A State Wildlife Agency Adapts
State fish and wildlife agencies across the U.S. are faced with an uncertain future. As the economy impacts both revenues and costs of operations, these user-funded agencies must adapt to the new realities. One innovative employee-based initiative is well underway in the state of Alabama. Substantive cost-savings and increased cost-effectiveness are already being realized.
About the Author
Corky Pugh is Director of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. He has served in a wide range of leadership roles in Alabama state government since the mid-1970’s. Pugh has a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Auburn University in Montgomery.
We are truly fortunate in this country that fish and wildlife belong to the public. Because the public owns these natural resources, the government is given the privilege and responsibility for managing fish and wildlife for the benefit of everyone. This public trust doctrine—along with dedicated funding sources established in 1937, 1950 and 1984—is at the core of wildlife and fisheries restoration and management in the United States.
State fish and wildlife agencies across the country are responsible for managing and protecting fish and wildlife resources for the sustainable benefit of the people. Agencies fulfill this public trust responsibility through fisheries biologists, wildlife biologists and conservation enforcement officers.
Management throughout most of the 20th century focused on restoring populations decimated by loss of habitat, environmental contamination and over-harvest due to unregulated year-round hunting. The early 21st century brings new management challenges. Although Americans continue to care deeply about wildlife and our natural resources, many are less connected to the natural world. Urbanization, our time-intense society and competing activities have affected hunting and fishing participation. Changes in technology and the economy have led to altered land use patterns, increased rural development and new agricultural practices. Changes in the distribution and abundance of some species have led to increased conflicts between humans and wildlife. Declines in the number of anglers, hunters and trappers, and increases in the numbers of nonconsumptive users of wildlife, present both challenges and opportunities.
Funding issues provide other challenges. State fish and wildlife agency funding comes primarily from those who participate in fishing, hunting and trapping, yet the public trust mandate covers all wildlife and the demand to broaden emphasis is growing. At the same time, dedicated funding sources for wildlife management have not been growing at the pace of costs and expenditures necessary to maintain traditional programs. Demands from different user groups are increasingly conflicting.
Early in 2009, in response to the shifting economic climate, leadership at the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division began aggressively working toward increased cost-effectiveness. Regardless of how the state’s general fund issues were to be dealt with, the financial challenges facing the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division would not be solved, because the division is funded through hunting and fishing license revenue and matching federal aid funds.
Key staff learned the adaptive leadership traits set out in a series of articles published in The Harvard Business Review by Ronald Heifitz, et al. as a common set of change principles. Work sessions resulted in a heightened awareness of the need to adapt division programs to the new realities.
Giving Employees Ownership of the Problems and Solutions
When revenue/expenditure estimates were clearer, leadership conducted extensive briefings for all 325 division employees. These briefings were held to transparently communicate with employees about the financial situation and to solicit employee input. Utilizing the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division’s mission, vision and values, as well as guiding principles, staff were asked to answer the following question: “What are the things we can do to operate more effectively in order to meet public demands for service within available funding?” In the ensuing weeks, employees offered more than 500 items of input, which were assimilated along with recommendations from specially commissioned work groups.
As the leadership team began assimilating the input from employees and the work groups, meaningful themes emerged as promising avenues to pursue for increased cost-effectiveness.
A readily apparent theme concerned lack of effective lateral communication and coordination at the district level. While this problem varied from district to district, improvement was needed throughout the state. This area was addressed early in the process because the capability to implement other improvements hinged largely on effective communication and coordination to achieve synergistic solutions to cost-effectiveness problems.
Acting on the Input
Several items of employee input dealt with restructuring. Some suggested reducing from six districts to three. While this was seriously considered by leadership, it was deemed unworkable due to the resulting excessively large districts and extreme span of control. Also, without attrition of higher-paid supervisory personnel, little cost savings would be realized. Some suggested closure of all “store-front” offices. Simply closing district offices, most of which the division owns, would not be cost-effective, nor would it maintain an acceptable level of service to the public insofar as local points of contact.
Division leadership decided, however, to reduce the number of districts from six to five. Anticipated retirements of supervisory level personnel and the terms of the lease on a district office presented a unique opportunity. Ultimately, this action will save more than $650,000 annually.
The Hunter Education Program is a major responsibility of the division, with a seasonal high-demand period that coincides with the onset of hunting season. Use of volunteers to achieve program purposes has historically been a tremendous asset. With the need to become more cost-effective, volunteerism is of even greater benefit. Several modifications have been made to better utilize volunteers and Hunter Education coordinators.
Many other improvements have been implemented or begun.
Guiding Principles and Strategies
The Guiding Principles and Strategies document is a result of this comprehensive review. Involvement from staff was crucial for its development. Naming the document Guiding Principles and Strategies is intentional, as it points toward Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division’s destination. It establishes waypoints and provides our itinerary; it guides how the division will allocate limited time and resources to priority issues and management needs. The document details the process, establishes priority recommendations (several already implemented), and sets forth goals and objectives. The Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division commits to an ongoing process of continual improvement in order to remain responsive and relevant as manager and protector of Alabama’s natural resources.
The Division may encounter unforeseen detours and roadblocks, so the Guiding Principles and Strategies document is designed to be flexible and to account for change along the way. Because this journey has no real end, it also is adaptable and revisions are expected as we confront future challenges.
Alabama’s fish and wildlife is a resource that belongs to all the people and provides recreation, enjoyment and reflection. It shaped how our state was settled; it impacts our state’s economy, attracts tourists and is critical to our future. The Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is responsible for this public resource to be enjoyed today and managed for tomorrow. We are on a journey to ensure that wildlife and aquatic resources continue to play a defining role in Alabama. This document, Guiding Principles and Strategies, sets strategic direction for the next leg of this journey.
The Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division staff rises to the challenge to ensure the plan is implemented and the responsibility of managing and protecting Alabama’s wildlife and aquatic resources is fulfilled. This same level of involvement will be critical as the Guiding Principles and Strategies document is used to navigate into an uncertain future. Alabama residents, stakeholders and our partners will be important in moving toward our destinations by ground-truthing, providing input, assisting with projects and holding the division accountable to the direction set by Guiding Principles and Strategies. We will need to work together to fulfill this vision.
As this plan is implemented by managing adaptively, the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division will strive to become a learning organization with improved performance and accountability. Adaptive management requires that management activities are designed as experiments with expectations described in advance. We will monitor and evaluate progress to understand how planned actions met expectations. We also will compare expected and actual outcomes and adjust activities as needed to improve our work.
The Guiding Principles and Strategies document contains the routes and destinations of our trip, and we will detail the itinerary of each annual leg through annual work plans and budgets to properly allocate our staff and resources. We will develop an annual report to allow the public, stakeholders and our partners to monitor our progress.
The Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division commits to planning, monitoring and evaluating annual progress of the Guiding Principles and Strategies. Changes will occur based on new information or circumstances and we will take the necessary detours to continue to follow our routes and reach our destinations. These reviews and evaluations, along with continued engagement with our partners, will ensure the document remains active and relevant in a changing environment as it directs us toward our common vision for wildlife conservation.