OICC Partner Story: Do State Wildlife Councils Work?

OICC Partner Story: Do State Wildlife Councils Work?

In states that leverage a small surcharge on fishing and hunting licenses, public support for hunting and fishing appears to be high.

The Wildlife Management Institute is working with partners through the Outdoor Industry Communications Council to share information about hunting and fishing in America. The following is a story produced by the OICC and ONB readers are encouraged to share the information with their networks.

Here for Generations campaign promo

Few Americans of a certain age are unfamiliar with the “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner” marketing campaign that has promoted the health and palatability of beef through radio, social media, magazine ads, and even TV spots during several consecutive Super Bowls and Olympic Games. Over its 22-year run, the campaign has been credited with increasing consumers’ awareness of beef as a distinctly American food product, even though its influence on increasing beef consumption in American diets is mixed.

The ubiquitous marketing strategy is funded by a surprising source: $1 per head of cattle that are sold in the United States. That “beef check-off” account has raised more than $1 billion that has been used to extol the virtues of “lean, healthy beef” to Americans who may have never personally stepped onto the soil of a ranch or farm. Individual producers contribute to a kitty that raises the market value of their own calves, along with those of their neighbors and those of cattle producers in other states they might never meet.

I mention this media campaign because at least a couple state fish and wildlife agencies have borrowed from its success as they’ve marketed the upside of hunting and fishing to citizens who might never buy a hunting or fishing license. Both Michigan and Colorado have robust outreach initiatives that are directed by what are called wildlife councils that are distinct from wildlife commissions and agency professionals who manage the state’s fish and wildlife resources. Louisiana, too, has approved the legislative mechanism to create its own council.

Colorado hunters and anglers pay an extra $1.50 on every fishing and hunting license sold in the state. In Michigan, the surcharge is $1 on licenses. In both cases, money raised by these license “check-offs” is placed in a dedicated fund and then used to deliver marketing campaigns, generally directed at residents who don’t hunt or fish themselves but who are receptive to the wider social and ecological benefits of hunting and fishing.

In Colorado, the wildlife council has funded a highly visible “Hug a Hunter” campaign that highlighted the connection between healthy forests and abundant recreational access and the hunters who largely pay for wildlife management areas, critical wildlife habitats, and public-land access. The initiative encouraged hikers and bird-watchers to thank hunters for their contributions by hugging them when they encountered them in the field.

Michigan’s wildlife council delivered the “Here. For Generations.” awareness campaign that leveraged resonant imagery and promotion of familiar activities like camping, hiking, and swimming to inform urban audiences about the wider benefits of hunting and fishing and the license revenue that both support.

These license check-off programs are not insignificant sources of revenue. Based on publicly available license-sale numbers from 2023, more than $1.85 million was generated in Michigan, and $2.11 million in Colorado. Several other states are considering adopting the wildlife council model.

So it’s worth asking: are these councils working? Are they succeeding in changing the public’s mind about the wider value of hunting and fishing to each state’s natural landscape and residents?

“I think it’s instructive to look at the most recent survey of public support for hunting and fishing in America,” says Brent Miller, vice president for policy at the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. “Recent research conducted by Outdoor Stewards of Conservation Foundation and Responsive Management showed that, for the first time in several years, we’re now seeing a statistically significant decline in public support for hunting and fishing at the national level.”

“However, Michigan—one of only two states that currently has a wildlife council—was the only state included that did NOT show declining support for hunting,” says Miller. To the contrary, since the Michigan Wildlife Council has promoted the wider ecological values of hunting and fishing, 44 percent more non-hunters in southeast Michigan now agree that wildlife requires management by humans to thrive, and there was a 16-point increase in knowledge among non-hunters in western Michigan of the positive impact that hunting and fishing has on Michigan jobs.”

In other words, these media campaigns may have an inoculating effect on residents that are increasingly removed from cultural connections to hunting and fishing.

Council Structure

The first step to wide adoption of these wildlife councils is legislative action to create the councils and determine a funding mechanism. The second step, after adoption, is to determine the governance structure.

The Michigan Wildlife Council is composed of the DNR director and eight governor-appointed, Senate-confirmed members. Four are recommended by state sportsmen’s groups and members must have regularly purchased hunting or fishing licenses in Michigan. One must have a background in marketing, another must represent the interests of local businesses impacted by hunting and fishing, another must represent agricultural producers, and another must represent rural interests. This nine-member council then collaborates with an independent advertising agency to develop a “comprehensive media-based campaign promoting hunting and angling and its role in conservation.”

In Colorado, the nine-member council is tasked with overseeing the design of a media-based public information program to inform the general public about wildlife, its management, and hunting and fishing opportunities in the states.

In 2001, Louisiana’s legislature passed a bill establishing the “Hunting and Fishing Advisory Education Council” to help educate the state’s citizens on the benefits that sportsmen and women provide for Louisiana.

These councils don’t have the authority to make governing decisions that impact the resource or hunting and angling opportunity, but instead operate to “collaboratively inform the messaging of the advertising campaign,” notes Miller. “The council members have term limits and may be removed for failing to execute the council’s mission.”

Why doesn’t your state have a wildlife council? The answer may be because it’s never been proposed or attempted. Some states may not need this public-acceptance accelerant. But surely some states, especially those with a rapidly changing voting demographic, could use the help of wildlife councils to help normalize and promote the public value of hunting and fishing and to continue to support sporting traditions.

“Ballot-box biology is often pushed by well-funded anti-hunting organizations,” notes the CSF’s Miller. “Given that hunters and anglers in America represent only about 10 percent of the population, the sporting and conservation community has traditionally had a difficult time organizing itself around ballot initiatives. A wildlife council is an established entity with continuous funding from hunters and anglers that has the express purpose of shoring up public support for hunting and angling, which will decrease the likelihood that anti-sportsman proposals will be met favorably at the ballot box.”

Considering that Colorado will likely have high-profile hunting-related measures on upcoming general-election ballots—for example, an initiative to ban mountain lion and bobcat hunting in the state—the broader influence of the state’s wildlife council will be put to a rigorous test.

Meanwhile, look for proposals to create wildlife councils in other states around the country. With its modest per-license funding structure, there’s little individual cost to these councils, but potential for abundant public benefit.

About the Outdoor Industry Communication Council (OICC):

Formed around the commitment to educate all Americans about the origins of conservation funding in America, the Outdoor Industry Communication Council (OICC) is managed by Outdoor Stewards of Conservation Foundation (OSCF) and Wildlife Management Institute (WMI). OICC works with outdoor writers such as Andrew McKean, to develop informative content that is available to all outdoor organizations and media at no cost. A primary goal of the OICC is to better inform and promote the positive contributions that wildlife agencies, industry manufacturers, NGO’s and end users such as hunters, anglers, trappers and target shooters make to conservation. Outdoor organizations interested in conservation are welcome to use any OICC content to expand the reach of messages created by the OICC. To become a member of the Outdoor Industry Communication Council, contact Jim Curcuruto of OSCF (203) 450-7202 jim@stewardsofconservation.org or Jon Gassett of WMI at (502) 330-9025 jgassett@wildlifemgt.org. There are no costs involved to become a member of the OICC. Members may utilize OICC materials as they see fit with no restrictions. Visit the OSCF website for more information.

This project is funded by the Multistate Conservation Grant Program (F23AP00404), a program supported with funds from the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program and jointly managed by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Photo Credit
Michigan Wildlife Council, Facebook
March 15, 2024