Conservation efforts led by hunters, benefits of ‘NGOs’

By Bill Cooper
    “One of the worst things you can do to a species whose numbers are decreasing is to take away the ability to hunt it, because hunters will rally around animals they hunt,” said Joel Brice, chief conservation officer for Delta Waterfowl. “Hunters love wildlife and they will spend serious money to save it.”

    A hunter experiences a unique sensation when he shoots a species of wildlife he is fond of. Whether it be a colorful mallard duck, a wild turkey, a big buck, or majestic elk, there is a mix of emotions including great happiness and gentle sorrow at having done so. While it is difficult to explain the complicated emotions of taking wild game, hunters realize the ancient instincts which beacon them to kill and eat again. It’s in their DNA.
    Modern hunters struggle with the concepts of hunting in the modern era. They have a sensation to “put back” more animals than they take. As hunters we’ve done just that for well over a century.
    A course changing political movement for conservation took place among recreational hunters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, caused by alarm over the near-extinction of key species such as the American bison, bear, and elk. Coupled with it was a concern for the rapid and continued destruction of wildlife habitat.
    This new conservation push gave rise to the much celebrated North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, and the signings of the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act in 1934 and the “Pittman-Robertson Act” in 1937.
    A new concept also coincided with these hunter-driven conservation ideas, that of privately funded non-governmental conservation groups, or NGOs, such as Ducks Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation, Quail Unlimited, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
    NGOs exercised the distinct advantage of being independent from government, free of politics and capable of advocation on controversial matters. Run by professional biologists, Delta Waterfowl for instance, has not been bashful about its ongoing advocacy to increase limits on certain duck species, including pintails, bluebills, and eastern mallards.
    Conversations between NGOs and government agency biologists have been frequently productive, although uncomfortable. Federal and state level wildlife managers have benefited from the professional research efforts of many NGOs.
    “Government researchers are somewhat confined in what they can explore,” Brice said. “Their research tends to focus on monitoring the health of populations, while at Delta Waterfowl for instance, we’re looking at research that can be applied to boosting duck production and increasing the efficiency of waterfowl conservation. These two areas of emphasis complement each other beautifully.”
    In many cases, such as that of Delta Waterfowl, it took well-heeled and passionate hunters to get such organizations off the ground. Concerned about duck populations, particularly his beloved canvasbacks, James Ford Bell of the General Mills Corporation first visited Manitoba’s Delta Marsh in 1923. By 1938, Al Hochbaum, a student of Aldo Leopold, considered by many to be the father of wildlife conservation, was sent to the marsh to conduct pioneering waterfowl research. The resulting studies guide core waterfowl conservation efforts to this day, including Delta’s duck production, HunteR3, habitat conservation, and research and education programs.
    Many other private conservation organizations share a similar story. Small groups of hunters of a particular species grouped together to better conditions for their favored game species and were often followed by tens of thousands of dedicated hunters.
    Following the directives of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, supporters of NGOs range from individuals who pay annual membership dues costing less than a good meal out, to major donors who yearly provide small fortunes. Regardless of the level of support, these dedicated hunters share Bell’s wishes to conserve wildlife. That is the tie that binds hunters together.
    “Some would say the support of hunters for NGOs is a way to give back due to a sense of obligation over their killing of animals,” Brice said. “But I think the motivation varies. For some a conservation NGO is an identity or a club they identify with. And still for others, it’s all about the wildlife — people support NGOs because we’re protecting the animals that they love.”
    “Hunters crave abundance,” Brice said. “They don’t necessarily need to shoot a lot of game, but they want to see a lot of ducks. They want to see lots of deer. Abundance suggests health and sustainability to hunters.”
    A recent study indicated that even those folks who don’t necessarily support hunting do tip their caps to waterfowler-funded NGOs. Published in the journal Science, the research suggested there are 3 billion fewer birds in North America today than in 1970. That’s more than one out of every four birds gone from the skies. Yet, during that same period, ducks, geese, and swans increased by about 34 million, largely due to the efforts of NGOs.
    “It’s because of the strong constituency of recreational waterfowl hunters who raised their voice, put money where their mouths are and saw to it that conservation programs and policies were put in place,” Ken Rosenberg, the study’s lead author and a senior scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the non-profit American Bird Conservancy, told Scientific American magazine. “Billions of dollars (were) invested into wetlands (and) into wildlife refuges.”
    Hunters have long supported the conservation of wildlife species through NGOs with massive donations of time, money, and physical efforts, while being free of the political policies on both the state and national levels.
    Even our great conservation commission of Missouri is appointed by the governor, and the commissioner posts are essentially bought. That policy is antiquated and needs replaced to allow the people of Missouri and professional biologist to choose our commissioners.
     EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Cooper is an award-winning outdoor writer and member of the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and lives in rural St. James. He is host of “Outside Again Adventures TV-Online” and “Wild at Heart” on ESPN 107.3FM in Rolla. You can follow Cooper at, and