Forming a wildlife cooperative
WHERE TO START
"Wildlife cooperatives are defined as: multiple landowners voluntarily working together for wildlife management on their combined acreages."
Defining a cooperative
Cooperatives come in all shapes and sizes, while forming to achieve varying wildlife management goals. Simply, a wildlife cooperative is a group of private landowners or hunting clubs voluntarily working together to accomplish set wildlife management goals. At a minimum, wildlife management cooperatives must be more than one landowner, and can be any size (in acres), while contiguous or just properties in a "focal area" that manage their lands in the same or similar manners for wildlife. This broad definition allows for wildlife cooperatives focusing on Quality Deer Management to pollinator habitat to form and thrive under a single goal - betterment of landscapes and the wildlife that utilize them.
Break Down Barriers
The first step to forming a wildlife cooperative is simple: talk with your neighbors. If you personally want to start a cooperative, you must be prepared to reach out to your neighbors, be transparent, and clearly explain the collective values you believe that you share that can cross property boundaries. These values can be many things, but some of the most common are: practicing Quality Deer Management, Trophy Deer Management, providing quail/pheasant habitat, or large-scale wildlife and pollinator habitat. In most cases, you and your neighbors have overlapping wildlife management values, and it is up to you to recognize how those overlap and work among your surrounding landowners. Even if you and your neighbors don't practice the same form of deer management, but find common ground on managing habitat to produce plant species diversity and early successional habitat for quail, you may be able to form a co-op centered around land management that benefits both deer and quail. If this is the case, reach out and form a more inclusive wildlife cooperative that focuses on habitat management. This will benefit your deer herd, quality of deer, and you will probably see more quail.
formal or informal Meetings
Cooperatives form and thrive with and without formalized meetings. Some co-ops meet once a year on a member's property or at a house/barn to go over their goals on a co-op level. This can help form a sense of camaraderie and friendship within the co-op. Meetings usually allow for voices to be heard, questions to be answered, and a clear path forward for the upcoming year to be addressed for deer harvest, habitat management goals, species specific management needs, or even just to build relationships among the co-op members. This is a great way to get all the stakeholders at the table and let their voices be heard. Meetings can decrease dissent within co-ops, and increase their size by inviting neighboring landowners (that may not already be members) to attend and "buy-in" when they see all their neighbors doing it!
One of the most profound observations I ever heard about co-op "meetings" originated from a large cooperative leader in Georgia. He stated, "I can spend $400 on food plots, minerals, fertilizer, and trail cameras, and not make a measurable difference in the hunting on my land this year or even within a couple years. If I pay for a single meal - feed 60-80 landowners that adjoin my hunting land - I can see a measurable impact on my land, on our area, and help hunters around me in the process. That is the easiest money I spend each year to affect the 23k acres on our co-op."
Meetings can be as simple as a closed Facebook group that your co-op forms to communicate on what you are seeing in velvet, passing on during the season, sharing successful hunt photos, and keeping everyone updated on your habitat management activities. Meetings don't always have to be in person. Having an email list can also serve you well to maintain virtual communication when a physical meeting is not possible.
Be transparent and understanding
Transparency is the key to co-ops. Letting your neighbor know that you are all in this together, and realizing you are hunting the same deer, turkeys, quail, etc., allow for us to manage species on the landscape scales that provide for everyone involved. The mindset of "secrecy" on a big buck using your property can be counter intuitive in a co-op if you are trying to increase buy-in from your neighbors. If your neighbors share in the success, they can be your your loudest champions to their neighbors. As a deer hunter, I love to see a mature buck on my trail camera, but I also know that sharing this management success with others will help steer their management decisions in the deer stand. If you communicate the local age-structure, population density of upland birds, or habitat management success, your neighbors will reciprocate that. Even if they end up killing your target buck, look at this as "buy-in" to your co-op. If they are not a member, explain how the landscape was managed through a co-op to produce this opportunity with them, and use what most see as a negative as an opportunity for co-op growth!
We all long for a sense of belonging, and co-ops can provide this social structure for many hunters. Co-ops can help build relationships with your neighbors that lead to friendships that can grow into some of your best hunting buddies. In most cases, you can share in each others journey through wildlife management as your co-op grows. Not only can you create relationships, but increasing your communication with neighbors in rural areas can help ensure a neighbor is looking out for your property if you are out of town for work or own land out-of-state. These are invaluable relationships that can lead to contacts, management help, memories, and security for your property that would otherwise not be realized. Increasing dialogue can lead to the sharing of equipment, ideas, and management strategies that will benefit both landowners in the end.
Authors: National Wildlife Cooperative partners