Determining How to Engage the American Public Through the Language of Conservation

by Responsive Management

Responsive Management and the Wildlife Management Institute (WMI) have just completed a new Multistate Conservation Grant study on the conservation words and phrases that resonate the most with the American public. The study is predicated on the fact that words matter—that the individual terms and phrases used by conservation professionals to describe their work can mean the difference between concern and apathy among everyday U.S. residents.

Persuasive communicators routinely employ specific words and phrases to guarantee maximum impact in the framing of concepts and ideas. Consider the differences between competing terms like “assault rifle” and “modern sporting rifle,” “death tax” and “estate tax,” and “gun control laws” and “gun safety laws.” In each instance, key terms and descriptors are used to elicit the greatest support (or opposition) possible.

The task of the conservation community is no different: when communicating about the purpose and benefits of fish and wildlife management, agency professionals must use language strategically to invest as many Americans as possible in the work of the state agencies. As emphasized in the Fish and Wildlife Relevancy Roadmap developed by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) and WMI, effective conservation of fish and wildlife in the United States depends on broader engagement from all Americans. “In short, words do matter,” notes Steve Williams, president of WMI and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “As our profession strives to broaden support from and engagement with all of the American public, it is important to understand what words resonate with that public. The path towards relevancy includes careful and thoughtful messaging using the terms and phrases identified in this report, words that are easily understood and accepted.”

The challenge to communicate persuasively and effectively about conservation is even more important given a rising overall U.S. population, along with increasing populations of urban residents, older residents, minority residents, and immigrant residents. As determined in recent research by Colorado State University, the Ohio State University, and Responsive Management, changing wildlife values, including a decline in Traditionalist values and a rise in Mutualist values, are also influencing perceptions of conservation and natural resources. And the recent rise in sport shooting participation coupled with generally declining participation in hunting mean that the funding base for wildlife conservation in the United States is shifting (see below for details on this recently published paper). All of these trends point to a changing audience for conservation messages and communications, thereby underscoring the need for a research study on conservation words and phrases that work. To conduct the study, Responsive Management, WMI, and Judy Stokes Weber of Wildlife Conservation Partners first completed an inventory of the conservation words and phrases typically used by state fish and wildlife agencies and major NGOs (including in mission statements, websites, and various public outreach materials) to communicate with Americans. Next, the partners conducted a series of focus groups with general population Americans to explore opinions on the full range of conservation terms and phrases in an open-ended manner. Finally, the study team implemented a scientific survey of more than 2,000 U.S. residents to quantify reactions to a multitude of conservation words and phrases. The survey entailed at least 500 completed interviews in each of the four major AFWA regions and included oversamples of Black and Hispanic/Latino residents. The results were analyzed by AFWA region, age, race, gender, and the wildlife values orientations developed in the Colorado State University study (i.e., Traditionalist, Mutualist, Pluralist, and Distanced).

Among the topline findings from the study:

  • Fish and wildlife agencies should communicate how their conservation work relates to and affects water quality and the health of rivers, lakes, and streams. Whenever possible, the work of fish and wildlife agencies should be linked to water quality and the health of water resources. Research conducted by Responsive Management over the past three decades, and confirmed once again in this study, has identified water quality and water resource protection to be among the top environmental issues of concern to Americans. It should also be noted that water quantity issues do not appear to be as important as water quality issues: in the survey, “lack of water quantity” and “not enough water” had lower ratings than “water pollution,” “bad water quality in the oceans,” and “bad water quality in streams and rivers” in terms of potential issues affecting fish and wildlife in the United States.
  • Key conservation messages should be phrased as simply and unambiguously as possible. According to the U.S. Department of Education, one in five American adults (about 43 million individuals) have low literacy skills. With this in mind, it is interesting to consider that many of the agency activities that received the highest importance ratings in the survey were phrased using relatively simple words (for example, “making sure waters are clean,” “making sure wildlife is healthy,” and “protecting the places where wild animals, birds, and fish live”). By contrast, the activity “perpetuating species” was ranked much lower among U.S. residents (“perpetuating” being a potentially unfamiliar or vague word to some people). Messages that employ simple, plain language are the most likely to resonate with a wide audience.
  • Fish and wildlife agencies should embrace the word “protect” when communicating about fish and wildlife and conservation. The survey found that, in a ranking of the importance of 55 different phrases denoting various agency actions and activities, 5 of the top 10 highest ranked items use the word “protect.” Additionally, when people are asked to describe in their own words what they see as the most important duties or functions of their state fish and wildlife agency, they use the word “protect” far more often than words like “conserve,” “manage,” or other terms commonly used by agencies and conservation organizations. Some fish and wildlife professionals may feel reticent to use the term and that the term “protect” has a restrictive connotation (for example, “protected” species that cannot be hunted or “protected” areas that cannot be accessed). There may also be a perception in the conservation community that agencies “manage” and/or “conserve” fish and wildlife more than they “protect” them (the concept of “protection” of wildlife is perhaps more often associated with animal rights interests). However, the truth is that fish and wildlife agencies are substantially involved in various protective efforts, such as the protection of habitat, the protection of fish and wildlife populations, and protection of people in terms of the public safety efforts of conservation law enforcement officers. Agencies should not shy away from the word “protection,” as the results of this study make clear that Americans see “protection” (in its various forms) as a key function of state fish and wildlife agencies.
  • Certain terms and phrases may give the impression of an overly controlling approach to fish and wildlife management, which may alienate some audiences. For example, the agency activity “controlling species populations” had a lower importance rating than items like “protecting wild animals” and “conserving fish and wildlife” (the term “control” perhaps suggesting a dominionistic or forceful approach to fish and wildlife management).
  • The term “healthy” resonates well in conservation messages. Previous Responsive Management research has suggested the effectiveness of the term “healthy” when used in the context of the major benefits provided by fish and wildlife agencies (for example, “healthy habitat,” “healthy wildlife,” and “healthy people”). In this study, the item “making sure wildlife is healthy” ranked highly in importance as an agency activity, and “that fish and wildlife species in your state are healthy” ranked highly as a general conservation value.
  • The adjectives “safe” and “clean” are often used by Americans when describing the benefits provided by state fish and wildlife agencies. “Safe” and “clean” are two examples of simple words with wide-ranging applications to outdoor recreation and natural resource management.
  • To build support for solutions to conservation problems, focus on what may be “lost.” “Loss” is another example of a simple, widely understood word with the ability to immediately connect with audiences.
  • The vast majority of Americans believe that, in order to thrive, fish and wildlife need to be managed. Note, however, that they are more likely to say that fish and wildlife need some management rather than active management. By contrast, just 1 in 10 Americans believe that, in order to thrive, fish and wildlife should be left alone. These findings should be kept in mind from a communications perspective.
  • Conservation messages will be more effective when focused on key outcomes rather than the process of “scientific management.” Fish and wildlife agencies routinely stress the fact that their work is guided by science. However, communications aimed at the general public may be most impactful when they focus on the actual benefits and results of agencies’ work rather than the process of “scientific management.” In fact, terms like “scientific practices” and “scientific management” may have ambiguous meanings or implications depending on the audience, whereas clearly described benefits or outcomes (e.g., “that wilderness areas exist,” “that fish and wildlife in your state are healthy,” and “having public lands for recreation”) reduce the risk of misinterpretation by clearly communicating the outcomes of agency efforts.
  • Agencies should consider using the phrase “responsible recreation” when communicating about hunting, fishing, and other activities. In the survey, the phrase with the greatest positive reaction from a large majority of Americans was “responsible recreation.” One of the major benefits of this phrase is that it is encompassing of many different nature-related activities, from hunting, fishing, and sport shooting to activities on the water (such as boating, canoeing, and kayaking) to more general activities like hiking, camping, and wildlife viewing.
  • Terms that evoke shared resources, such as “future generations,” “coexist,” and “balance,” appear to resonate well with general audiences. Each of these three terms had positive reactions from a majority of Americans in the survey, and each would be adaptable to messages conveying the key functions of state fish and wildlife agencies.
  • Many people do not know the difference between “game” and “nongame” wildlife; in fact, more people think they know the meanings of the two terms than actually do. Fish and wildlife agency communications and publications are often full of references to “game” and “nongame” wildlife, but agencies should not assume that general audiences know the meanings of the two terms.
  • Conservation messages that include the words “we” and “our” will be more effective with some audiences than others. Three variations on a basic conservation message were examined in the research: one variation presented the message in a general sense (“Fish and wildlife resources in the United States must be safeguarded for future generations”), another incorporated the use of “we” and “our” in the message framing (“We must safeguard our fish and wildlife resources for future generations”), and the third used “we” and “our” while also specifying “our kids and grandkids” as the beneficiaries instead of “future generations” (“We must safeguard our fish and wildlife resources for our kids and grandkids”). While all three messages were highly rated, certain demographic groups showed a clear preference for one of the three messages (the full report covers the specific audiences that preferred each message).
  • Specificity with population numbers will help to increase concern about imperiled species. Following up on research by Cornell University, survey respondents in this study randomly received one of two sets of questions: in one variation, respondents were told that a species was currently listed as “endangered”; in the other variation, respondents were informed of the specific number of animals estimated to be remaining in the populations of the species. In both scenarios, the information regarding the specific number of animals remaining correlated with an increase in the percentage of respondents who indicated being extremely concerned (as opposed to very, somewhat, or not at all concerned).

The full report includes extensive discussions of other findings as well as detailed communications recommendations based on the research.

Each year, Responsive Management conducts 40 to 50 major survey research projects. Some of our current projects include:

  • Ongoing agency relevancy work in partnership with the Wildlife Management Institute, Cynthia Jacobson, and Dan Decker of Cornell University, as well as the Ohio Division of Wildlife, the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the Nevada Department of Wildlife, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, and the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
  • A survey of aquatic recreationists for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force to measure recall of aquatic invasive species campaigns and mitigation behaviors.
  • A Multistate Conservation Grant study in partnership with the California Waterfowl Association and Christine Thomas of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (founder of the Becoming an Outdoors Woman program) to identify the R3 needs and opportunities of female hunters, shooters, and archers.
  • A nationwide trend study in partnership with the National Shooting Sports Foundation to assess the quality and availability of hunting and shooting access in the United States.
  • A survey of Southeast Florida and South Carolina marine anglers for The Nature Conservancy to better understand release practices for snapper and grouper fish experiencing barotrauma.
  • A Multistate Conservation Grant study in partnership with the International Hunter Education Association to determine hunter education needs and opportunities in the post-Covid-19 era.
  • A survey of Arizona residents for the Arizona Game and Fish Department that Responsive Management has conducted since 1992 as part of the nation’s longest-running trends study on attitudes toward wildlife.
  • Focus group research for Keep America Beautiful and Gwinnett Clean & Beautiful to explore Gwinnett County residents’ attitudes toward litter.
  • A Multistate Conservation Grant study in partnership with the American Fisheries Society to help states better understand how to retain anglers who took up fishing during the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • A major research study for the Southeast Deer Partnership to identify the economic, social, and conservation benefits of deer hunting in the Southeastern United States.
  • Research for the National Wild Turkey Federation and The Truth marketing agency to inform a nationwide communications campaign to increase cultural acceptance of hunting.
  • An ongoing project in partnership with Southwick Associates to provide agencies with state-level data on hunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing participation rates and associated economic impacts.
  • Various surveys of hunters and anglers for state agencies, such as the Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife; the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife; the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division; the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife; the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources; and more.

Additionally, Responsive Management Executive Director Mark Damian Duda was recently the keynote speaker at the 18th Annual National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses Sportsman-Legislator Summit, a Plenary Session speaker at the Southeast Deer Study Group’s 45th Annual Meeting, and a featured speaker at the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ Plenary Session on the theme “The Outdoors are Better Together.” Mark will also be presenting results from Responsive Management’s hunting and sport shooting access study as part of the opening session of the 2022 National R3 Symposium.

Following up on the implications of the shift in conservation funding, Mark was recently the lead author of The Precarious Position of Wildlife Conservation Funding in the United States, a peer-reviewed article published in the Human Dimensions of Wildlife journal. The article was co-authored by Responsive Management senior research associate Tom Beppler, along with Douglas J. Austen, Executive Director of the American Fisheries Society, and John F. Organ, Scientist Emeritus with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Responsive Management is an internationally recognized survey research firm specializing in natural resource and outdoor recreation issues. Our mission is to help natural resource and outdoor recreation agencies and organizations better understand and work with their constituents, customers, and the public.

Over the past 32 years, Responsive Management has completed more than 1,000 human dimensions research studies across all 50 states and in 15 countries worldwide. We have conducted research for every state fish and wildlife agency, every federal natural resource agency, and most DNRs and conservation/sportsmen NGOs, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Coast Guard, and National Marine Fisheries Service, as well as the Archery Trade Association, American Sportfishing Association, Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Ducks Unlimited, Izaak Walton League of America, National Shooting Sports Foundation, National Wildlife Federation, NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum, Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Trout Unlimited, and Wildlife Management Institute.

We have also conducted data collection for the nation’s top universities, such as Auburn University, Clemson University, Colorado State University, Duke University, George Mason University, Michigan State University, Mississippi State University, North Carolina State University, Oregon State University, Penn State University, Rutgers University, Stanford University, Texas Tech, University of California-Davis, University of Florida, University of Montana, University of New Hampshire, University of Southern California, Virginia Tech, West Virginia University, Yale University, and many more.

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For more information, visit Responsive Management online.