A RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
6 QUESTIONS TO ASK WHEN STARTING A LANDOWNER COOPERATIVE
PHOTO / LAND & LEGACY
"BEFORE THERE IS A COOPERATIVE, THERE ARE INDIVIDUALS THAT HAVE TO MAKE A CRITICAL DECISION BY ASKING THEMSELVES: IS MEMBERSHIP IN A COOPERATIVE RIGHT FOR ME?"
MORGAN jennings / CO-OP SPECIALIST
The success of a cooperative is linked to the holistic approach to conservation. Driven by people that are willing to work together, share information and follow management strategies that benefit wildlife and its habitat on a local landscape-level, cooperatives have become a modern phenomenon. It’s about the unity of people, but it’s also about you. There is an ‘I’ in cooperative management and that matters. Before there is a cooperative, there are individuals and they have to make one critical decision by asking themselves, “Is membership in a cooperative right for me?”
To help answer that question I would like to share my experience as a Cooperative Coordinator in Michigan. My role was to help create, expand and maintain wildlife cooperatives, which uniquely positions me to offer insight on how to decide if cooperative management is right for you as a landowner and member. There are different types of potential members and understanding the motivation behind each will help you consider if a cooperative is right for you and your management goals depending on where you fall. There are also specific questions that are important to answer when making this decision.
Are my neighbors interested?
The process of forming a wildlife cooperative usually starts with one interested individual who knows the benefits of cooperatives through conservation organizations or other cooperative leaders. These individuals have already made the decision that a cooperative is right for them based on what they want to accomplish and similar preexisting management; there is also a good chance that they have already spoken to their direct neighbors and friends about forming or joining a cooperative as well. Start with two or three neighbors you already know and expand your circle from there. This core group of members are essential to the formation of a cooperative because they bring confidence, encouragement, enthusiasm and ideas.
If you are already familiar with cooperatives the first thing to do is ask your direct neighbors and hunting community if they are, too. Oftentimes, people hesitate to reach out only to find out that their neighbors have been interested in starting or joining a cooperative but never made a connection.
Writing these goals down on a whiteboard is a comfortable way for people to be honest and an easy way to compile information. From there, leaders put the most common goals in front of everyone and make sure that they, overall, cover the interests of the cooperative. Often, groups of landowners will find that they share many of the same goals, whether they are timber production, agriculture or livestock operations, or are solely hunting properties. Prioritizing these goals would be the next step and is an opportunity for potential members to find the common denominator with everyone else.
This doesn’t mean the group has to agree on everything right away but acknowledge the differences. If you feel that your goals are being addressed, you are willing to follow the management principles set by the group and engage and share information you will see the benefit of being a cooperative member.
What species are we as a cooperative interested in?
Cooperatives can be anything you make them from being species-specific to all-inclusive. For example, ‘deer cooperatives’ are very popular in my home state of Michigan but others label themselves as ‘wildlife cooperatives.’ The latter simply expresses that management goals take all species into account when planning habitat projects.
As a potential member, it is important to make this distinction. To do this, ask yourself if you are interested in one species and the opportunity to improve hunting quality. Or, ask yourself if you are you most focused on overall ecosystem management. The good news is that most habitat projects will be beneficial to multiple species. Consider the goals you have for yourself and the goals that appear to be a group priority as explained above.
Remember, your goals can differ slightly from the cooperative as long as your core principles remain the same. An example of this would be that you have a personal interest in upland habitat and want to incorporate that on your property. Grassland can play a vital role in deer habitat as well. Your influence on this habitat type could encourage others to implement it as well. Don’t always look at differences as a stopping point, look at them as an opportunity for broader engagement.
Will I still have control of my property?
Some of the most important people during recruitment are the ones that have never heard of cooperatives and have concerns about what collaborative management means for them. It is a common misconception that cooperatives allow members to complete projects and hunt on property other than their own. All control of land remains the same even if you are part of a cooperative. Cooperatives do, however, encourage members to work together and share resources, either financial or material, when completing projects. This is a benefit of being a member but not a requirement.
Easing concerns of potential members is an important step. It is common that concerns come from landowners that don’t hunt or haven’t considered strategic wildlife management. If you have concerns, ask the questions and know that these come up at every initial cooperative meeting. Respecting properties and opinions builds trust. Cooperative leaders know this and should have the answers you need to feel confident in joining.
Should I support partner organizations?
It is common for cooperatives to work closely with conservation organizations or government agencies. One of the many perks of being a cooperative member is that state agencies and national organizations recognize cooperatives as a force in wildlife and habitat management. People that have invested time into forming or joining a cooperative are serious about making landscape level changes. Organizations support this through financial assistance, education and accessibility.
Are your goals aligned similarly to organization missions? Not every cooperative will work directly with an organization but it is a question worthy of asking. Spend time getting to know the organizations supported by the cooperative - you might learn that they are an incredible tool for landowners of multiple interests.
Is a cooperative right for you?
Starting or joining a cooperative is an individual decision that leads to unified conservation efforts. Gathering like-minded people to discuss the topic of habitat management and hunting strategy is a good way to elevate morale and connect with unique wildlife enthusiasts. While improving habitat is one of the most common goals of a cooperative, increasing hunter satisfaction is also one of the most important, and likely, in terms of hunter recruitment and retention. When hunters are happy with their experience they are more likely to return to the field and are much more likely to bring someone new with them in the future.
Use these questions to navigate the decision-making process. This is a place to start the conversation, unify management goals, share stories and make new friends in the name of conservation. If you have an interest in the wildlife of today and the future, a cooperative is a good place to start.
About the Contributor:
Soil Conservationist / Former Wildlife Cooperative Specialist, MUCC
Morgan Jennings , Michigan
Do our goals align?
The next set of individuals are those who hunt and manage land in a cooperative area, but haven’t heard of an organized cooperative before. These people often have similar foundation principles in terms of wildlife management and are most interested in learning about how their goals will align and how collaboration will increase success.
If this relates to you, the most important thing to consider is how you think your current management strategies contribute to the direction of the group. At initial cooperative meetings, we ask potential members to write their top goals that they have been trying to accomplish on their property. Examples of these goals include, but are not limited to, improving the age structure of the deer herd, increasing the number of pheasants and other upland birds, increasing forest health and diversity, learning strategic hunting methods using habitat, decreasing wildlife use in agriculture fields and improving overall ecosystem health.