Every day we come across statistics almost everywhere we look. From radio, television, newspapers, magazines and the Internet we learn such tidbits as “36 percent of people say cheese is their favorite pizza topping” or “22 percent of Americans don’t own a cell phone.” Such information is collected using surveys, usually by telephone or mail. Polling companies ask the public for their opinions or preferences on almost every topic imaginable.
You may be surprised to learn that the Department of Conservation has its own small group of social scientists who research public opinions and attitudes about issues related to Missouri’s fish, forest and wildlife resources. This group is made up of experts in “Human Dimensions,” a field that is growing in importance, especially in fish and wildlife agencies.
The Department’s first social surveys were conducted in the early 1940s, and the Department’s first social scientist was hired almost 30 years ago.
Natural resource management is just as much about managing for people as it is managing for turkeys, trout or trees. In its management decisions, the Department takes into account how decisions affect you, the resource user, and your recreational opportunities.
Human dimensions information comes from surveys, public meetings, focus groups and even Web polls. We ask Missourians about their views on the environment, outdoor recreation (including hunting, fishing, boating, hiking, horseback riding, bird watching and other activities), and even how good of a job the Department is doing in managing the state’s resources. Last year we contacted nearly 200,000 Missourians to get their input on various issues.
You might say, “Nobody asked my opinion.” It’s true we don’t—and can’t—contact everyone, but we think that through what is known as “sampling,” we are able to learn what you likely think about fish and wildlife issues.
Sampling is similar to taking several small bites of a cake to learn what the whole cake tastes like. Surveys assume that an opinion held by one person is also held by others. If you ask enough people, you get a pretty good idea of what a group of people, whether landowners, anglers, hikers, hunters, homeowners, farmers, or even all Missourians or all Americans, think about any issue.
Have you ever wished to have the strength of 10 people? When you respond to a survey, thanks to the power of sampling techniques, you have the strength of thousands. Surveys work to represent even large groups of people. In fact, for simple questions, most surveys that are representative of all of Missouri’s 5.8 million people can be accurately conducted with a sample size of 1,000. The results are almost exactly the same as if everyone had been asked and responded.
The Department of Conservation often relies on mail surveys to gather information about people and their preferences, attitudes, opinions and desires. Mail surveys are one of the most cost-effective ways to determine public attitudes and compare them in statistically valid ways.
The kinds of questions we ask in mail surveys depend on the specific information resource managers are seeking. They might want to know, for example, how to improve landowner assistance programs; how many bird watchers are using an area; if a conservation area requires additional facilities; how Kansas City residents feel about deer in their backyards; how many quail hunters we have in Missouri; or what Missourians think about the Conservation Department.
For example, the Department recently conducted a survey to learn more about catfish anglers and their angling experiences. We learned that about six out of 10 Missouri anglers fish for catfish and about 75 percent of those prefer fishing for channel catfish and most are harvest oriented. These results reinforce the commitment the Department has made to stock and manage for channel catfish as a primary sport fish in most of Missouri's small public lakes since the 1960s.
We also asked anglers their opinions about potential regulations to improve catfish angling in Missouri. Without honest feedback from those who received our survey, there is no other way we could get this type of information. We discovered that 46 percent of our catfish anglers would support restrictive length limits if it increased their chance of catching a big fish. Consequently, there is a component in our statewide catfish management plan to investigate those types of possibilities, and we have begun to evaluate the potential of some streams and large reservoirs to produce big catfish.
We regularly use mail surveys after hunting seasons to figure out where people hunted, how often, what types of game they hunted, and how many they harvested. Surveys are the only way we can estimate the harvest of game species, such as squirrels, rabbits and doves, that are not required to be physically checked or checked by telephone. Hunter distribution and time spent afield are also important pieces of information required to effectively manage game populations, seasons and habitat.
Deer biologist Lonnie Hansen realizes the importance of knowing what the public wants and how to incorporate those wants into effective deer hunting regulations. He attends numerous public meetings around the state to hear concerns and get suggestions on ways to improve deer hunting while minimizing damage caused to crops, home landscaping and vehicles.
According to Hansen, deer management involves equal mixes of biology and sociology.“Deer hunting regulations must be biologically sound,” he said, “but they also have to have the support of Missourians to be effective.”
We also use surveys to learn how well the Department is meeting the needs of all Missourians. A recent survey asked Missourians about a wide variety of conservation issues. In that survey, more than two-thirds of Missourians rated the job the Department is doing as“Excellent” or “Good” for the state. Most Missourians (93 percent) said they are interested in Missouri’s fish, forests and wildlife. And the major obstacle keeping Missourians from participating in outdoor activities is “Not enough time.”
This information and much more was used last year by the Department to help prepare plans for future work. Just like a business would prepare ice cream flavors based on what customers demand, the Department of Conservation used the opinions of Missourians to develop future plans for conservation. You can read about those plans in the publication The Next Generation of Conservation, which is available on the Department’s Web site at www.missouriconservation.org/conmag/2006/09/or by contacting the Department.
Focus groups are also useful tools for gathering information and opinions. A focus group is a small group of people who are asked their opinions. Talking to people in a group setting not only allows them to share their opinions with us, but lets them explain to us the reasons why they feel the way they do. We have conducted focus groups on diverse topics, ranging from urban young people’s conservation attitudes, to minority perceptions of the outdoors, to the use of horses on conservation areas.
In the early 1990s, the Department gathered together focus groups composed of minorities adults from the St. Louis area. We learned that few urban minorities knew about the Conservation Department or received its magazine, the Missouri Conservationist.
We also learned that fear of racial intimidation or random violence in rural areas and a lack of experience in outdoor activities kept urban minorities from spending more time in outdoor recreation.
Department staff used these comments and the suggestions from the participants to expand mailings of the magazine, offer more group programs in urban areas, and to expand nature centers and facilities that welcomed all urban residents to learn more about conservation and the outdoors.
Recently, focus groups pointed out many of the strategies northern Missouri landowners are using to increase quail numbers. Popular activities are planting food plots, providing supplemental feed such as shell corn during the winter and times of bad weather, and creating brush piles. The focus group’s interest in increasing quail numbers led the Department to prepare a mail survey for landowners regarding quail management practices and the possibility of developing quail cooperatives.
Given the varied interests and activities of people and groups, we may not be able to please all of the people all of the time, but the Department of Conservation uses public input to create opportunities to please most of the people most of the time.
By balancing the well-being of Missouri’s fish, forest and wildlife resources with the desires of the public, the Department of Conservation will continue to provide quality public service and resource management. We do this to ensure that future generations of Missourians will have the same great outdoor recreation opportunities and fish, forest and wildlife resources that we enjoy today.
You can help by carefully filling out any surveys you might receive from the Department of Conservation.
Your opinion always counts!
Editor in Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Director - Cliff White
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Artist - Mark Raithel
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