The decimation of Native American populations during the colonization of North America resulted in a major shift in values and demographics. The introduction of many new species, such as trout and potatoes has been beneficial. Others were catastrophic. And the overharvest and reduction of natural habitats endangered many native species. The white tail deer, furbearers, bison, and many of America’s migratory birds were all, at some point, on the brink of extinction.
Congress passed the Pitman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act in 1937, resulting in the recovery of many large and small mammals, as well as migratory birds. But as the country’s human population continues to expand—from 281 million people in 2000 to 309 million today, according to the 2010 national Census—conservation efforts remain critical to preserve America’s biodiversity. Importantly, these efforts require the involvement of local communities, whose support is vital to their success.
In the southern and western states, for example, where the vast majority of the nation’s human population growth is occurring, wildlife habitats are altered by increased demand on natural resources, such as water and timber. The increased water demand of the growing human population reduces flows in local streams and rivers, which is threatening species like the endangered razorback sucker and the southwestern willow flycatcher. On the East Coast, increased demand for and retention of waters upstream are similarly disturbing biota downstream and in coastal and offshore environments. The reduced influx of freshwater to the Gulf of Mexico, for example, is affecting the fisheries and other aquatic populations, including shrimp, crabs, oysters, and finfish in the Apalachicola and Mississippi River Bays. And in South Florida, the increases in agriculture, tourism, recreation, and transportation impinge upon the needs of human populations and biota, including the Florida panther and the Everglades kite, in the Everglades.
For management programs to successfully restore imperiled ecosystems and sustain diverse wildlife species, they require the cooperation of local communities. If communities do not see the relevance of these programs, they are at risk of failure. This reality does not hinge on a philosophical debate about whether achieving diversity is the “right” thing to do; it is simply the smart thing to do. In order to save America’s biodiversity, conservation biologists must embrace the country’s human diversity, which is increasing even faster than the human population. Since 1980, the US diversity index—the probability that two people chosen at random would be of a different race and ethnicity on a 0-100 scale—has nearly doubled, increasing from 34 to 65.
One of the most effective ways to communicate the importance of these issues and challenges is for scientists and managers themselves to become more representative of the populations they serve. In addition to promoting greater understanding and acceptance of management initiatives and policies, ethnic diversity in the ranks of the conservation community could also garner greater financial support, as the connection between conservation and natural resources as valuable commodities is made more evident.
Indeed, the export of natural resources such as fruits, grains, spices, hardwoods, oil, coffee, fish, and fur has, in some cases, provided funds to help promote local conservation efforts to protect those and other species in developing countries. Conversely, demand for commodities, such as palm oil from Indonesia or soybeans from Brazil, has led to the rapid deforestation of rainforests, threatening crucial wildlife habitat and hunter-gatherer cultures. Thus, it is important to work with local people everywhere to strike a sustainable balance between conservation and cultivation.
Another reason to hire people from diverse walks of life is to tap their specialized insights and knowledge of emerging markets. Fortune 500 companies have recognized this benefit. Similarly, companies or organizations that directly interact with the public are finding it increasingly important to have a workforce that reflects their customer base, as the more that customers can relate to a company or organization, the more likely they are to support it.
We need to apply such economic thinking to the wildlife profession, a “business” that must adjust to an increasingly urban and multicultural base. Take, for example, the use of Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration funds in support of state wildlife programs. This year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service apportioned $384 million to the states for wildlife restoration projects from federal taxes on ammunition, firearms, and archery equipment. States are generally required to match 25 percent of the costs of the projects that this federal money funds, and that money comes primarily from hunting licensees, fees, volunteer hours and other in-kind contributions from local communities. But, as hunting continues to decline, states are struggling to match the funds, which may lead to the reversion of federal dollars, further exacerbating the funding problem for state wildlife programs. Efforts to reverse such trends will require the engagement of a diverse population.
It is clear that the economic path we are on for wildlife conservation is not sustainable. Recognizing this, The Wildlife Society (TWS) has taken some positive steps to encourage diversity through its Career Center, internships, Leadership Institute, mentoring program, Native American grant program, and other initiatives. In addition, TWS’s Southeastern Section and the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies formed the Minorities in the Natural Resources Committee (MINRC), which helps state and federal natural resource agencies to increase the numbers of minorities in conservation occupations.
Despite such efforts, however, our profession has failed to make much of a dent in the disparity between current demographics and the stakeholders and employees in the wildlife business. As recently as 2010, racial and ethnic diversity in conservation groups remains minimal. Among members of The Wildlife Society (TWS), for example, the majority (57 percent) identify themselves as Caucasian and 39 percent give no answer about race. Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, and African Americans total less than 5 percent.
We face a simple truth: Unless we diversify our ranks and become more representative of the nation’s changing demographics, our profession and the resources we strive to protect will not survive. The key to preserving the country’s wildlife lies in the education, respect and the sharing of common values.
Columbus H. Brown retired from the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2008 after 35 years of service as a biologist and administrator. Roel R. Lopez, PhD, is Associate Director for the Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources. This opinion is adapted from a story in The Wildlife Professional, member magazine of The Wildlife Society.