What does this hold for the future of hunting and fishing?
Exodus of the Baby Boomers
State fish and wildlife agencies across the nation are experiencing the exodus of the baby-boomer generation of employees, with a resultant huge loss of institutional knowledge and memory. Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division is certainly no exception.
The phenomenon has been documented by Dr. Steve L. McMullin of Virginia Tech through survey research of natural resource agencies and their employees. McMullin and others provided enough insight about the trend to gain the attention of natural resources leaders, who recognized the implications for the future.
In the words of founders of the National Conservation Leadership Institute, "We are in a new era – a time in which organizational guardians of our natural resources legacy find themselves facing unprecedented challenges in a rapidly changing landscape. These challenges are exacerbated by the immense leadership void created from vast numbers of retiring baby boomers."
Established in 2005, NCLI is an intensive, world-class leadership development program offered annually to a select group of 36 professionals from natural resources-related organizations. Through the years, Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division has been fortunate enough to have several candidates accepted for NCLI fellowship.
Additionally, the division has invested heavily in leadership development at all levels of NCLI, utilizing the services of the Management Assistance Team that provides consulting services in a highly cost-effective manner to all 50 states.
Change can be good, but …
Change is inevitable and can be good, when undertaken in an orderly way. Incremental change through adaptation and constant innovation and improvement results in smooth sailing through the turbulent waters of time. By contrast, abrupt, quantum change can be highly disruptive.
Legions of professional employees of state fish and wildlife agencies will retire in the years leading up to 2020. These are the employees who worked through the formative years when science-based wildlife management combined with effective law enforcement restored wildlife populations to sustainable levels. The relative abundance we now enjoy is a result of their work.
Because of the hiring of a generation of employees as the field of work emerged, combined with the typical long-term careers of those who chose to work in the wildlife conservation field, there has been no precedent for the kind of loss now occurring.
Frontline Employees are Most Important
Always on guard against taking myself too seriously, I never operated under the illusion that people really cared who occupied the director’s position in Montgomery. Hunters, fishermen and landowners do care a great deal, though, about whom their conservation enforcement officers, wildlife biologists and fisheries biologists are across the state.
These frontline employees are the ones who touch people in a tangible way at the local level where it matters. These employees are the most important people in the division. And many are reaching retirement age and moving on.
No one is indispensable. And younger employees sometimes bring new ideas and heightened energy … sometimes.
Based on the better part of two decades of experience working with the most committed people on Earth, I know that there is not always a correlation between age and get-up-and-go. Because of their love for what they do, many if not most employees of the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division finish strong, with as much dedication the day they retire as they had the day they were hired.
Experience has taught them how to work smart, making the most of their available time, doing the things that matter most in terms of the well-being of the resource and the best interests of recreational users.
More Complex than Brain Drain
The brain drain occurring with the retirement of legions of seasoned employees is bad enough in and of itself. However, the problem is far more complex than this.
While the generation of biologists we are losing was focused on practical wildlife management, universities are now graduating students with more of an ecological focus, be it right or wrong.
The seasoned, veteran enforcement officers, most a serious game law violator’s worst nightmare, are carrying with them hard-earned, firsthand knowledge of how game thieves, poachers, night hunters and baiters operate.
Most present-day biologists and officers grew up in the woods and hunted and fished before they came to work for the division. By contrast, many of today’s young people have not had the benefit of these experiences.
The purpose here is not to bash younger people for their lack of experience or understanding. It is not their fault that our society has become more urban with fewer opportunities for finding your way around in the woods without signage and arrows to point the way.
The challenge is growing greater for natural-resource agencies to find qualified candidates who have a base of understanding about hunting and fishing. And certainly, there is a general lack of knowledge that hunters and anglers pay for management and protection of fish and wildlife resources through license purchases and matching dollars derived from sales of hunting and fishing equipment.
This bodes poorly for the future, and it goes beyond a lack of context and understanding. In the blink of an eye, today’s frontline conservation enforcement officer or biologist will be tomorrow’s agency administrator.
If tomorrow’s fish and wildlife agency administrators do not understand and value our role as hunters and anglers, what does this hold for the future of hunting and fishing?
Corky Pugh is the executive director of the Hunting Heritage Foundation.