Waterfowl, Wetlands, and People

Researchers are studying opinions and attitudes about conservation and outdoor recreation. Their findings may surprise you

© Montana Outdoor Imagery

By Eric Keszler

Aldo Leopold, often recognized as the father of wildlife conservation, was first and foremost a wildlife manager, not a sociologist. So it’s a bit surprising to read these words he penned in 1947: “There are two things that interest me: the relation of people to each other, and the relation of people to land.” Characteristically ahead of his time, Leopold recognized the important connections between the way people think and feel about wildlife and how conservation work can be effectively carried out on the landscape.

Leopold knew that the traditional tools of wildlife management (surveying populations, conserving and protecting habitats, and setting hunting seasons and bag limits among them) addressed only one side of a complicated equation. The other side involved integrating public opinions and values into conservation and management strategies. Relative to the 100 years or so of conservation history in North America, wildlife science has only recently begun to seriously consider the people side of the equation.

Photo © Glenn Phillips

Andy Raedeke, resource scientist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, says, “We’ve been focused on wildlife and habitat and the world has been changing around us. We need to be thinking about how the social and ecological systems interact with each other, how we’re working with and for people, and how we’re managing resources for them.”

Dale Humburg, retired chief scientist for Ducks Unlimited, adds, “There’s an old adage that goes, ‘Wildlife management is easy; it’s people management that is hard.’ Compared to duck biology, the sociological, psychological, and anthropological features that make up the people who enjoy waterfowl and wetland resources are considerably more complex and much more difficult to address.”

Wildlife agencies and conservation organizations are turning to the social sciences for help in addressing the people side of their business. One of the first steps is finding out how different audiences think and feel about wetlands, waterfowl, hunting, and conservation.

Three Surveys

The 2012 revision of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP) included a new emphasis on understanding and serving the interests of people. One of three overarching goals in the revised plan is, “growing numbers of waterfowl hunters, other conservationists, and citizens who enjoy and actively support waterfowl and wetlands conservation.” In an initial step toward achieving this goal, Humburg and Raedeke worked with a team representing state and federal agencies, conservation groups, universities, and others to conduct three national public opinion surveys. Each survey focused on a distinct audience (waterfowlers, bird-watchers, and the general public) and was designed to begin understanding the values, opinions, and attitudes of that particular audience.

“There are a lot of different expectations for waterfowl management, as evidenced simply by the fact that we conducted three separate surveys that acknowledged three seemingly specific groups,” Humburg says. “The key outcomes involved identifying the essential characteristics of each group, how they were different, and, perhaps more importantly, what are the commonalities.”

Photo © Travis Mueller, Avery Outdoors

Survey Findings

Conducted in 2016 and 2017, the surveys present some interesting findings that have broad applications for the conservation of waterfowl and wetlands, as well as the future of our outdoor traditions. The entire survey results, some of which are broken down by flyway, as well as results from similar surveys in Canada, are available at nawmp.org/documents. Some of the more thought-provoking findings are discussed here.


One of the more striking survey findings reveals how much older and less diverse waterfowl hunters and bird-watchers are as a group than the population at large. The median age of waterfowlers in the survey was 50; for bird-watchers the median age was 61. According to the U.S. Census, the median age in the United States is 37.9. Nationwide, 97 percent of waterfowl hunters in the survey said they were Caucasian, compared to 95 percent of bird-watchers. Overall, the U.S. population is about 77 percent Caucasian.

These numbers are red flags for those concerned about the future of hunting, bird-watching, and the conservation ethic connected to these traditional outdoor pursuits. “Considering that the U.S population is increasingly urban, while much of the population of hunters is still more rural, we are experiencing demographic changes in aging, distribution of the U.S. population, and overall connections to the outdoors,” Humburg says. For outdoor traditions like hunting and bird-watching to endure into the future, these statistics point out some obvious challenges.

Photo © Chuck and Grace Bartlett

Participation in Outdoor Recreation

More encouraging data from the surveys show a shared interest in nonhunting outdoor recreation among all three constituencies: 94 percent of waterfowl hunters, 95 percent of bird-watchers, and 85 percent of the general public said they spend time in nature away from home.

We know that waterfowl hunters spend lots of time in wetlands, but 88 percent of bird-watchers said they had visited wetlands in the past 12 months. Among the general public, 77 percent said they knew of wetlands in their community, and 59 percent said they had visited wetlands in the past 12 months (mostly to hike/bike, enjoy nature, and view wildlife).

Participation in bird-watching was high among all three constituencies, including 79 percent of hunters and 58 percent of the general public who indicated some level of birding activity. Fishing is popular among waterfowlers, but less so among bird-watchers and the general public. A separate survey of DU members found that 84 percent had gone fishing in the past 12 months. Only 39 percent of the general public and 25 percent of bird-watchers reported fishing in the 12 months prior to the study. Participation in waterfowl hunting among bird-watchers (2 percent) and the general public (5 percent) was low.

Participation in Conservation

The surveys showed that many waterfowl hunters and bird-watchers recognize the strong connections between conservation and their outdoor pursuits. Among waterfowl hunters, 38 percent of respondents “very strongly” identify themselves as conservationists; 39 percent of bird-watchers answered the same. About 64 percent of waterfowl hunters nationwide said they contributed money to wetlands or waterfowl conservation in the last year, compared to just 37 percent of bird-watchers. Only 36 percent of the general public said they had donated any money to support wildlife or habitat conservation in the past 12 months.

Humburg is not surprised by these findings. “People give to what they care about,” he says. “Waterfowl hunters see the obvious connection between the ducks produced on wetlands and the ducks they hunt. The connection between conservation contributions and recreation outcomes are obvious. Making those same connections between less well-defined ecological values of wetlands and general public support is more difficult.”

Actual participation in conservation activities was relatively low among all three audiences. For example, 72 percent of bird-watchers, 60 percent of waterfowl hunters, and 76 percent of the general public said they had never worked on a land improvement project related to wetlands or waterfowl conservation. Similarly, 68 percent of bird-watchers, 74 percent of waterfowl hunters, and 80 percent of the general public said they had never contacted elected officials or government agencies about wetlands and waterfowl conservation.

If we agree with the NAWMP goal that stresses the importance of getting more people involved and active in conservation, these statistics illustrate the scope of the challenge, especially among the general public. “There is a decided lack of involvement in conservation overall,” Humburg notes. “The active support for wetlands conservation is something we need to strive to improve.”

Photo © Scott Fink

Attitudes about Hunting and Bird-Watching

Though only 5 percent of the general public said they hunted waterfowl, and 20 percent said they were morally opposed to hunting, the surveys showed surprisingly strong interest in trying hunting, and even stronger interest in trying bird-watching. Among respondents to the general public survey, 30 percent said trying hunting would be “pleasant” or “somewhat pleasant”; 64 percent said the same about bird-watching. This is fertile ground to help meet the NAWMP goal of growing the number of waterfowl hunters and others who support wetlands conservation.

“I think this is really encouraging on both fronts,” Raedeke says. “That’s a huge audience of potential hunters and birders. And there’s a whole lot of opportunity there that we can use to encourage connections to wetlands.”

With this kind of data in hand, the next logical step is to build programs that increase participation in the outdoors and conservation among all three audiences. The key question, Raedeke says, is “how do we work together to develop pathways to participation in outdoor activities, but, more important, pathways to participation in conservation?”

One potential pathway may exist through the kinds of personal connections we all share. In the general public survey, 43 percent of respondents said they had a close friend who is a hunter, and 28 percent said they had a close friend who is a bird-watcher.

Common Ground

When asked what they thought were the most important findings from these studies, both Humburg and Raedeke noted the shared interests and concerns among all three audiences. “The most encouraging finding was the common ground that exists among hunters, birders, and the general public,” Raedeke says. “They all appreciate wetlands, though their reasons were different. We as a hunting community have a great opportunity to reach a broader audience.”

Humburg agrees: “There are those features that are in common across the groups, like concerns for ecosystem benefits provided by wetlands. These are things we all agree on and that we can build on. If we agree on the outcomes, we can develop strategies to get us to those outcomes.”

The surveys are an important step in understanding what Leopold termed “the relation of people to each other, and the relation of people to land.” Now, the waterfowl management community is working to incorporate the survey findings into larger strategies to conserve habitat and grow support.

“To really engage hunters, birders, and the general public is a bigger task than any one agency or organization can do,” Raedeke says. “We’re trying to create community. And we’re trying to find ways that people can connect to each other through their connections to nature. I think we have a really positive message. These surveys provide an avenue for us to start thinking about how we begin to build that community.”