Evaluating Wildlife and Conservation Education

This article was originally published in the Bird Education Network Bulletin and republished here with permission. Read the April bulletin as well as other issues here.

Last month, at the much-respected North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference, held in Omaha, Nebraska, the opinions of leaders and activists in wildlife and natural resources were revealed at a unique plenary session. Paul W. Hansen, executive director of the Murie Center, and a veteran of more than three decades of conservation work, unveiled an opinion survey run since late January involving over 800 respondents. 

For bird-oriented educators, answers to one pair of questions should be most enlightening.

Among a number of questions, respondents were specifically asked to identify the least successful initiatives, programs, and or efforts of fish and wildlife management over the past 100 years. They were asked to rate them first on the national level and then on the regional or state level.

For these two questions, "education of the general public to ensure awareness of and support for conservation efforts" were outstanding among those identified as "least successful."

On the national level, the failure of conservation education took third place. On the regional/state level, the failure of conservation education took fifth place among the "least successful."

Only two disappointments beat out conservation education nationally: the ability to raise funds for conservation (especially from "non-consumptive users"), and the Endangered Species Act. (Curiously, the ESA also appeared as one of the most-successful efforts, with respondents balancing ambivalence over its intent and its implementation.) Parallel disappointments beat out conservation education on the regional and state level: political/special interest influencing state-level decision-making, recruitment and retention, reintroduction or recovery of certain state-specific species, and managing/maintaining various wildlife populations.

Since conservation education appeared as the third of 13 least-successful programs nationally and fifth of 24 least-successful programs on the regional and state level, there is something of real significance here.

Education is given high priority, insofar as it is deemed important but relatively unsuccessful. Yet anyone working in the field of bird education is painfully aware that the funding for wildlife/bird education at federal or state wildlife/natural-resource agencies has been inadequate for years and that foundation funding has also been similarly lacking.

Is it any accident that the results have been disappointing when the funding has been so meager?

If leaders in the profession view "education of the general public to ensure awareness of and support for conservation" as among our least successful efforts, what will it take to correct that problem?

Educational professionalism, intense communications training, and serious long-term expenditures will have to be among the answers. Conservation efforts simply left to practicing biologists and land-managers cannot succeed without corresponding efforts to explain and explore these conservation efforts to the public. It's that simple, that sobering.