last century. The number of petitions for listing under the Endangered Species Act has gone up by 1,000 percent in less than a decade. In addition, over the next 100 years, all fish and wildlife will be at increased risk due to habitat loss and degradation, the spread of invasive species, imperiled water quality, and a rapidly changing climate.
To ensure wildlife populations recover and thrive, state wildlife agencies must have the ability and resources to tackle serious challenges.
Now is the time to build momentum. Our window to act is short before conservation becomes too costly or even impossible — akin to heading to the emergency room, rather than taking early preventative action. Already, more than 150 species have gone extinct and 500 additional species not seen in decades may have vanished forever. Essential habitats that conserve the broadest array of species are experiencing stress at local, regional and global levels.
Role of National Wildlife Federation
Why are we excited to provide this toolkit, work with partners, and do our part? As America’s oldest and largest conservation organization, we work across the country to unite Americans from all walks of life in giving wildlife a voice. We’ve been on the front lines for wildlife since 1936, fighting for the conservation values that are woven into the fabric of our nation’s collective heritage.
National Presence and State Affiliates
We operate from offices across the country, including our headquarters in Reston, Virginia; a National Advocacy Center in Washington, D.C.; and seven regional centers. The Federation also works with 51 state and territory affiliates autonomous, nonprofit organizations that take the lead in state and local conservation efforts and collaborate with the National Wildlife Federation to conduct grassroots activities on national issues.
A History of Leadership in State Wildlife Conservation
When J. N. “Ding” Darling founded The National Wildlife Federation in 1936, he visualized a conservation army for wildlife conservation. One of his famous cartoons shows garden clubs, hunters, birders, and others marching to Capitol Hill and demanding action. He created a federation of state affiliates to ensure action at the state and federal level. This led to great success with National Wildlife Federation helping lead the way to pass the Pittman-Robertson Act, also known as the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937.
The Act established a fund for states for wildlife and their habitats from a federal excise tax on firearms. The Act was so successful that in 1950, the Dingell-Johnson Act (Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act) passed, using the same model for fishing gear. This was then expanded in 1984 with the Wallop-Breaux Act to include motor boat fuel. Together these acts have provided more than $20 billion to states.
Again, National Wildlife Federation and its affiliates played a strong role. Now we are among the leaders for the final piece of this three-legged stool to provide funding for species not hunted or fished through the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act.
With so many wildlife species in trouble, we must activate the conservation community, and as many Americans as possible. With broad support, dedication, tools, expertise, and funding, state wildlife agencies can step up to lead as they have before.
Complex societal trends reveal both hope and concern in engaging Americans. How people relate to wildlife is rapidly changing, as investigated by a strong team of researchers and available in the America’s Wildlife Values report (2018).Tapping into these new interests will take making communication, education, and recreation programs relevant for today and future.
Every state fish and wildlife agency deserves our attention, support, inspiration, motivation, and funding. Stronger state wildlife agencies will result from wildlife conservation leaders taking actions outlined in this toolkit.
State Fish and Wildlife Agencies
Challenges and Opportunities
Apart from the threats faced by wildlife, state wildlife agencies face at least five related challenges to recover wildlife and habitats in trouble— inadequate and constrained programs; lack of associated funding; lack of awareness from the broader public; and thus lack of broad support. The agencies’ structure, culture and governance reflects their origins and the success of a user pay, user -benefit funding source. Today, agencies must modernize to meet new demands and conserve all wildlife.
With every challenge comes opportunity. Outlined below are the main challenges and associated opportunities where coalitions will make a difference.
PROGRAMS INADEQUATE TO SOLVE GROWING WILDLIFE CRISIS
Most state wildlife agency programs and expertise are focused primarily on game and sportfish, because of significantly greater funding from those outdoor recreationists. This had led to a lack of expertise, information, and conservation for songbirds, salamanders and frogs, butterflies, pollinators and many other kinds of wildlife that are at the heart of our wildlife crisis. The smaller-sized programs are under-represented in agency leadership or decision making. Every agency has a State Wildlife Action Plan that lays out the Species of Greatest Conservation Need and the associated habitat needs with the best science available. However, the action plans are not yet sufficiently implemented and are not influencing agency priorities. Additionally, agencies may lack the full authority to manage all the state’s wildlife. The agency’s ability to fulfill their mission for all wildlife and all people is severely limited with these challenges.
Strong programs with greater staff with greater expertise
Increased expertise, staff and programs would dramatically increase agencies’ ability to tackle the direct needs of many declining species. Accelerated implementation of the agency’s State Wildlife Action Plan would help focus research, monitoring, and on-the-grounds actions like re-introduction of species and habitat restoration of Species in Greatest Need of Conservation. Carrying out State Wildlife Action Plans would also leverage other conservation actions, from private landowners to land trusts to bird observatories to the academic community in that state. The plan is meant to guide all interests not just the agencies.
Lack of united front in conservation community
America’s wildlife is a public trust—meaning that wildlife has no owners and therefore is entrusted to the people. You can own private property, but not the wildlife that dwells there. Wildlife belongs to all of us, and therefore we are its stewards, with our governments at various levels taking on the role of managing for the public good. This principle came as a response to the converse position in Europe where kings and others owned the wildlife. This public trust is a special opportunity for Americans of all stripes, not just our political leaders, to ensure wildlife thrive in a rapidly changing climate.
Because of the history of state wildlife management and how it has been funded, the most engaged constituents are hunters and anglers. They have a strong active relationship with the state wildlife agencies. Other wildlife conservation groups have often felt like their interests are ignored, since they don’t directly contribute towards funding the agency. Additionally, the wildlife community is fractured with one organization focusing on one species, and another on a different one. Some emphasize land and others only water. By not often working together towards all wildlife and their habitats, the broader wildlife community doesn’t provide a united front and is easier to disregard.
A rising tide lifts all boats: healthy wildlife and healthy habitat
All wildlife relies on abundant and healthy habitat. Most of the threats facing wildlife are common to all wildlife, and all agencies need greater funding. These elements can offer opportunities for the conservation community, as well as recreation and associated businesses, to work together to lift all boats. A broad and big coalition puts your state in the best possible position to secure strong support for agencies to manage and reliably fund all wildlife for all people. When varied interests come together, their many voices reach key players. An effective coalition creates unity over opposition of special interests. The power of “surround sound” to engage the media, influentials, and ultimately elected decision makers is remarkable. A united conservation community sends a message of real need and real power.
Changing recreational interests
While hunter numbers are significant at 11 million nationwide in 2016, participation has been declining and dropped by two million in just the last five years. Anglers increased from 33 to 36 million in the same period. Meanwhile, wildlife watching surged 20 percent from 72 million to 86 million participants (2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, & Wildlife-Related Recreation, USFWS). Wildlife watching includes the close-to-home bird feeding (59 Million) and wildlife gardening (8 million Americans), and the more active bird-watching (17 million Americans).
These numbers reflect a nation that connects with nature, but much differently than a century ago. We’re more urban, and ethnically and culturally diverse. Unfortunately, there is little infrastructure or skills training aimed at these growing wildlife enthusiasts. Nature photographers need blinds and early morning access. Budding birders would benefit from the availability of binocular rentals and guided nature walks. Wildlife gardeners want information on the best native plants for their area. Some of this is available from NGOs who have filled the void, but agencies have the opportunity to expand their reach to these other enthusiasts, or potentially lose them as constituents.
Tap into surging wildlife-watching constituency
A changing demographic offers a tremendous opportunity for state wildlife agencies to tap into that rising constituency for funding and support. Imagine if 86 million wildlife watching participants all understood the wildlife crisis, recognized the significance of healthy wildlife and habitats, and were willing to take action. At the same time that increasing numbers of people participate in birdwatching, the birds themselves are plummeting in numbers—from the red-headed woodpecker to the bobolink and Allen’s hummingbird.
State fish and wildlife agencies have strong programs to recruit, retain and reactivate hunters and anglers, but nothing comparable with those interested in participating in other recreational interests like birdwatching or nature photography. A strengthened state wildlife agency will provide recreational and educational opportunities for wildlife watchers—building engagement and relevancy, too.
Birders on a Field Trip
Hundreds of our 1,154 native birds species in the United States are in trouble without conservation action. Birders should be strong advocates for recreational and conservation related programs at their state agency.
When wildlife agencies meet demands of all wildlife recreationists, they are investing in the economic future of their state. The same USFWS 2016 report stated that 101 million Americans participated in wildlife-related recreation and spent $156 billion on equipment, travel, licenses and fees, and supported thousands of jobs. The related outdoor economy is booming ($887 billion in consumer spending resulting in 7.6 million jobs). As a result, a growing outdoor industry is vigorously advocating for the environment. This advocacy, along with that of the wildlife watchers, would be a momentous addition to Team Wildlife.
Too few people engaged in nature and even fewer with state wildlife agencies
While 40 percent of the populace participates in some wildlife-related recreation, that leaves 60 percent who do not, and are increasingly disconnected from nature. Wildlife is no longer a part of many people’s daily lives. The 2017 Nature of Americans report of 12,000 American adults and children surveyed found more than half of adults spent five hours or less in nature each week, and 8-12-year-old children spend three times as many hours with computers and televisions as they do playing outside. This report also shows some hope with Americans still having a deep and even growing interest in nature, but lack the experiences to strengthen this interest.
A disturbing disconnect also occurs with the public and their state wildlife agency. While all citizens have a stake in healthy fish and wildlife very few have a connection with their state wildlife agency, despite its charge to protect, restore and manage all wildlife for all citizens. The disconnect is often so great that it would be like sending your children to school with little idea of who cared for them each day—from teachers on up to the principal, superintendent, and school board. This detachment fuels a lack of adequate funding and overall concern for policies.
“Every citizen has a stake in and benefits from healthy fish and wildlife, but most have little contact with or understanding of the state agency responsible for their stewardship. To remain relevant, state fish and wildlife agencies will need to transform their structures, operations and cultures to meet the changing expectations of their customers. If state fish and wildlife agencies fail to adapt, their ability to manage fish and wildlife will be hindered and their public and political support compromised.”Blue Ribbon Panel on Sustaining America’s Diverse Fish and Wildlife Resources
Many citizens might even think their state parks department is the “authority” for wildlife, since they are more likely to have visited a state park than a state wildlife management area. Unless they are hunters and anglers, most hikers, paddlers, bird watchers, and backyard wildlife enthusiasts may not have interacted with their state fish and wildlife agency. The agency’s governance tends to represent only a narrow range of citizen interests in decision making, via their board or commission. This missing representation limits the agency’s support base and thus power to help wildlife.
The Nature Fix
Time spent in nature with wildlife nearby is good for everyone’s mental and physical health, according to the well-researched book, The Nature Fix. For example, studies showed that 15 minutes in the woods reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol. By increasing time in nature to 45 minutes, people in studies showed measurable improvements in cognitive performance.
Get people engaged and cultivate a conservation community
Given the chance, encouragement, and pathway, Americans want more wildlife and nature in their lives, as the Nature of Americans 2017 report reveals. Nature brings us happiness and clarity, and the more of it the better. More than the physical exertion of outdoor exercise, happiness is tied to the beauty of forests dappled in sunlight, the mellifluous song of a meadowlark, the rippling currents of a stream, and the unexpected appearance of a soaring hawk, trotting fox, or a bear padding by. Getting children outdoors, where studies show time in nature leads to healthier, stronger kids, promotes creativity, increases attention spans, decreases aggression, and improves learning in the classroom. Important to our cause, research also shows children who spend time in nature regularly become better stewards of the environment. These data also hold true for adults!
State fish and wildlife agencies can play a significant role in formal and informal education by leading people of all ages to nature, to wildlife, near and far. They can expand their educational outreach to schools, partner with state parks and nature centers, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, and create more citizen science opportunities. The very future of wildlife and the wildlife agencies depends upon that success.
Too little money for state wildlife agencies
State fish and wildlife agencies face a double challenge with funding—the need to diversify funding sources to benefit the full range of wildlife, and the simple need for more money for conservation.
Hunter numbers are declining nationally and thus traditional associated funding for wildlife agencies is dropping. These hunters and anglers have long paid for licenses and user fees (excise taxes) on gear that has provided the majority of funding for state wildlife agencies. The model has led to impressive conservation and restoration of wildlife and their habitats. The emphasis on game species has benefited many non-hunted species, too, and a wide range of recreationists. For example, protecting quail habitat conserves declining grassland songbird havens. Conserving rivers and providing accessible fishing offers outstanding opportunities for birders and paddlers, too.
However, the funding is far less than what agencies need to meet their full mission and reflects only one arm of the entire constituency for wildlife. Because of the user-pay, user-benefit model, the structural organization of most agencies emphasizes game species management, while other wildlife programs (often titled wildlife diversity or in some cases nongame programs) receive little attention or funding. But the fact remains that agencies are responsible for a much broader suite of fish and wildlife than just those that are hunted or fished.
Moving Beyond User Pay, User Benefit
Strengthening state wildlife agencies means giving them the means, ability, and support for strong wildlife diversity programs, while continuing to honor the hunting and angling traditions. Added funding is critical to address the 12,000 animal and plant species identified in the State Wildlife Action Plans, and to better serve all outdoor recreationists. Moving beyond a user-pay, user-benefit system is necessary when wildlife is the public trust—the responsibility of all to fund and for the benefits to extend to the greater public.
What does success look like?
We offer this vision of a future strengthened state wildlife agency to inspire you and others, and to invite you to create a vision specific for your own state. What are we building with all these tools? What will that final “house” look like?
Every state wildlife agency has staff expertise and resources to address the full suite of wildlife and ecological challenges facing the state, including climate change. They have full program responsibility/authority, recognized in law, to conserve all wildlife species and native plants. Similarly, they have the capacity to meet the demands of all outdoor recreationists and reach out to all people in the state, through formal and informal education programs, who have yet to discover the importance of wildlife in their lives.
Positioned for Success
Every agency is fully equipped and re-tooled to solve the wildlife crisis and manage all wildlife for all people. The agency’s structure, operations and culture are representative of the full array of wildlife, outdoor recreationists, and all citizens of the state.
Every agency has widespread support for its mission of conserving wildlife and habitat. Every agency has the trust, popularity and funding to conserve wildlife and habitats and provide education and recreation opportunities. Hunters and birders and gardeners alike are motivated to work together to conserve all wildlife, unified by a common desire to enjoy the outdoors, hike, paddle, and to pass on a love of nature to youth.
Every agency has adequate and reliable funding necessary to proactively conserve wildlife at levels identified in State Wildlife Action Plans. The funding comes from public sources and gives the agency the ability to provide education and outdoor recreation and nurture the next generation of people who care about wildlife and habitat.
What’s your vision?
We encourage each state coalition to write a vision for a strong state wildlife agency and offer the following as one example. Feel free to use, modify, or start from scratch. See also Action 3. Engage State Agency Leadership. Please customize!
In my state, strong game and sportfish programs now include equally vibrant wildlife diversity programs with leadership at top levels and biologists and ecologists employed that fill in missing gaps—from entomologists (insect scientists) to ornithologists (bird scientists). Habitat is managed for the full breadth of wildlife.
Our education and outdoor recreation programs extend across rural and urban areas, engaging people in nature through wildlife viewing, hands-on participation, and citizen science. As we strengthen existing partnerships with hunting and fishing groups, we also work closely with the entire outdoors community and outdoor-related business in new partnerships, like expanding hiking and canoe trails into new areas that simultaneously protect wildlife habitat. We engage in ecotourism with birding and other wildlife trails. We develop and grow partnerships with native plant societies, master gardeners and master naturalists on behalf of pollinators. We support local communities, including city parks and schools to restore wildlife habitat. We partner with zoos, aquariums, and botanical gardens to reach their many visitors eager to safely experience wildlife close-up.
Reliable and consistent wildlife funding gives all state residents a way to join hunters and anglers in contributing to fish and wildlife conservation. Our State Wildlife Action Plan is fully funded, and more species are recovered every year with dedicated funding to solving the crisis through research, monitoring, habitat restoration and protection including habitat connectivity. Private landowners have financial assistance and guidance to conserve and manage habitat, from backyards to woodlands, grasslands, and farms.
Our state wildlife agency is popular and well known everywhere. Our commission/board reflects the diversity of the state’s public as well as active constituencies. Our state legislature supports the state wildlife agency to make science-based decisions. Diverse conservation and recreation interests have come together to resolve competing visions and move forward to conserve wildlife and habitats. The economic value of the full array of outdoor recreation and nature-based infrastructure is well understood and valued in decision making. Public participation in wildlife decision-making is high, along with trust, and good will.
An important note: other state, local and federal agencies undertake significant work that benefits wildlife in many ways. All of these agencies working together can greatly improve the future for wildlife. However, the state fish and wildlife agencies have the full authority and mission to specifically address fish and wildlife. Thus, this toolkit focuses on these agencies. Our hope is that the more state wildlife agencies are able to fully address the wildlife crisis, the better they can partner with other agencies. All these agencies deserve our active support.
Header photo credit: Jeremy Mathieu