September 20, 2021
Last I checked, I'm a member of more than a dozen hunting and fishing conservation organizations. I know mainly because my mailbox is stuffed full of their monthly magazines.
There's "Bugle" from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, "Turkey Call" from the National Wild Turkey Federation, "Wild Sheep" from the foundation of the same name, and the list goes on. But reading about a Missouri turkey hunt or some sheep hunter completing his Grand Slam isn't really the point of my subscriptions.
The point of membership to these "critter groups" is to support their missions, which are both unified and distinct. They share a commitment to citizen-based habitat conservation, the backbone of our American system of wildlife management. They differ according to their namesake species.
My overflowing mailbox of magazines is a condition shared by many of you, and it brings up important questions:
Which conservation groups should you join, and are some better at accomplishing their missions than others? I can't provide the answers for you because they are based on your personal perspective, but I will give you some tools to help you make your own decision.
First, make sure the conservation group is truly a nonprofit. Most are classified by the IRS as 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations. However, some may seem like they're nonprofits but actually do a robust for-profit business as publishers. Others have separate sister organizations or foundations that operate strictly as nonprofits.
Second, check out the group's mission statement. These can be pretty dry, but after spending weeks drafting a mission statement for the Mule Deer Foundation (where—full disclosure—I sit on the national board of directors), I can attest that the best are a distillation of the organization's mission, priorities and character.
Third, look beyond the hallmark species that these groups use as their icons. Yes, the NWTF is devoted to all things wild turkey, but I would argue that in addition to being a turkey conservation organization, it has evolved into a woodlands conservation organization. Leaders realized that in order to conserve turkeys, they need to conserve the landscapes that turkeys require.
Similarly, I'd argue that Ducks Unlimited is as much a wetland-conservation group as a waterfowl organization, and that Pheasants Forever is as much a grasslands-conservation group as a pheasant-hunting organization. Their missions have broadened over time to include conservation of keystone habitats.
Finally, look at how well groups achieve what's called "mission delivery," or putting their funds and resources on the ground to benefit their conservation goals. Every conservation group publishes an annual report, which is generally available on each organization's website, that details income, expenditures and conservation achievements. Look these over and verify that any group you'd like to support is making good use of members' contributions.
It's important to note that most national conservation groups also play a key role in wildlife policy. Many have governmental-affairs folks who help ensure that public funds are used in the best interests of the groups’ conservation missions and members.
Delivering on-the-ground conservation benefits is only one part of an organization’s appeal. The other is the community of peers that they attract and amplify. Until COVID-19 derailed them, fundraising banquets were the hallmark of these critter groups.
Most organizations use these annual banquets as their membership gateways. Part of the cost of attending the dinner is your annual membership fee. But, to me, local chapter events like banquets or "beers for deers" pint nights do a lot more than boost memberships. They build fellowship, and by having a local chapter to mobilize around local habitat projects or other conservation work, national-level initiatives are grounded with sweat equity from your neighbors and with benefits to your community.
It's hard to get that sort of intimacy with conservation when it's delivered by your state wildlife agency or a national agency such as the U.S. Forest Service.
Nonprofit conservation groups often don't get the credit they deserve for not only promoting the conservation interests of their specific critter, but also raising the sea level for all of conservation while furthering the idea of shared sacrifice and mutual benefit. In that way, it doesn’t much matter which critter group you support. After all, Ducks Unlimited helps pheasants and fish as much as mallards. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is just as much a wild-sheep and moose outfit as it is an elk organization. And the Mule Deer Foundation benefits sage grouse and pronghorn antelope just as much as it does its namesake species.
Make a point to join as many conservation organizations as you can afford. If you have too many magazines as a result, just pass them on to someone who could benefit from learning about the wide range of good works described in their pages.