Pandemic and Other Issues Spur Innovation in Fish and Wildlife Agencies this Past Year

Pandemic and Other Issues Spur Innovation in Fish and Wildlife Agencies this Past Year

In June, the Midwest Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (MAFWA) held their annual meeting virtually. The session on “hot topics” also was unusual as the impact of the pandemic and other social issues were important themes. Today it seems hard to believe, but a little more than a year ago the emergence of COVID-19 changed many aspects of the way state fish and wildlife agencies operate. Most states who historically did emergency planning drills for outbreaks of animal diseases (e.g., avian flu) often questioned whether a county or community could actually be shut down in an emergency. Frequently the answer was that a shutdown was nearly impossible to envision, and the public would never accept such regulations. Today we recognize not only are such changes possible, but that agencies and their publics can adapt and innovate new processes when challenged by an actual pandemic.

Social distancing sign at Wisconsin park

Perhaps most importantly we collectively recognized that fish and wildlife agencies can quickly innovate solutions to adapt to challenges that emerge. Many agencies demonstrated that the routine work of the agency could be completed and implemented with the assistance of new technology. All states were able to maintain internal communication when the workforce was working from home, provide mechanisms for public input and outreach, and establish regulations for hunting and fishing seasons. However, some fish and wildlife agencies activities were delayed or paused to address social distancing and other safety concerns (e.g., check stations in some states), or had substantially reduced participation by the public (e.g., CWD testing).

Although not without some pain due to broadband access and quality in many residences, most employees were able to install and use video communication software to participate in meetings remotely. Both in-person and telephone conference calls were rapidly replaced by video meetings. Agencies demonstrated that distributed work locations can work. Some agencies assessed their priority work items and overall work plans to determine which work could be completed remotely or using minimal in-person contact. Leadership also tested methods of reaching out for effectiveness in communicating to employees.

Entire households learned how to use computers for everything from education to attending virtual public meetings. These tools provided opportunities for even greater participation in meetings as travel expenses were eliminated and the availability of remote participation was improved. The Wildlife Management Institute had record attendance at its North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in March 2021, the first time that the meeting was entirely virtual.

Efforts already underway to move to online delivery of programs and services expanded rapidly out of necessity and stakeholders responded as outdoor and online activities became staples of many people’s existence. State fish and wildlife agencies expanded the use of online programs from simply Do-It-Yourself (DIY) programs to programs covering a wide range of current issues in conservation. Missouri reported creating more than 230 online programs in the year preceding the June 2021 MAFWA annual board meeting, with strong interest for these online programs from the public based on level of attendance. Many agencies reported greater attendance at virtual meetings when compared to in-person meetings on the same topic. While such changes may have diminished the quality of interactions compared to face-to-face, there is no doubt they increased the quantity and accessibility of interactions to wider audiences.

Many agencies had created programs to allow easy access for first time hunters, anglers, and other outdoor activities as part of the national effort to recruit, retain, and reactivate (collectively known as R3) participants. These programs were extensively used as people looked for outdoor recreation opportunities with participation levels increasing based on license sales. A good example of an existing R3-related program that had increased use is online hunter safety training.

Here in August 2021, we recognize that the pandemic is not over and agencies will be unlikely to return back to a pre-pandemic “normal.” The “new normal” will likely be a hybrid of in-person and remote or online work and programs that will help realize efficiencies and extend the accessibility of information and opportunities to larger and more diverse audiences. Safety recommendations and guidance will continue to evolve in response to new analyses and studies. Many of the technological advances will continue, and agencies will continue to innovate and advance management to benefit both natural resources and the people who enjoy those resources.

In looking back at the past year, many other social issues were influencing agency function in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps most significant was (and is) the heightened awareness of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (collectively DEI) in agency culture. While many societal issues appeared to influence tolerance of diverse viewpoints in the past year, none were more important than the death of George Floyd and the resulting public discussion. Being at the epicenter of the national and global focus on these issues, the MAFWA Director from Minnesota described the agency comprehensive DEI efforts in Minnesota at the MAFWA annual meeting in June 2021. Perhaps the most important finding was that DEI was central to achieving the mission of the agency. Among the lessons learned were a) staff have many perspectives, b) it is easy to unknowingly use triggering language, and c) a recognition that the agency needed to start the conversation without knowing exactly what the outcome would be. Congratulations to Minnesota and all of the other states and agencies who engaged in these conversations for their efforts this past year.

Major change is often driven by precipitating factors that force society to grapple with and address them. Certainly no year in recent memory has brought such impactful driving factors than the global pandemic and the diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice issues that came to the forefront over the past 18 months. Great progress is being made, but clearly these issues will continue to challenge the innovation and resourcefulness of public institutions and society. It is heartening to see that the progress thus far bodes well for our abilities to successfully adapt and improve as we move forward.

Photo Credit
Andy Ziegler, Flickr
August 16, 2021