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A case for co-ops: how the pandemic disrupted wildlife conservation fundraising


"We realize that the funding for wildlife conservation comes from landowners and hunters that want to make a difference where they hunt, in their backyard, within their community, unrestricted, and on their own terms. "

During March of 2020, the world started shutting down with the rampant spread of the novel coronavirus (SARS-COVID-19). Sporting events, restaurants, schools, and workplaces shuttered their doors – some for the final time. The initial shockwaves of these decisions were expected: zoom calls, e-learning, and curbside food became common. But as the developed world stopped in its tracts at the face of a global pandemic, wildlife flourished - initially. However, what started out as “two-weeks to slow the spread” quickly became the end to conservation banquets, field-days, national conventions, and the evaporation of financial reserves for an established conservation industry. The model that had engaged sportsmen and women for decades was no longer viable in a global pandemic.


Simultaneously, United States (U.S.) hunters suddenly had more time to hunt! Through tele-work, state-mandated lockdowns, shortages in the meat supply chain, or a lack of other activities, states saw license sales skyrocket roughly 10-20% over 2019 averages (1). Those that were established hunters had work and personal commitments for family dry up in the face of COVID-19, resulting in more time afield. Simultaneously, license sales for first time or reactivated hunters that had not purchased a license in the last 5 season saw an 80% increase (1). State agencies quickly saw increased spring turkey and fall deer harvests in 2021 compared to previous seasons (2,3). in Tennessee alone, deer harvest was up over 20% (+25,000 more) from 2019 totals. This trend was not limited by scope or region. Oklahoma bested its all time deer harvest record by over 6,000 deer (3). In most cases, state managed game species bag limits are calculated based on historical data and harvest models – not accounting for a worldwide pandemic and increased hunter effort with more days spent afield. Glaring problems in this model, previously unforeseen in a pre-COVID world, needed to be addressed. Concurrently, hunting was getting some of the best press from main-stream outlets that it has in decades. The AP News, the Washington Post, and Business Insider all covered this increased interest in hunting (1,4,5). At a time like this, with license sales jumping for the first time in a decade, how could state wildlife agencies limit access to their natural resources? The short answer – they couldn’t. The coupling of increased local harvest, financially hamstrung conservation organizations, and a banquet fundraising model collapsing - decades of sound population management were tested at the very moment that revenue for the biggest voices in wildlife conservation plummeted. 




As Aldo Leopold once said, “Conservation can accomplish its objectives only when it springs from an impelling conviction on the part of private landowners.” At their core, local wildlife cooperatives embody this premise: let local landowners and hunters work together to cooperatively manage a collective resource for the benefit of them all. By knowing your neighbor and working across property boundaries, local co-op members have more control over local harvest. They can voluntarily choose to limit collective harvest quickly with a changing conservation paradigm (i.e. COVID-19), while still physically meeting in the face of business and government shutdowns. The ideals that built America were forged during local community meetings – making decisions as a collective in churches, barns, schools, and homes. The vast importance of a continued sense of community and open dialogue between neighbors, in a time of unprecedented isolation, cannot be understated. Cooperation of like-minded landowners working in the name of local conservation became a beacon of hope during one of wildlife conservations darkest times. 




As many quickly realized, the conservation banquet system didn’t work in a post-COVID world. The shallow comradery forged through liquid courage couldn’t sustain the raffle-driven banquet system. Increased financial uncertainty resulted in large-scale limited discretionary spending  – impacting conservation organizations across the board. Millions of dollars in deficits, staff reductions, and rainy-day funds that took decades to build evaporated overnight. COVID-19 exposed the holes in part of the modern conservation fundraising system developed and touted over the last half-century. In these banquet and membership systems, money goes back to a centralized organization to be used for “mission” accomplishment. In some instances that money is then given back to branches, most groups have a percentage that must be sent back to the parent organization resulting in roughly 75% of funds leaving the local community. In most instances, branches/chapters are left with 25 cents on every dollar to going back to the local community to help with things like the next field day, provide a scholarship, or improve public lands. The 73-75% of funds sent back to the parent organization  are used for “mission delivery” which can encompasses salaries, marketing, staff travel, conservation education workshops, and other business operating expenses that "help accomplish that mission". This is not the case for local wildlife cooperatives.


Cooperatives have the flexibility to created their own entity with the IRS to take control of their own fundraising and back accounts - raising funds through their own banquets, raffles, field days, or dues if they wish. But unlike other systems: all funds stay with a cooperative to be used and given back to its members and the local community. You heard us right: 100%. This money can be used to provide food for future co-op meetings, reach more local landowners through outreach events, purchase co-op equipment, bulk orders on seed or stands to be used collectively, or even provide a local scholarship. At the National Wildlife Cooperative, we believe that you – the landowner / hunter – know where your money is needed and what it should be spent on; not someone states away in an office that may not fully understand local landowner interests or wishes. As a non-governmental organization, co-ops that are documented by the National Wildlife Cooperative network can make donations to the parent organization through causes like the co-op fund - but are not expected to by being incorporated under our umbrella database. 




Launched in July of 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Wildlife Cooperative was formed to facilitate the change many local landowners desire to see in the wildlife conservation industry. With lockdowns and mandates gripping a nation, we looked back to what forged and maintained a young America: a sense of community and decision-driven power by self-reliant locals that know what is needed in their area. We realize that the funding for wildlife conservation comes from landowners and hunters that want to make a difference where they hunt, in their backyard, within their community, unrestricted, on their own terms. 


As Covid-19 shuttered doors, bled conservation coffers dry, and turned the world upside down – we decided to look backwards to chart a sustainable path forward. We will bring the podium back to the local landowner to facilitate a revolution towards the future of wildlife management. The future of wildlife management is determined by the local co-op, for the benefit of the community, and on the terms of the local hunter or landowner that knows where their dollar needs spent. That is the National Wildlife Cooperative – the future of wildlife management.

About the Author:


Hunter Pruitt, AWB 
Founder / 404.313.0885

National Wildlife Co-operative

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