burying our political differences for conservation
In my last four blogs, I pointed to the collapse of two very different species, the red knot and bobwhite quail. Most know they have very different life histories — one migrates to the other end of the world while the quail never leaves home. Few would know these two birds are the concern of disparate political constituencies; hunters defend quail, bird watchers defend red knots. That both species have declined, despite this diverse constituency, points to significant failure of the American conservation system and the need for new and transformational approaches.
I suggested in my last blog that one new approach is to give people a direct appreciation of wildlife and encourage crowd-sourced answers to longstanding problems. For example, allowing citizens with an interest to band birds to do so, under peer supervision, will increase our scientific understanding of all birds in the process. Or we can speed the recovery of horseshoe crabs on Delaware Bay by enlisting thousands of people to rescue trapped and overturned crabs. In both cases, the public gets a truly intimate understanding of individual animals and the problems they face. Hunters and fishermen understand this because the animals they harvest are part of the monitoring system that informs the management of fish and wildlife populations.
If some big portion of the 72 million US citizens who appreciate wildlife had direct, “hands-on” experiences with wildlife, it would naturally compel them to express their interest politically. This brings us to the second new possibility for transforming wildlife conservation. There are millions of people who care for wildlife in this country, but, unfortunately for wildlife, they are divided by ideology. Partisan politics are preventing an important coalition of conservationists from becoming a truly powerful voice. Once again, look at quail and red knots. These species are the concern of two powerful groups separated by ideology. Typically left-of-center birders are turned off by guns and the killing of wildlife, and typically right-of-center hunters and fishermen eschew government intrusion and regulations as the prime source of conservation. In other words, the issues that divide the American public divide American conservationists.
But is this reasonable? It may be at the national level, but at the state and local level the differences are less substantive. For example, the South Jersey Bayshore Coalition is a group of environmental non-profits focusing on issues related to the Delaware Bay. Although the group includes nearly every non-profit conservation group in New Jersey, it does not include the NJ Sportsmen’s Federation — the largest and probably most politically powerful conservation group in the state. When I ask, no one really knows why this is so, but in short order the differences between the groups arise – guns and individual rights versus government regulation and non- or anti-hunting leanings. These are not small differences for many people, but given the near collapse in protection of wildlife in this state and others, one has to ask the obvious question – Is the focus on divisive issues important enough to disregard the serious conservation issues of this region?
This same partisan division goes on in government agencies that we depend upon to solve conservation problems. In most states, including NJ, each new governor brings in a long list of appointees that spends at least the first two years of their four-year tenure trying to undo the actions of the previous partisan appointees. “Red” solutions lean toward making the government pay for protection (by buying land); “Blue” solutions tend toward increased regulation to prevent inappropriate use. Both solutions fail in absence of the other, and the appointees, who rarely have any real conservation experience (or ultimate responsibility for long-term outcomes) rely on their respective conservation partisans for answers.
How do we stop this? One way is for conservationists to work together to build a coalition of users – not groups — to contribute funds and lobby on behalf of wildlife. Once again, sportsmen have shown us the successful path. They pay for the right to pursue their sport which supports protection and management of wildlife populations through state and federal wildlife agencies (e.g., NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife and US Fish and Wildlife Service) that are responsive to their interests. When wildlife agencies become unresponsive, hunters and fishermen act politically to make things right.
What if birders created a similar effort that compelled every single person who watches or photographs wildlife to buy a stamp — not unlike duck stamps or the tax on hunting and fishing equipment — where the money goes to a dedicated fund for use in new initiatives. Bird/wildlife watchers and photographers could join hunters and fishermen in watching over the use of funding and the activities of the agencies supported by it. If the agencies fail to act on an important issue, or they act incompetently, then wildlife watchers, hunters and fishermen can act politically to make changes.
Most will say this can’t be done because the economy is depressed and people mistrust government too much; but they are wrong. The best conservation system ever known to this country — the system that currently protects most game species — started during the Great Depression and is funded by hunters and fishermen, many of whom are proud members of the groups that speak the loudest against government. For the sake of conservation, sportsmen ignore partisanship when it comes to wildlife. Why can’t all conservationists do the same, ignore our political differences and create a new conservation system that protects all wildlife.