Successful Fish and Wildlife Programs: It’s All about People and Process

Photo credit: Idaho Department of Fish and Game

Today’s fish and wildlife professionals find themselves working with a wide variety of people, across jurisdictions, to tackle conservation issues large and small. They are engaging regularly with new audiences – including those with a strong distrust of government regulation or taxation.

And while a love of wildlife and science may have attracted many fish and wildlife professionals to their jobs, it’s clear that “people skills” are critically important. This article is dedicated to providing practical advice, best practices and other valuable resources, which may assist you in becoming more productive and successful in your collaborative efforts to manage fish and wildlife in the 21st century.

Meeting the Challenge

It’s no secret that fish and wildlife organizations face a number of challenges. In the Winter 2014 Management
Tracks, we addressed how funding models are changing and requiring new solutions.

If fish and wildlife organizations are going to find a way forward, they must find a new way to work with those who share their passion for wildlife, according to Brent Thomas, GIS Analyst, Idaho Fish and Wildlife Game.

“It doesn’t take a degree in statistics to see quite clearly that our current funding mechanism is ageing,” says Thomas. “If you can’t get folks to get behind increased taxes to fund their children’s education, do you think they’ll get behind game wardens?”

But it’s not just funding issues; OWP members face concerns with climate change, energy development/distribution and urbanization, along with a slew of local, regional and national issues.

Starts with People

One thing is clear, however. Whether fish and wildlife agencies are managing fish and wildlife, or implementing outdoor recreation programs, it’s really about the people.

This isn’t a new idea. There has always been a critical and urgent need to work with different stakeholders to achieve success, according to former OWP President Dan Zekor, who recently retired from Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).

“It’s not so much about working successfully with these groups, as it is working with them to be successful,” says Zekor. “No single person or agency can achieve success on its own. Engagement and collaboration are the most important pathways to success, because they create partnerships, investment and energy. They expand the view of what’s possible and achievable.”

The value of building strong relationships and trust with citizens, customers and colleagues can’t be underestimated; these people’s opinions, wants and desires impact the management of natural resources, according to Kenneth Kesson, Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Wildlife Biologist.

“It’s important for citizens to have an accurate impression of what our agency does,” explains Kesson, “so they have confidence we’re doing a responsible job of managing public trust resources. Our customer interactions should always be professional and courteous. By providing accurate information, we maintain credibility and address their concerns and service needs. Without successful teamwork with our colleagues, we couldn’t achieve mutual goals, improve performance or accomplish tasks efficiently.”

Former OWP President Ann Forstchen agrees. Over the years, she has seen stakeholder demographics change dramatically as Human Dimensions Coordinator for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“However you categorize them as citizens, customers or colleagues,” says Forstchen, “working with stakeholders is a responsibility of the natural resource public trust agencies. As a conservation community, we must embrace insight from the social sciences for understanding people, as well as the principles of good governance, such as open, fair and accountable processes. And we must use tools and techniques to continually understand who/where these stakeholders are, and what they want. It’s not a one-off exercise.”

Process Matters

Often overlooked, but instrumental for success, is the process for working with these groups, according to Amy Derosier, Wildlife Action Plan Coordinator for Michigan DNR, Wildlife Division. The process should be considered, whether planners are brainstorming with team members, meeting with standing committees or engaging with the community.

“The process part is hard and it takes work,” admits Derosier. “But without a strong process, people often just ram through things and then don’t get good results. The larger group doesn’t understand how it was decided. Or, people get busy and no one follows up.”

Process especially suffers as work schedules grow busier. “The more we have to do, the less people rely on process,” she explains. “Instead, we often rely on people’s sheer wills, which sets agencies up for burnout. This causes confusion about how things work and when things are supposed to happen. It also makes it easier for people to avoid being held accountable, and this can erode staff morale.”

Derosier recommends individuals or small groups “own the process.” This helps people understand how things happen in the agency and ensures there is follow-up to learn from past actions.

“In Michigan, we’ve addressed these challenges by creating a section charged with helping the Wildlife Division become more of an adaptive, learning organization,” says Derosier. “We’re starting to own certain processes to ensure the loop is closed, that we reflect and learn from our efforts, and that we create pathways that allow time for communication.”

Skills Required

Effective wildlife planning processes require broader skills than before, such as working well with people, facilitating productive meetings or keeping team members on track with established goals. Although the paradigm shift of integrating the “human dimensions” into wildlife management began in the 1970s and 1980s, the need to work well with people is as important and relevant as ever.

Solving complex fish and wildlife management problems is more about working with the people than the critters, reports Forstchen.

“Many of us entered this profession because of our interests in fish and wildlife,” Forstchen says, “not because we wanted to work with people. And many of us weren’t trained for the people side of fish and wildlife management.”

That’s changing slowly, but there remains a critical need to provide training resources that fill this skills gap.

Forstchen adds, “We can’t expect staff to become ‘expert stakeholder process gurus’ without direction and training – whether it’s formal external classes, internal training courses or informal mentoring opportunities.”

Agency leadership needs to reinforce with their staff the attitude that stakeholder engagement, collaboration and partnering are all expected behaviors.

“Everyone at an agency interacts with stakeholders,” she says. “Some at very different levels of impact, and that requires varying levels of training and support. But we all are the face of the agency in every interaction we have with people.”

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