Teaching a Landowner to “Fish”

I’ve been making landowner site visits and writing wildlife habitat management plans since I was a graduate student back in early 1990s. I wrote my first “real” management plan for a very large property in southeastern North Carolina in early 1995. If they knew how little I knew then, they might have used that plan to start a fire. But it worked out. I did have sense enough to do my homework and write them a decent plan. Recently, I have been in the role of filling in for several vacant private lands biologists. I had to knock the rust off my skill set, but I am back in the swing. It’s been good for me, and hopefully for the landowners that I have helped over the last year or so. It also led me to reevaluate how we help landowners. The old adage about it being better to “teach a person to fish, rather than just give them a fish” applies here very well.

Sometimes a landowner will tell you right up front, “We just want the cost-share money, tell us what to do to get that.” But overwhelmingly, just the opposite is true, and I hear “We don’t really care about the funding, we just want to know what to do and how to do it.” They may be willing to use the funds to achieve their goals if necessary, but the funds are not their primary motivation. So what is our role as biologists trying to help them? I think our biggest role is to provide them a learning opportunity that ultimately allows them to better be able to help themselves. In my job, there is no better moment for me than when a landowner has that epiphany—the light comes on, and you know from that point on they understand what to do and how to do it.

To get the most out of a site visit, a landowner needs to get to know their land, and they need to try to start understanding the species they are interested in. They also need to start developing their wildlife goals. By telling the biologist in advance the species they are interested in, both parties can do their homework before the visit. The words I “dread” (if that is the right term) are, “We don’t know what we want to do, we just want to do something for wildlife.” A noble and deeply felt sentiment for sure, but not very insightful. To be honest, most biologists are too busy to develop goals for a landowner from scratch. We do need a little bit to go on.

Step one in developing a good wildlife management program involves the landowner studying their land, thinking about what they would like to see more of, and developing some goals. The biologist, upon reviewing the goals and the land, may have to inform the landowner that their goals and land base/situation are not compatible. However, most of the time, they are in sync.

Step two requires that the landowner study the species and their habitat requirements. This maximizes the efficiency of a site visit. The more informed the landowner is, the better they are able to ask the right questions.

Step three requires the landowner to evaluate their property and the surrounding lands. A good place to start is to obtain aerial photos—some close ups that depict the primary property, and others that show a wider view of how their property fits into the landscape.

The “landscape context” is difficult for some to understand. Your property does not exist in a vacuum. It can be in a landscape that is largely mature hardwood forest, mature pine forest, mixed pine and hardwood forest, suburban dominated, mixed stage forest and cropland, mostly cropland, or sometimes mostly pasture and hay land. Unless you own several thousand acres of contiguous land, your management will not be independent of the lands that surround you. Many species need larger acreages to persist through time. This does not mean that a small group of animals can’t survive on your fifty acres, but for a population to survive through time, a landscape that supports multiple groups of those species allowing immigration, emigration, and genetic exchange is required.

It is during this third step that the biologist’s services are most critical. Chances are your studies have led you to as many questions as answers. It is time to call a biologist and ask for a site visit. You might explain to them your basic land type, acres, goals, and observances. On their site visit, the biologist should listen to your goals, make notes, examine aerial photos, and most importantly, go out on your land with you to assess the current situation and begin making recommendations.

If they are good at what they do, it will be done in a way that is educational and not condescending. The biologist’s goal should not only be to show you what to do, but also to help you understand why you are doing it. Then you may be able to see why, where, and when it needs to be done again in the future, as wildlife management is rarely static. The biologist will help you identify what professionals call “limiting factors.” Basically, a species needs certain habitat elements to survive and thrive, and if any are missing or are not found in enough quantity, they “limit” the species’ ability to survive on your property.

The biologist should provide you a written management plan, which may take them several weeks to develop depending on their workload. The management plan may include many things such as:

  • a property description,
  • a list of your management objectives,
  • the current status of the lands and areas to be managed,
  • and, most critically, detailed management recommendations and guidelines that provide the landowner the knowledge to accomplish specific tasks.

These may include attachments with more detail. For example, you may be advised to control encroaching invasive species along a field edge. There are very good extension publications that provide the necessary steps and detail to accomplish the task. The plan may also include a section on how to evaluate your progress, but this should also involve follow-up site visits from the biologist when you have questions in subsequent years. Some plans may include a detailed timeline for when tasks need to be accomplished. This is particularly true when financial incentives programs are being applied. But never forget, actions need to be based on habitat conditions, which vary. This means you have to go out and look, evaluate, and modify actions as dictated. Be careful to not always follow a cookie-cutter approach. The relationship between a landowner and their biologist should be interactive and as long-term as is necessary. Many landowners do eventually “fledge” and develop their own understanding and ability to a high level. As biologists, our goal should be to “fledge” as many as we can in our careers.

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