What inspires people to support conservation? As concerns grow about the sustainability of modern society, this question becomes more important. A new study by a team of researchers from Clemson University and Cornell University offers one simple answer: birdwatching and hunting.
Their survey of conservation activity among rural landowners in Upstate New York considered a range of possible predictors, such as gender, age, education, political ideology and beliefs about the environment. All other factors being equal, birdwatchers are about five times as likely, and hunters about four times as likely, as non-recreationists to engage in wildlife and habitat conservation.
Both birdwatchers and hunters were more likely than non-recreationists to enhance land for wildlife, donate to conservation organizations and advocate for wildlife - all actions that significantly impact conservation success.
"Managers often discuss direct and indirect links between wildlife recreation and conservation," said study co-author Lincoln Larson, assistant professor in the department of parks, recreation and tourism management at Clemson. "Our findings not only validate this connection, but reveal the unexpected strength of the conservation-recreation relationship."
The contributions of individuals who identified as both birdwatchers and hunters were even more pronounced. On average, this group was about eight times more likely than non-recreationists to engage in conservation.
"We set out to study two groups -- birdwatchers and hunters -- and didn't anticipate the importance of those who do both, and wildlife managers probably didn't either," said Caren Cooper, the study's lead author, now at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. "We don't even have a proper name for these conservation superstars other than hunter-birdwatchers."
The study, published Monday in the Journal of Wildlife Management, speaks to wildlife agency managers. Findings could ease concerns about diminishing support for conservation in the United States and its historic ties, both socially and economically, to hunting, an activity that has been declining for decades.
"Our results provide hope for wildlife agencies, organizations and citizens concerned about conservation," offered study co-author Ashley Dayer of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "Birdwatchers, a group not traditionally thought of as a constituency by many wildlife management agencies, have real potential to be conservation supporters if appropriate mechanisms for them to contribute are available."
As agencies and conservation organizations ponder how to better work with birdwatchers, hunters and hunter-birdwatchers on conservation, one take-home message is clear according to the researchers: "The more time we spend in nature, the more likely we are to protect it."