This interview with Responsive Management Executive Director Mark Duda is part of OutdoorHub’s Leaders of Conservation series, in which we sit down with leaders of the North American conservation movement to learn more about the stories behind their organizations and people.

According to a 2011 survey by the US Census Bureau, there are nearly 14 million hunters in the United States 16 years old and older. Hunters spent a total of 281.9 million days in the field and spent almost $34 billion on equipment and other hunting-related expenses. This is the kind of data that the research and survey firm Responsive Management is interested in, and while that name may not ring a bell with many sportsmen, the research that Responsive Management does affects nearly every state natural resources department and conservation group in the country.

“Responsive Management is a research firm that specializes in natural resource and outdoor recreation issues,” Executive Director Mark Duda told me over the phone. “The more informal summary of what we do, or what I tell people in airplanes, is that we get involved [in] conservation issues on the people side of things. If you think about what conservation is, especially wildlife conservation, there are three different aspects: fish and wildlife populations, habitat, and how [they relate] to people.”

State agencies and conservationists do their own research on populations fluctuate, habitat loss, and how stocking a new fish here or decreasing harvest quotas there can benefit a certain species. Responsive Management deals with people and their opinions.

“What we want to do is help agencies that deal with natural resources and outdoor recreation better understand their constituents,” Mark said.

Knowing how sportsmen—and the wider public—feel on a topic allows organizations to make the best use of their funds and initiate effective programs. The firm has also worked with a number of universities and private companies, including Trijicon, ATK Federal, and Yamaha. Currently Mark is working with Winchester to better understand their customers through focus groups.

“We do about 35 major projects every year, including everything from hunting to fishing to shooting, developing education and marketing plans,” Mark explained. “We’ve done work for for every state game and fish agency, every major sportsmen’s association from the National Shooting Sports Foundation to the Archery Trade Association, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and Safari Club International.

“What we’re able to do is keep a pulse on what is going on out there. Our research and surveys can identify trends in hunting, fishing, and outdoor activities, trends in how the public relates to conservation issues. Before you can manage wildlife, you need high-quality research on wildlife and habitat. Before you can start understanding public policy issues, you need the data on what’s going on out there.”

Responsive Management may not send out employees to help restore sage grouse habitat or hold charity fundraising banquets, but the firm has a significant influence on the conservation arena because of the invaluable data it provides. Not surprisingly, many conservationists and state wildlife officials have praised the firm as one of the best in the industry.

Responsive Management’s role as an independent firm does place it in a curious position, however. As an organization that enthusiastically promotes conservation and proper wildlife management, can the firm be truly objective? Mark seems to think that objectivity is the most important part of the research he conducts.

“We are a research firm first and we strive to be completely unbiased,” he shared. “We search for facts, so first and foremost we’re a firm that seeks to understand how people feel about these issues. Now of course, our research leads into assisting agencies in promoting the outdoors and outdoor recreation, positive attitudes towards wildlife, hunting, fishing, and other forms of recreation.”

The former biologist explained that understanding a problem is first step toward solving it. After hearing that, I asked Mark a question I’m sure he had been asked many times before: are there less hunters in America with each passing year?

It is a controversial question to say the least, especially with different surveys reporting different numbers. Anti-hunting groups such as PETA are glad to point out numbers that show sportsmen are in decline, drawing the conclusion that the tradition is a dying one. Many hunting organizations hesitantly agree and are trying their best to introduce hunting to the next generation.

“It shouldn’t be controversial. We should know exactly how many hunters, anglers, and shooting enthusiasts we have out there. We should not have conflicting data, especially not in an age [in which] we can predict the presidential election a week ahead of time,” Mark stated. “With that said, we know that starting in 1980s, 1990s, and running through to the 2000s, hunter participation was in decline. We also know that between 2006 and 2011 there was an uptick.

“Numbers are up and we know that from the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, a $13 million survey that the Bureau of Census has been doing every year since 1955. We know something happened, why license sales increased in several states during that time period—and we found out it was partly driven by the recession.”

One interesting thing that Mark said he discovered in at least three separate studies is that hunting is directly related to housing starts, or the number of privately owned new homes and apartments. When housing starts are up, hunting goes down. When housing starts are down, hunting goes up. Mark said it was very rare to see such a reliable indicator of hunting participation.

For now, hunting remains in a state of flux with some states seeing more hunters, and others fewer. The data is quite clear on one thing, though, and that an the increasing number of people interested in firearm shooting and archery. Some hope that this may lead to a resurgence in America’s sporting heritage. Thankfully, the resources are also there if that happens.

“A lot of people don’t know about the success of the conservation movement in this country,” Mark said. “All the accomplishments of the state and federal agencies, conservation groups, in protecting and restoring wildlife. We brought back eagles, deer, turkey, saved public land for wildlife.” 

Mark told me he grew up as a city boy, even though he had always wanted to work with wildlife.

“I was not like a lot of people that I envied, people who grew up on farms or rural areas where natural resources were abundant,” he recalled. “However, I always knew I wanted to do outdoor work. I was seven years old when I started reading Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Colorado Outdoors, I was subscribed to everything.”

Unlike many others who get into the field, Mark said that he lacked any real outdoor mentors. Occasionally an uncle would take him hunting, but these outings were few and far between.

“It was a real epiphany for me in high school when I discovered that you can actually have a career in wildlife conservation. I got a degree in wildlife biology, worked as a biologist with the Forest Service and later on the National Park Service, and then went on back to school to understand the people, or social, side of wildlife conservation.”

Mark was at the helm of Responsive Management from when it opened its doors in 1990.

“It started with me in an office with no windows and no furniture,” he said with a chuckle. To say it has grown significantly since then would be an understatement, and Responsive Management is likely here to stay for quite some time—whether Joe Hunter recognizes his name or not.

We would like to thank Mark for taking the time to talk with us. For more profiles of leaders of conservation, please read our recent interview with Pope and Young Club President Jim Willems.

Image courtesy Mark Duda

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