Birders and hunters could be partners in conservation

Before people will care about nature and wildlife, they have to experience nature and wildlife. That’s the assumption held by many researchers, nature educators, and conservationists. It’s a common idea: to drive behavioral change such as recycling, donation to conservation causes, and so on, people must first engage emotionally with the environment. If that’s true, then wildlife recreationists – people whose hobbies take them outside – ought to also be more engaged in pro-environmental behaviors, or PEBs. That’s the assumption that Cornell Lab of Ornithology researcher Caren Cooper (now at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences) and her colleagues set out to test.

The connection between wildlife recreation and PEB is perhaps intuitive, but wildlife recreation takes many forms. Perhaps the most dichotomous are birdwatching and hunting. If nature-related experiences drive conservation-related behaviors, then both birdwatching and hunting should have similar consequences with respect to PEBs.

On one hand, the two activities couldn’t be more different. The most obvious of which is that hunting is a consumptive behavior (animals are killed), while birdwatching and other forms of wildlife viewing are non-consumptive. In addition, the common stereotypes of the hunter and birdwatcher suggest very distinct demographics for either activity. But, Cooper and her colleagues point out, there are quite a few similarities between the groups. Both groups place a high value on wildlife enjoyment, both report being motivated primarily by being closer to nature, and both say that preserving wildlife habitat and ecosystems are important investments, especially since they support their favorite recreation activities. Other researchers have discovered that the two groups have similar levels of concern when it comes to forest management, for example, and are equally likely to belong or contribute to environmental organizations. (Note: this study could not distinguish between hunters who participated in sustainable forms of hunting and trophy hunting.)

Given that, Cooper asks, “is it possible that the similar interests and motivations that cultivate participation in birdwatching and hunting also lead to similar adoption of PEB?” And, if so, “what are the implications for wildlife management and conservation?”

The researchers rounded up nearly 1,000 residents of rural New York and administered a survey either on the web or by mail. The respondents neatly sorted into one of four categories: birdwatchers, hunters, birdwatcher-hunters, and folks who were not wildlife recreationists.

The rural respondents were overall likely to report environmental lifestyle behaviors like recycling and energy conservation, but that was true across the board; birdwatchers and hunters weren’t more likely than non-recreationists to practice those behaviors. But when it came to things like donation to conservation organizations or actively working to enhance wildlife habitats (such as by making their home gardens wildlife-friendly, e.g. planting native species), both birdwatchers and hunters were more likely to participate than non-recreationists. According to the researchers, that means that promoting wildlife-related hobbies could be an important strategy for encouraging PEB, regardless of whether those hobbies are consumptive or not.

Altogether, people who either enjoyed hunting or birdwatching were 4-5 times more likely to participate in PEBs than those who did neither. But surprisingly (or, perhaps, not surprisingly, depending on your prejudices) those who were both birdwatchers and hunters were even more likely to practices conservation-related behaviors. In fact, they were eight times more likely to involve themselves in PEBs than folks who did not engage in wildlife recreation.

Perhaps most interesting, the researchers discovered that wildlife recreation can sometimes offset the influence of demographic variables that are usually associated with a decreased likelihood in conservation-related behaviors. More specifically, they write, “the frequency with which hunters engaged in conservation behaviors was high relative to non-recreationists with similar socio-demographic attributes.” Statistically, hunters tended to be younger, less educated, more conservative, and more male than those who did not engage in wildlife recreation. Despite that their involvement in PEBs was similar to birdwatchers, who tended to be older, more educated, more liberal, and were typically female.

Why the demographic offset exists is still a mystery. “Perhaps wildlife recreation fosters connections with local landscapes that builds and/or reinforces attachment to place, ultimately leading to place-protecting actions,” Cooper speculates. Whatever the reason, despite the fact that birdwatchers and hunters sort into different demographic groups based primarily on gender, education, and political orientation, their environmental beliefs and pro-conservation behaviors are more similar than many would suspect. Furthermore, the study isn’t designed to conclude that wildlife hobbies necessarily cause conservation-related behavior. Instead, the two are simply correlated.

According to Cooper, that’s still good news for state and federal wildlife agencies that have historically relied upon revenue from consumptive recreationists (hunters and anglers) to fund conservation efforts. In recent decades, hunting has declined while wildlife-viewing activities like birding have increased. That means less revenue in the form of hunter license fees and excise taxes (on hunting equipment).

However, “our findings about birdwatchers being likely to donate money was a shocker to agencies because they don’t yet have a way to get financial benefits from so-called ‘non-consumptive’ recreationists,” she says. Unlike hunters, birders do not have to register with a governmental agency. They can simply walk out of their front door with a pair of binoculars around their necks. Armed with the data from this study, wildlife agencies can begin to strategize on ways to build revenue from birdwatchers and other wildlife viewers. Some possibilities, Cooper suggests, are conservation license plates (which some states already offer) or taxes on field guides. – Jason G. Goldman | 20 March 2015

Source: Caren Cooper, Lincoln Larson, Ashley Dayer, Richard Stedman & Daniel Decker (2015). Are wildlife recreationists conservationists? Linking hunting, birdwatching, and pro-environmental behavior, The Journal of Wildlife Management. DOI: 10.1002/jwmg.855.

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