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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Last Birder in the Woods?

The new administration has proposed creating a 21st Century Youth Conservation Corps. Included in this proposal is additional funding for youth environmental education programs, with small increases in a variety of existing programs. Of particular interest is funding for young people to participate in conservation programs on public lands such as national wildlife refuges.

All of this sounds well and good. Almost every not-for-profit has hitched its wagon to "Last Child in the Woods." Isn't this what this new legislation is about?

Yes and no. What I find impossible to explain is that out of the $70 million budget ($50 million for new programs, $20 million for existing), $30 million is being set aside for recruiting new hunters and anglers. According to the Department of the Interior (DOI), “the 2010 budget includes an increase of $30.0 million to help set the stage for the next wave of hunters, anglers, wildlife, and other natural resource managers. The request includes $28.0 million for a new discretionary Federal Aid in Wildlife grants program to help States, Territories, and Tribes establish new creative programs to educate and energize young hunters and anglers.”

As some readers may be aware, there are four priority public uses for United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) wildlife refuges: hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation. I could argue that three of the four uses are being addressed with this proposed budget (hunting, fishing, education). Strikingly absent are wildlife observation and photography. Not one cent is being proposed for attracting new young birders, naturalists, and photographers to the outdoors.

According to the agency’s own research, there are 30 million anglers, 12.5 million hunters, and 71.1 million wildlife viewers (in each case, age 16 and older) in the U.S. Of these wildlife viewers, 47.7 million watch, feed, and photograph birds.

As for youth recruitment, in 2006 there were approximately 12 million anglers age 6 to 15, with 10.5 million who only fished (i.e., did not hunt as well). There were 1.77 million in the same age group that hunted, with only 208,000 who only hunted. Looking at the age group 9-11, the hunting sample is too small to be statistically significant (around 38,000).

By contrast, there were 13.6 million Americans aged 6-15 who found their way to nature through watching, feeding, and photographing wildlife. Even more interesting were the over 4 million age 6 to 8 who watched, fed, and photographed wildlife, compared to the 3.2 million who fished and a sample for hunting that was too small to be reliably reported.

According to the most recent research from the Outdoor Foundation, among boys ages 6 to 12, participation in outdoor recreation dropped from 79% to 72% in 2007. Among girls of the same age, participation dropped from 77% to 61%.

Among all age groups, fly fishing decreased by 2.1%, freshwater fishing decreased by 15.8%, saltwater fishing increased by 5.2%, hunting (any type) decreased by 5.1%, and wildlife viewing increased by 8.3%. I mention these Outdoor Foundation figures since they tend to be the most conservative of the major surveys done on outdoor recreation, with the National Survey of Recreation and the Environment being the most liberal.

In comparison, the USFWS reported that in 2006, 30.0 million U.S. residents 16 years of age and older fished compared to 34.1 million who fished in 2001, a drop of 12 percent. Hunting dropped by 4 percent, from 13.0 million in 2001 to 12.5 million in 2006.

Here is what the USFWS has to say about wildlife watching: “The increase in wildlife-related recreation participation from 2001 to 2006 was due to wildlife watching (observing, feeding, and photographing wildlife). During this period, the number of people wildlife watching increased by 8 percent. Although their overall expenditures showed little change, they did spend 38 percent more on trips, 18 percent more on bird food and wildlife-watching equipment (such as binoculars, cameras, bird feeders), and 26 percent more on auxiliary equipment.”

Finally, according to the same agency’s assessment of the economic impacts of national wildlife refuges (Banking on Nature 2006), 82% of the total expenditures is generated by nonconsumptive activities (wildlife viewing) on refuges. Fishing accounts for 12% of expenditures, and hunting generates 6%.

As a birder, you might ask how does the DOI and the USFWS completely ignore a primary public use of the agency (as defined by the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966, amended by Public Law 105-57, approved October 9, 1997, 111 Stat. 1253,) one that has demonstrated effectiveness in attracting young people to the outdoors?

Perhaps here is the answer. According to the DOI information sheet, "hunting and fishing have long played an important role in our Nation’s development and served as the roots of today’s conservation movement. Today, hunting and fishing groups help guide and influence our conservation policies. In his campaign for President, Barack Obama committed to support America’s hunting and fishing traditions, including providing State fish and game agencies with additional resources and encouragement to reach out and educate young men and women about hunting and fishing opportunities, hunter safety, and the basic principles of fish and wildlife management." Is this new administration interested in change?

How is it that the National Audubon Society--purportedly a primary proponent of wildlife watching --signed support letters sent to Congress promoting legislation that so blatantly excludes wildlife watching? Why is the Sierra Club supporting this legislation without the inclusion of activities that predominate among its own members? Why are organizations such as the American Birding Association, the American Bird Conservancy, and the various bird clubs and state organizations silent? Where are the voices of the 47.7 million birders?

There may still be time to change this legislation if there is a groundswell of complaint from wildlife watchers (birders, in particular) around the nation. This proposed legislation has everything to do with birding, and now is the time for birders to speak up or shut up.


Mike on June 20, 2009 at 8:37 AM said...

Brilliant analysis and call to arms, Ted. I agree completely. The continued silence of the organizations that allegedly represent the interests of non-extractive wildlife enthusiasts is part and parcel of our collective lack of influence.

Amber on June 21, 2009 at 12:07 PM said...

Ted, I found my way to your article from Mike at 10,000 birds. Thank you for the information and call to birders to speak up. My brain is busy formulating a plan for my own contribution to the discussion and our legislative process.

Don on June 22, 2009 at 4:49 PM said...

As I read this, I thought to myself, "So...what is wrong with this picture?" And then...Mike answered the question. We need something like what is happening right now in Iran, fueled by the internet and Twitter. ironically bird-like. We all need to get our tweets going.

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