Engage, support and inspire state agency leadership and governing entities to create the future state wildlife agency by expanding the successful model of conservation for game species to all wildlife and to expand wildlife-related outdoor recreation and education to all people.
Fulfilling Agency Mission: Expanding Capacity, Expertise, Leadership
State wildlife agencies mission statements (check your agency here) lay out their charge and duty to take care of all wildlife for all people. These agencies have a proven track record with game and sportfish, employing well trained professional biologists to apply proven wildlife management techniques to recover numerous wildlife species. The agencies have staff dedicated to waterfowl, upland birds, furbearers, big game (deer, elk), and sportfish. These programs and their managers lead the agency at the highest levels working closely with the agency director. We need to replicate this expertise and capacity for other wildlife species and incorporate these staff into leadership roles as well.
Wildlife diversity programs are often a division within the agency that manages a large suite of mammals, birds, amphibians, invertebrates, and sometimes plants that typically are not game or sportfish. These programs would ideally have expertise from biologists with expertise in various species and habitats. See Texas’s job description for an invertebrate biologist here. With our growing wildlife crisis we must increase both agency expertise, capacity, and ability to include the needs of all wildlife when making important habitat restoration and acquisition decisions. Currently, wildlife diversity programs with their limited funding and few staff (some as low as 3) often fall lower in the agency structure and have limited means to inform agency leadership decision making.
State wildlife agency staff created a “functional model” that shows key areas for growth for the agencies (link here). Also, you can find here examples of several wildlife diversity programs (Montana, Idaho, Georgia and Missouri).
Joining the need for capacity and expertise is the importance of expanding programs to meet today’s challenges. For example, most states do not have an urban wildlife program, even as more people live in cities. Some do. Texas serves as a model for hosting an urban biologist in all of their largest cities.
While several states work with municipalities (Maine, New Hampshire and Texas), most do not provide technical assistance to guide the emerging pollinator habitat and wildlife aspects of green infrastructure, including transportation, water and climate resiliency. As our natural world shrinks, these urban areas offer the potential to restore wildlife habitat while reaching people where they live.
Law enforcement is rightly focused on protecting our wildlife from poaching and illegal activity tied to hunting and fishing regulations. In our nation’s past, misuse or non-existent laws resulted in drastic loss of fish and wildlife. Today we need more enforcement, and in some cases establishment of new laws, to protect other species such as reptiles and amphibians. Conservation officers also are on the front line in public places and play a vital role as educators. Ensuring they have good information to share about all wildlife will allow them to serve as wildlife ambassadors for the agency.
Finally, agencies need human dimension staff to better understand the social values, behavior and needs of the various citizens in their state. This information is critical for agencies to evolve as their state changes over the next 100 years.
Broadened and expanded recreation and education programs are important to every state. These critical programs meet the demands of rising numbers of gardening, birding, nature photography and other outdoor constituencies, while interpreting nature for an increasingly disconnected population. Programs could include expanding access, enhancing wildlife viewing sites, skills training, and formal and informal education programs for urban, suburban and rural communities.
Many states (including Virginia, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Delaware) created birding trails that offer greater recreation and economic growth for local economies. Maryland DNR’s Master Naturalist program, much like a Master Gardener program, trains people in natural history who then volunteer at least 40 hours per year to help steward the natural world. Master Naturalist programs in some ways are akin to agencies’ long-standing hunter education classes.
West Virginia’s Wildlife Diversity Program used to host a popular annual Weekend for Wildlife that provided outdoor learning for adults and children alike. New Hampshire hosts a Discover WILD New Hampshire day to teach outdoor skills. Utah’s Department of Natural Resources hosts an annual bald eagle day. These events create a fun, safe and easy way for people to learn about wildlife.
Information and Education programs have a significant job to do to alert people to the wildlife crisis. Agency website and materials should showcase species, habitats and actions from the State Wildlife Action Plan.
How an agency is structured affects each program’s role in the agency. States structure their agency differently, with some focusing on species or categories of wildlife, habitat type, or kinds of work (habitat, research, education, etc.). California has their “nongame” program within their wildlife branch, which is typical of most agencies. Some agencies also have integrated wildlife diversity staff and projects within several branches, instead of a stand-alone program; South Carolina, Ohio, and Colorado are examples.
Florida is one of the most recent states to re-organize to fully support their full mission and is the best example to date. (Georgia and Nevada elevated their wildlife diversity programs even with lack of significant funding to ensure these programs were participating in key agency decisions. See how your agency is organized here; be sure to ask for the agency’s latest organizational chart to ensure you have the most up-to-date version.
Legislative authority needed to expand state agency’s role?
To better equip state wildlife agencies to manage all wildlife, agencies might need more legislative authority to expand their responsibilities. Some wildlife agencies, for instance, do not have the legal authority to manage plants or insects (list number), and cannot address monarch butterflies and other pollinators directly, except in terms of habitat. This lack of legal authority reflects antiquated policies from state legislatures that viewed plants and insects as crop or nuisance species and placed them under the authority of their agriculture department. Importantly some agencies might not even have the legal authority at the state level to protect endangered species. This is increasingly important as the federal Endangered Species Act becomes a target for elimination or reduced authority. California, with among the highest number of endangered species including plants, has a program focused on native plants, as does Georgia which employs a trained botanist. Additional authority ideas are outlined in AFWA’s Functional Model.
While other state, local and federal agencies also have significant roles to play in wildlife conservation placing conservation responsibilities under one roof with a conservation mission is crucial.
A vision for a future state wildlife agency is at chapter’s end.
Developing Rapport with Leadership
State wildlife agencies are either independent agencies or are part of a larger department, most often a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) of which they are a division. The wildlife director reports to the DNR secretary who is part of the Governor’s cabinet and has an overall board that governs it. An independent agency will have a commission that typically has governor involvement in the appointments. The director has a straight line to the governor, but is not part of the governor’s cabinet. In engaging agency leadership you will want to understand your agency situation and leadership.
State fish and wildlife agency directors and senior leadership and their commissioners/board members have developed excellent rapport over the decades with the hunting and angling segments of outdoor recreationists. In most cases, the leadership has not yet developed a similar rapport, outreach, and support for the full spectrum of outdoor recreationists, like hikers, nature photographers, climbers, birdwatchers, paddlers, and gardeners. Similarly, there’s a need to build rapport, trust, and outreach with a wider range of conservation nonprofits for agencies to serve the public trust responsibly. For state wildlife agencies to lead, they must have the full capacity, the commitment, and the constituency to succeed.
As in all our endeavors, there’s nothing like getting to know people one-on-one to find out the many things we share in common — starting with a passion for wildlife. Creating strong relationships with agencies and commissioners will allow more communication and trust that in turn builds support for expanding the successful conservation model to all wildlife and all people. Remember, the agency directors want this strong relationship with you too.
Good Governance for Managing Wildlife in the 21st century
A key reason to focus on motivating state wildlife agency leadership is to help them with the task of good governance for wildlife that works in today’s society with its complex suite of threats to wildlife and changing demographics.
Recognizing the agencies serve managers of wildlife for the people of the state, often referred to as the public trust doctrine, there are numerous articles and ideas for how they might reflect this enormous responsibility. State agencies themselves have hosted workshops. Others have shared lessons learned and academics have provided advice. Good government starts with good public citizens exercising their rights to share their ideas and undertake constructive dialogue. Agency commissions/boards are one of best avenues for citizens to publicly share their opinions.
Enlist your coalition to empower state wildlife agencies. Keep your goal in sight—to increase their expertise, capacity, funding, and governance ability to address the growing wildlife crisis and meet the increasing demand of outdoor enthusiasts who fuel our nation’s growing outdoor economy. Get to know the directors. Get to know the commissioners and others in leadership. Participate in meetings and public comments.
This action section will help you navigate the system to develop meaningful and respectful relationships. The first section focuses on state fish and wildlife directors and the second on agency commissions/boards. Find useful tips, case studies and additional materials at the end.
Wildlife Governance Principles
Here are ten principles of good governance for all wildlife agencies—state and federal alike—to serve as a guide for both ecologically and socially responsible wildlife conservation. The intent is to address systemic problems and to encourage people inside and outside agencies to work to achieve them:
- WILDLIFE GOVERNANCE WILL be adaptable and responsive to citizens’ current needs and interests, while also being forward-looking to conserve options of future generations.
- WILDLIFE GOVERNANCE WILL seek and incorporate multiple and diverse perspectives.
- WILDLIFE GOVERNANCE WILL apply social and ecological science, citizens’ knowledge, and trust administrators’ judgment.
- WILDLIFE GOVERNANCE WILL produce multiple, sustainable benefits for all beneficiaries.
- WILDLIFE GOVERNANCE WILL ensure that trust administrators are responsible for maintaining trust resources and allocating benefits from the trust.
- WILDLIFE GOVERNANCE WILL be publicly accessible and transparent.
- WILDLIFE GOVERNANCE WILL ensure that trust administrators are publicly accountable.
- WILDLIFE GOVERNANCE WILL include means for citizens to become informed and engaged in decision making.
- WILDLIFE GOVERNANCE WILL include opportunities for trust administrators to meet their obligations in partnerships with non-governmental entities.
- WILDLIFE GOVERNANCE WILL facilitate collaboration and coordination across ecological, jurisdictional and ownership boundaries.
1. Engage State Fish & Wildlife Agency Directors
How well do you know your state wildlife agency director? The senior leadership? The director of the wildlife diversity program? The State Wildlife Action Plan staff? What do they know about your group and your interests?
We recommend you meet with them and start cultivating relationships. Let them know you support them in their efforts to prevent wildlife from becoming endangered, to broaden the constituency for wildlife, and to increase funding. The more they can see groups ready to act and support addressing the wildlife crisis, the more inspired they will be to take action. This is a partnership between the agency and the conservation community.
When a new director is being hired, proactively identify potential agency directors and advocate for their appointment. State agency directors are either appointed by a Commission (20 states) or a Governor (30 states). See your state here.
As wildlife becomes increasingly political, state director turnover also increases, with the average tenure as little as one and a half to three years. Thinking ahead will help assure your agency has strong leadership.
We suggest three steps to take for success:
1. Develop a good relationship with your state director.
We strongly encourage in-person meetings in offices and outdoors with your state director. Get to know each other on a first name basis. You don’t need to share all the same views. However, look for what you do hold in common as people who care about wildlife. Maybe it’s a favorite lake, picnic spot, vista, fishing hole, or hike. Be open-minded, a listener, and also direct about what you’d like to see happen to strengthen your state fish and wildlife agency.
Let the director know you are on his or her side — you want to help them take the next step to solve the wildlife crisis and raise the influence, reach, scope, and funding of the agency to manage all wildlife for all people. Be sure they know you are eager to play a role in securing greater and more reliable funding, something they cannot do on their own.
2. Meet regularly with the director, as well as senior leadership, and wildlife diversity leaders.
After a first meeting, continue checking in and also getting to know the people in charge of various programs of the agency. Be sensitive to people’s busy schedules. Your meetings need not be long and should have a reason besides saying hello, from sharing your position on a current issue to giving an update on coalition building. Ask them where the agency needs help right now. Often, the agency cannot speak up, but we can! It’s your chance to ask what’s important to them and engage in a respectful and results-oriented dialogue.
3. Proactively identify potential agency directors and advocate for their appointment.
As noted earlier, states have different processes for appointing agency directors. They might be appointed by the governor or by the commission. The change in guard offers an opportunity to recruit and advocate for a champion willing to advocate and lead on solving the wildlife crisis, expanding constituencies, and bringing people together.
2. Engage the Agency Commission or Board Leadership
Most state fish and wildlife agencies have a commission or a board that oversee them. Commissions and boards are very influential—enacting policies and regulations to be carried out by the agencies (see commission fact sheet and guidebook. They have great power over the agency and often are a valuable link to state legislators, their Governor and other influential people.
First, find out how your own state fish and wildlife agency runs. Does it have a commission or a board? Sometimes an agency can have additional forms of oversight or expertise including advisory councils like the Washington Wildlife Diversity Advisory Council (see more below).
Who is on the commission and what are the requirements to be a member? The average number of commission members is nine, with each commissioner having an average term of six years. Most Commissioners are appointed by the governor. Some states also require confirmation by the state legislature. The requirements for individual commissioners vary by state. Approximately 20 states call for interest, knowledge, or experience in wildlife and conservation. See your state here.
Commissioner/ Board Eligibility Requirements:
Formal degree related to conservation and natural resources (1 state)
Water resource conservation background/expertise (2 states)
Diversity of expertise (2 states)
Interest, knowledge or experience in fish and wildlife (6 states)
Interest or experience in hunting and fishing (10 states)
Experience, knowledge or education in agriculture/farming (11 states)
In addition, most commissions do not yet reflect the diversity of Americans. From data collected in 2015, gender and race were not well represented on commissions. There was only one woman or no women on 74% of commissions/boards, and only 20% had at least one person of color. However, more women than ever are agency directors (Five in 2019; ME, RI, MT, MO, OH) which bodes well for diversifying commissions. A strong and broad conservation-focused commission/board is important for an agency to have strong and broad policies, budgets, and priorities. Work with your Governor and state legislature to ensure representation of all your state’s citizens.
When do commissions and boards meet? The meeting date and agenda usually is required by law to be publicized (find your agency’s meeting schedule). Check the agency website or call the director’s office and ask to be notified. Go to the leadership in nonprofit groups that are well versed in state fish and wildlife public involvement and get their advice. Your National Wildlife Federation affiliate is a great place to start.
Suggested topics for meetings. Be sure to share your ideas and vision of the future state wildlife agency.
- State Wildlife Action Plans: Ask for updates on the State Wildlife Action Plan including progress on priorities and new actions underway. How are they incorporating the plan into overall agency planning, staffing and performance measures?
- Climate Change: Ask for updates on how the agency is incorporating climate change or extreme weather into their short and long-term overall agency plans. Ask if they have trained their staff or brought in new expertise. Ask if they are monitoring these changes in the state’s wildlife and associated habitat.
- Recruit, retain, and reactivate a range of outdoor enthusiasts: Ask what the agency is doingand what they might do if they had more capacity to provide services for these enthusiasts?
- Public Outreach: Ask how the agency is reaching out to the larger public about the state’s wildlife and habitats and conservation needs. What more would the agency like to do?
- Commission/Board Members: Recommend that the commission or board be representative of the full array of the wildlife constituency. Suggest names or background.
- Funding: What are the agency’s full needs for funding, such as for implementation of the State Wildlife Action Planand broadened recreation and education programs.
Here are key steps to engage the agency board or commission leadership:
1. Attend and actively participate in commission/board meetings and encourage partners to do the same.
Ask for your issues to be on the agenda. Speak up during the public comment time or question and answers associated with other issues. Recruit members of your group and others to come with you and show support just by being there, even if not speaking. See this tipsheet on attending and speaking at such meetings. A sample agenda is provided here.
2. Get to know your current commissioners/board members.
Typically, your state wildlife agency will list the commissioners or board members on their website and how to contact them. Get to know them outside of meetings. Let them know what’s important to you. Find out what’s important to them, and what you might have in common, or might steer clear of as an issue. If they live in your area, meet with them in person. Invite them to your group’s meeting or into the field. Consider them as part of the influentials for helping with other aspects of this toolkit like the media. By influential, we mean people who can pick up a phone or get an in-person meeting with a key decision leader.
3. Proactively identify potential commissioners/board members who support managing all fish and wildlife for all people; encourage them to serve.
Note when terms expire for commissioners/board members. Don’t wait to see who the governor appoints, (if that’s your state’s process). Cultivate leaders willing to serve that would be supportive of strengthening your state fish and wildlife agency—expanding its constituency and including facets of the outdoor and wildlife community not represented yet. Look for people who are bridge builders, open-minded, good listeners, and effective advocates for taking action to solve the wildlife crisis through a funding campaign. Look for people that reflect your state’s ethnicities, race, and gender.
4. Advocate for appointment of visionary commissioners with governor and legislators.
Advocate for people you believe should serve on the commission/board. Set up appointments with the governor and legislators. Even without specific commissioners in mind, set up a meeting with the governor or legislator. Prepare a list of the issues you care about, and the experience and backgrounds you would hope to see represented. If needed, advocate with state legislatures for changes to the eligibility of the commission to reflect the full diversity of interests.
State Wildlife Action Plan
While your agency might not yet have strong wildlife diversity allies on its commission or board, some states have advisory groups with expertise that often is used to inform their State Wildlife Action Plan (e.g. NJ, WA NC). You should determine their composition, meeting schedule and attend these meetings as well.
In Texas, advisory council members are authorized by the state legislature. The commission selects members who then convene to provide recommendations to the commission. Committee members represent landowners and conservation organizations. They advise the department on matters pertaining to management, research and outreach activities related to nongame and rare species in the State of Texas, including the following: (1) development and implementation of wildlife diversity related projects, grants, and policy, (2) wildlife diversity conservation and regulations, (3) education and communications with various constituent groups and individuals interested in wildlife diversity in the State of Texas.
State Wildlife Action Plan Public Participation
The federally mandated revisions of the State Wildlife Action Plans offer an excellent avenue for the public to weigh in. Authorized by Congress and required to get federal State Wildlife Grants, every state wildlife agency must update their action plans at least every 10 years. These plans contain eight elements, including broad public participation. The revisions are tremendous opportunities to provide scientific expertise, and to speak up for agency priorities in terms of species, habitats, threats and actions. Many agencies have used revisions to assemble a broad range of interests with a goal of stronger plans and stronger partners.
State Wildlife Action Plan
- Information on the distribution and abundance of wildlife including list of Species of Greatest Conservation Need
- Locations and condition of key habitats and communities
- Problems for species and their habitats, including priority research and survey needs
- Conservation actions for species and habitats
- Monitoring plans for species, habitats and actions effectiveness
- Procedure to update plan, not less than every ten years
- Plans to coordinate development, review, revision and implementation with federal, state, local agencies and Indian tribes
- Broad public participation
Future State Fish & Wildlife Agency
Here are some elements to consider for envisioning your future state fish and wildlife agency. Please customize to best fit your state. In our state we would like to see:
Strong conservation program for all wildlife:
- Focus on preventing wildlife from becoming endangered
- State Wildlife Action Plan recognized as leading blueprint for wildlife planning and implementation.
- State Wildlife Action Plan priorities integrated into other state/local agency and private plans (e.g. transportation, forest, water, parks, land trusts).
- Recover threatened and endangered species.
- Secure and enhance wildlife habitat as identified in State Wildlife Action Plans (via acquisition, easements, restoration).
- Legislative authority to manage all species including invertebrates like butterflies, native plants and endangered species.
- Climate change integrated into agency planning and implementation.
- Wildlife management areas dedicated to conserving all wildlife.
- Citizen science programs established or expanded (e.g. Master Naturalist).
- Urban wildlife programs established in largest cities (e.g. pollinator habitat, assistance to urban planners on connectivity, natural solutions for climate resilience).
A strong recreation program for all citizens:
- Recruit, retain, and reactivate programs for broad range of outdoor enthusiasts from birders to gardeners, to hikers and paddlers, to hunters and anglers, and nature photographers.
- Develop and enhance wildlife viewing sites providing viewing blinds and observation platforms, field guides, self-guided tours, and on-site guides and equipment.
- Provide outdoor skills trainings (how to and where to clinics like Discover WILD New Hampshire Day) for birding, photography, camping, hunting, fishing, gardening for wildlife.
- Increase access for wildlife viewing and other outdoor recreation through trails, easements, facility development, and land protection.
- Promote ecologically sensitive economic development with strong partnerships on nature-based
- tourism like birding trails (e.g. John James Audubon Birding Trail in Kentucky (link).
- Support wildlife festivals, wildlife viewing events, and nature photography contests.
- Partner with recreation based organizations and agencies to provide more wildlife related recreation.
A strong education program for all citizens:
- Connecting children and adults alike to nature and the outdoors experience through formal and informal education programs across urban, suburban, rural areas.
- Expand Project Wild, Project Wet and Project Learning Tree programs to reach more schools.
- Develop additional teacher materials and training to help link environmental literacy to existing curriculum standards from pre-k through high school.
- Recommend curriculum improvements to meet the emerging needs of undergraduate and graduate natural resource professionals.
- Provide outdoor classroom opportunities for urban, suburban and rural youth.
- Provide summer and other camps information on local native wildlife.
- Partner with state and local parks, nature centers, museums, zoos, aquariums and botanical gardens to highlight native wildlife.
Modernize the agency to meet today’s demands and culture:
- Elevate wildlife diversity efforts and programs in the agency structure to be part of leadership.
- Ensure representation of the full range of nature-based activities and a growing, changing constituency on governance bodies.
- Assure increased attention to diversity, inclusion and equity for the entire public constituency for wildlife.
- Be as transparent and accountable as the agency serves more diverse stakeholders.
- Greater and more reliable funding for expanded capacity and expertise.
- Public financing to ensure all citizens are contributing to wildlife conservation.
- Commission/Board Fact sheet
- Meeting schedules
- Commissioner/Board composition and eligibility
- Example Agenda (WA)
- Responsibilities and Guide
- Public testimony tips
Agency Governance, Programs, Authorities
- State Fish and Wildlife Agency fact sheet
- Agency mission statements
- Agency Organizational Examples
- Governance, Public Input, Public Trust, Transformation Change
- Programs, Capacity, Expertise
Header photo credit: C. Kelly | NCWRC