I’ve spent some time over the last couple of years hanging out with some guys in my conservation group and have come to realize that there is at least a generation of mistrust between the average hunter/angler and state Fish and Wildlife Departments. I hear it all the time at the informational meetings and sporting shows that I go to; “They don’t know what they’re talking about!” or “They’re only doing it for the money” and variations of that from any number of sportspeople, usually with a fair amount of gray in their hair. The genesis of these statements comes from a number of places, and they aren’t always wrong when viewed with the advantage of hindsight. Most of the folks saying these things feel like they have been fed half-truths in the past, or seen Department decisions that have gone wrong.
I have also recently had the opportunity to engage with multiple staff members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and VT Department of Fish and Wildlife around a deer yard survey, hikes to remote ponds to help stock brook trout fry, and other coordinated efforts. In addition to feeling good about helping out, these opportunities have allowed me to gain a sense of agency folks, biologists, and wardens as real people. Just a couple of weeks ago I sat back and listened as one biologist chatted with a couple of guys on the current state of fishing. He listened, then was able to share a bunch of knowledge, admit what he didn’t know and express a bunch of the nuance around the process of improvement. It was an illuminating conversation for all of us standing there.
Biologists and staff of these departments seem to get lambasted at every turn and feel pushback from every side – citizens, commissioners, and legislators, to name just a few. I imagine that hunters and anglers sometimes make them tired of doing their jobs. We pick apart every word and statement and often back them into a corner. We usually hold the person giving a presentation accountable for something that happened 40 years ago, when they might not have even been alive. While we need to stay engaged and keep government agencies accountable, we should also consider that we are dealing with people. We also have unrealistic expectations – big bucks behind every tree, massive trout that will take any fly we offer, and numbers of critters that the landscape can’t support. State Fish and Wildlife agencies have to operate within legal, biological, and budgetary limits, despite what we want.
How do we rectify this often-times contentious situation?
As hunters, we should work on better recognizing the difference between science at a population scale across a landscape compared to our own anecdotal experiences. Both of these pieces of information are valuable, but they are different. The science side deals with what can be proven, and with what can be demonstrated as statistically meaningful, often over time. Our anecdotal experiences are more often a snapshot of a single location over time, or a single location in a single instance. The challenge is that science changes, so what might be “true” now might be different than what is “true” in a decade. This is a hard pill for many of us to swallow. It feels like we’re being lied to when it happens, yet science does change. This change is hopefully improvement with the big picture in mind. Ultimately, I think we have to operate with the thought that the on-the-ground staff are trying their best.
Agency folks would do well to recognize the value of anecdotal experiences over time. While one person’s experience may not be quantitatively valuable to a population, these experiences are no less valid. The experience of one person is ultimately what the agency is after, and is a measure of qualitative value. It is what is happening to one of the department’s customers. Wildlife managers are trained in wildlife management, but may have received little official training in how to effectively communicate with the public. There can be a lot of bumps in the road as well-meaning scientists learn to communicate with a wide range of hunters and fishers, as well as the general public.
I have found, in my work in the conservation space, that developing relationships is the key to making things happen. Getting to know a person as a person, rather than as their job or agency, makes all the difference. Knowing that the person I am in a meeting with has kids and outside interests and is scary smart about weird things helps me understand her perspective a little. I try to take time to cultivate these relationships, not for gain, but because I value the work that person does. In the complicated world of policy and management, I think we need to take steps to communicate effectively.
First, we each need to understand that we are talking about different things, with different languages and viewed through different lenses. Neither side is necessarily right or wrong (these things aren’t that simple), but different, with goals that are related, but not exactly the same. We must also recognize that we are ultimately dealing, on both sides, with people, and people can be funny. We all come with our own sets of biases and thoughts, at different points in our lives, which can make moving the needle on an issue challenging.
Second, after recognizing the above, we need to sit down and have a conversation. This is the most important thing we can. These conversations need to be had without a purpose or a plan, without the idea that we’re going to change someone’s mind or influence policy. Simply sit down over a cup of coffee or a beer, and hear each other. Listening is a skill that needs to be practiced. Too often, when the other party is speaking, we hear one thing and start to plan our response, without hearing the rest of what is being shared. Instead, we need to listen, think, and then respond. Pauses and quiet moments are good. Asking questions to clarify is helpful. Seek to understand the other before seeking to be understood. Understanding someone doesn’t mean you have to agree with them; just knowing where someone is coming from is helpful.
After that first fruitful conversation, where nobody tried to change anyone’s mind but we know where everyone is at, we should have other conversations. This is the start of the relationship. In most cases, we will eventually find common ground with the other party. If I am a hunter who likes timber management in a particular area, I may not agree with the new local biologist about some plans for reserve areas for old growth forest, but I know we can find areas that we do agree on, like putting a gate up to protect a road from eroding into a nearby stream. The two of us should focus on the areas where we agree and work together on those things. The more we work together, the more we can appreciate the other person’s stance in those areas of disagreement. Without seeking to change anyone’s mind, we can come to a level of understanding that informs the large middle ground where we do agree.
The tension in these situations is productive, and starts with each of us not assuming we are fully correct, nor assuming the other person is wholly wrong. All the easy questions have been answered. We are going to disagree, and that disagreement helps us assess the decisions that get made. Our society has become somewhat divisive around many issues, making people chose sides or stop talking when there is divergence, rather than working together. Convenient, half-truth sound bites and social media posts fail to convey the underlying nuance that exists out there, in the real world. We need to remember how to effectively communicate with those we disagree with.
With science as the backbone of the North American Model of Wildlife Management, and policy being the intersection between science and public goals for wildlife, incorporating both of these elements certainly gets complicated. The issue is not usually the goal itself, but rather it is the pathways we each want to follow to achieve that goal that differ. Complicating it further, the actual habitat on the landscape that the species we care about is influenced by multitudes of landowners and interests. It has become ever more challenging to be effective. To get things done, we can start to have intelligent conversations with each other and learn from every interaction. We need to know enough to have opinion, and never stop gaining knowledge, never assume we know all there is to know. Speaking of knowing, we can all get to know one another as people who love wildlife and wild places. We can start to understand each other more and develop a solid working relationship rather than operating ineffectively within our respective echo chambers.
Because of these conversations and relationships, more conservation gets done. That is a win!