Do you know that more campers, hikers and wildlife watchers use Missouri conservation areas than hunters or anglers?
That one-third of all travel spending in Missouri comes from wildlife recreationists, supporting nearly 57,000 jobs?
These are only a few of the diverse facts that the Conservation Department gleans each year from its surveys of Missouri citizens. As a public service organization, the Conservation Department depends on your input.
"As biologists, we believe we know how to manage wildlife," says Public Involvement Coordinator David Thorne. "Through communication we tell you what we're doing and get feedback on what people want, so we can make the most informed conservation decisions."
This communication is vital to the Conservation Department's mission. Not only does the Conservation Department strive to educate the public about wildlife and the many opportunities available to enjoy the outdoors in Missouri, it seeks to know your opinions, interests and level of participation so it can better manage public land and provide you with the services and programs you want. Conservation Department employees gather most of this information through surveys.
"We do surveys to find out the interests of Missourians," says Thorne, "as a way of deciding how to spend scarce conservation dollars."
Some of these surveys, such as post-harvest surveys and fish-creel surveys, have always been used by the Conservation Department to monitor game populations and hunting and fishing pressures. It has only been in the last 20 years, however, since the J of one percent Conservation Sales Tax began, that the attitudes, opinions and interests of all Missourians have been regularly solicited and considered. This change in policy has meant even bigger changes for the people of Missouri.
For example, the strong desire of urban residents to learn more about nature in safe, convenient settings led to the construction of state-of-the-art nature centers in four major Missouri cities. A strong interest in target shooting by both hunters and non-hunters led to more target ranges being built or restored on select conservation areas. And a strong desire for a more flexible turkey season (along with more turkeys!) led to the new 3-week spring turkey season.
Surveys are conducted when managers need answers to specific questions. How is a conservation area being used? What type of technical assistance do landowners want? Who is fishing Little Dixie Lake? How do Springfield residents feel about wildlife in their backyards? There are almost as many types of surveys as there are questions, but most surveys serve one of the following purposes.
Surveys often are used to verify that things are running smoothly and to fine-tune where necessary. "Most of the surveys we do merely provide accountability to the manager's intuition - what they already know to be true," says Thorne. "But not always. Sometimes they provide real insights."
For example, when the George O. White State Forest Nursery conducted a survival study of saplings sent to private landowners, results showed that 91 percent of the almost 8 million trees were planted and that nearly 75 percent of respondents considered their plantings a success. Although gratified by landowners' satisfaction, the Conservation Department decided that too many saplings were being wasted and lowered the minimum order from 200 to 50 saplings to better serve landowners' needs.
The Conservation Department's four nature centers and the Missouri Conservationist magazine also received high praise in a variety of surveys, although findings revealed that some changes were warranted. Nature center staff used survey results to fine-tune educational programming, hours of operation and kids' activities. And the Missouri Conservationist added a letters-to-the-Editor column and a special kid's magazine, Outside In, after learning that a large number of children read the magazine.
Although surveys often reveal that citizens are satisfied with the programs and opportunities offered by the Conservation Department, surveys are sometimes used when a complete program overhaul is needed. The agency started the stream conservation program, "Streams for the Future," in 1986 to provide assistance to landowners in managing their streams and to inform the public of the benefits of stream conservation.
After low participation in the program, the Conservation Department surveyed citizens to find out why. Survey results showed that 75 percent of Missouri citizens had never heard of "Streams for the Future," and only 1 percent mentioned it by name. Moreover, most landowners didn't understand the need for stream conservation on their land. These results were used to revamp the "Streams for the Future" program, this time with more emphasis on advertising the program.
The Conservation Department uses surveys to develop programs from the ground up, too. When the agency acquired Columbia Bottom Conservation Area at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, it had some ideas of what it wanted to do with the land. Through extensive public involvement, managers learned what the people of St. Louis wanted and were able to develop a plan for the area that considered many diverse uses.
The Conservation Department also recently drafted its current regional management guidelines using an extensive variety of survey data. These guidelines map out a 10-year list of conservation priorities for each region of Missouri, largely based on citizen input. "The regional management guidelines certainly are one of the most powerful uses of surveys we have," says Thorne.
Another use of surveys is to provide conflict resolution when two or more groups are competing for use of an area. "Managers often make decisions to meet the needs of conflicting uses," says Thorne. "Survey information allows a manager to be accountable to the public and still responsive to individual requests."
One example is when Kansas City residents expressed an interest in jogging on the Burr Oak Nature Center trails, but jogging was not allowed. After consulting with a local running group, the Conservation Department designed a new trail specifically for joggers, leaving the original trails for bird watchers, photographers and family strolls.
A similar issue arose when a survey by the Missouri Equine Council, with assistance from the Conservation Department, revealed a strong interest in horse trails at Missouri conservation areas. The Conservation Department reviewed, then modified their policy for trails use, including some opportunities for horse riding in most conservation areas while still minimizing impact on wildlife and plant species.
Surveys also prove helpful when conflicts arise between people and wildlife. The Conservation Department surveyed urban residents from three Missouri cities in response to fast-growing urban deer populations and increasing citizen complaints. Although 33 percent of urban residents reported being concerned about traffic accidents involving deer and 10 percent reported plant damage caused by deer, most urban residents enjoyed seeing deer in their yards and thought that the current deer populations were about right.
These results are being used to develop a deer management plan that is acceptable to urban residents and to educate urban citizens on how to minimize car-deer collisions and plant damage.
The last common use of surveys is also their most traditional use - to determine how much fish and wildlife is harvested in Missouri each year, where and when it's harvested and by whom. This harvest data is used to monitor game populations and to set harvest and creel limits.
"Deer, turkey and waterfowl hunters are interested in their sport and in being actively involved," says Wildlife Biometrics Supervisor Steve Sheriff. "They take pride in providing us with the information we need to better manage wildlife populations."
Although hunters and anglers have always been an important source of information for the Conservation Department, input from all Missourians is necessary to make sure that their fish, forest and wildlife conservation needs are being met.
In fact, citizen input is so important to the Conservation Department that three full-time social and economic specialists are employed to make sure your voice is heard. These employees not only determine Missourian's interests and the economic impact of wildlife-oriented activities in Missouri, they represent those interests and impacts in meetings, committees and task forces across the state.
"We're actually their (Missourians) advocates," says Thorne. "It's our job to be knowledgeable of the public's interests because individual managers may or may not be."
"They're our real bosses - the people of Missouri," adds Sheriff.
All Missourians' opinions and interests are important to ensure that the natural resources of our beautiful state are conserved for you and future generations. That's why it's important to cooperate the next time you're asked to participate in a Conservation Department survey.
"Answering a survey is like voting," says Thorne. "You're expressing your opinion for your particular recreational interests. If you don't tell us that, we won't be able to record it or know that it exists. And if we don't record your interests, then managers can't even begin to accommodate your needs."
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