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Wildlife watchers: passive enjoyment in the great outdoors

Outdoor Impact

I used to think I never met a tree hugger that I couldn’t learn to dislike. My own training in biology and wildlife management grounded me to believe in the principles of conservation or the wise use of natural resources. The old- school tree huggers fostered a decidedly different philosophy, which came to be known as preservation. This ideal professed to guard, protect and merely observe the wild lands.

A true-blooded preservationist would restrict or close access to all categories of public areas. That meant public lands, national forests, federal wildlife refuges, parks or any other public resource owned by the citizen trust. If given the choice, they would construct glass walls for viewing, but not for walking or touching. They wanted little to no use of natural environments in favor of setting them aside for aloof observation and study.

Of course, times have changed and so have I. So have many of the tree huggers.

Monikers such as tree huggers, environmental whackos, bambi lovers or other slang titles meaning preservationists were euphemisms assigned to radical types that worked to prevent the reasonable use of all of America’s vast natural resources. Certainly elements of these far left environmental groups still exist. However, a growing segment of them have come to moderate their stances to accept the judicious utilization of natural resources for the mutual benefit of all mankind.

A little common ground

Today, there is more common ground than ever between groups who wish to consume natural resources and those that do not wish to do so. The later group is an ever-expanding population of citizens that participate in activities that used to be known as non-consumptive wildlife-related recreation. Modernization of this classification of outdoor recreationists is now simply referred to as wildlife watchers. A further expansion of this concept now includes activities such as the evolving interest in ecotourism.

Wildlife watchers by federal definition included in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services publication entitled the “2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation” specifically refers to wildlife observers, photographers or people who enjoy feeding wildlife. Also by definition these participants must take a special interest in wildlife around their own home areas, or specifically dedicate a trip for the primary purpose of wildlife watching. Secondary wildlife watching incidental to other outdoor activities is not counted in these participation statistics.

In the 2001 survey count, Mississippi tallied 576,000 resident wildlife watchers. Add also another 131,000 identified as non-resident wildlife watchers that traveled to the Magnolia State to spend their money on this activity. That’s 631,000 wildlife watchers or 62% of those participating in fishing, hunting or wildlife watching outdoor activities. Trust me the numbers have grown considerably since 2001. Note also the fact that these numbers exceed both hunters and anglers in the state.

Sources of revenue

Wildlife watchers do a lot of things. The main activity on a long list reports that 30% go hiking. Twenty-three percent camp, and 20% engage in bird watching. I recently attended a presentation by a hunting outfitter from Texas that hosts several bird watching groups a year in the off seasons. He brings in large groups for $50 a person, lets them walk the property and feeds them lunch. This is collected revenue he might not otherwise capture. Imagine the potential cash flow enhancement if this concept were realized here in Mississippi. The only boundary is imagination.

The extent to which these passive wildlife watchers contribute to the state’s recreational economy is quite impressive. For example, 64% were profiled as married traveling with their spouse. They spent on average $307 a day for a variety of services. This includes lodging, food and beverages, entertainment expenses and money spent specifically on nature-based activities. It is surprising to acknowledge that this typical couple engaged in wildlife watching some sixteen times a year on average. That amounts to investing nearly $5,000 a year in this type of outdoor recreation.

$300 million a year

When the total sum of funds spent by wildlife watchers in Mississippi is tallied, the result exceeds $300 million a year. This breaks down into $36 million spent on various trip-related expenses plus a whopping $267 million on equipment and other expenditures. Big dollars are spent on equipment items like binoculars, special clothing, backpacking gear, camping equipment, cameras, video technology and tons of supplies. This illustrates that the wildlife watching spin-off dollars to equipment retailers amounts to some serious profit sales.

Wildlife watchers also spend money on a host of other items that contribute to the enjoyment of their type of recreation. These are the folks that buy several bird feeders for their yards, nest boxes, birdhouses, water baths and rail car loads of birdseed just for the sheer pleasure of watching birds through patio windows. This is the small stuff.

On a larger scale, wildlife watchers expend funds on private land habitat enhancements including universal wildlife food plots, green areas, special plantings to attract specific species of wildlife and other modes of wildlife habitat improvements.

Some habitat management plans are extensive requiring outside contracting and consulting expertise. These pursuits can cost big bucks for farming implements like tractors, plows, disks, planters, and bush hogs. Money for fuel, seed, fertilizer, herbicides and labor costs add up fast.

They also contribute money and time toward efforts to improve public lands and waterways. They participate in streamside clean up days and numerous other restoration projects. Many local and national organizations would be slack on memberships if it were not for wildlife watchers giving their support along with the associated financial assistance. Wildlife watchers are passionate about their recreational pursuits and put their money where their mouths are.

When a category of outdoor recreationists is coded as wildlife watchers, it is easy to see their activities should never have been labeled non-consumptive. Indeed, they are huge consumers of products and services that facilitate their pastime of enjoying the great outdoors of Mississippi without harvesting resources by choice. Astute entrepreneurs would be amiss to cast a blind eye on this market segment.

John J. Woods of Clinton is an award-winning outdoor freelance journalist. His column appears monthly in the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at johnjwoods@hotmail.com.

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