Conservation’s Surprising Relationships: Tourists, Hunters, and…Social Media?

The intricate relationships in our natural world are not only fascinating but also surprising and at times, unexpected. Badgers and coyotes, an unlikely pair, sometimes hunt together, using the coyote’s keen sense of smell and the badger’s superior excavation skills to access prey in burrows. While they also hunt alone, when they hunt together they increase their chances of success. Examples of different species working together to achieve their goals exist throughout our natural world, and it doesn’t stop with wildlife.

As humans, our interactions with Earth’s ecosystems can impact our environment in both positive and negative ways. From the outside looking in, the relationships between humans, economic prosperity, and the conservation of natural resources seem contradictory. But is the confusion simply caused by siloed misconceptions and lack of dialogue?

“All of these tourists are ruining the environment”

In 2021, Big Bend National Park received 581,000 visitors– a 25% increase from 2019, and a 49% increase from 2016. Staying home during the COVID pandemic may have inspired people to go outdoors and take part in health-boosting activities like hiking and other forms of nature tourism, but some argue that the increase in outdoor recreation negatively impacts the environment.

This increase was seen across the country, too. In 2021, outdoor recreation contributed $454 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP)––more than 2x the size of motor vehicle manufacturing and air transportation, 3x the size of oil and gas development, and nearly three-and-a-half times the size of performing arts according to a 2023 report.

But how is this good for the environment?

Revenue from park entrance fees and camping passes supports the conservation and restoration of natural areas: fees from rock climbing, hiking, and tent camping in Texas generated $357,848 in revenue in 2021.

Outdoor experiences also provide the opportunity to learn about natural systems and connect humans to the natural world. In fact, studies have shown that early childhood experiences in nature contribute to pro-environmental behaviors in young adults. Conservation partners like Texas Children in Nature Network, Families in Nature, Texas Brigades, and Explore Austin see firsthand the positive effects outdoor experiences have on fostering environmental stewardship.

Outdoor recreation encompasses a wide range of activities including hiking, birdwatching, hunting, and fishing. Each with its own misconceptions and benefits too!

“Hunters don’t care about conservation”

From the outside, the relationship between hunting, fishing, and conservation may seem contradictory. For most people, hunting and fishing are not part of their personal or cultural experience. When we are disconnected from something, it is easy to misunderstand it. Negative media portrayals of hunting have also left many with concerns about animal welfare and stereotypical assumptions about these communities. While it’s certainly true that improperly managed hunting and fishing can detrimentally impact a species, hunters, and fishers that operate within state and federal hunting regulations can actually benefit overall species and ecosystem health.

So how does hunting positively impact conservation?

We spoke with avid hunter, conservationist, and Texan by Nature Board Member, Tamara Trail to learn more about the roots of hunting and conservation.

“Hunting is interwoven into the fabric of American conservation. Hunting has served as a funding cornerstone for wildlife and habitat conservation for over 100 years. When early market taking of animals decimated some populations, it was hunter conservationists who established a legacy of wildlife regulation, restoration, and investments in wildlife and habitat management,”

–Tamara Trail

A few notable examples of hunter-funded wildlife success stories include the restoration of Wild Turkey, Pronghorn Antelope, American Bison, North American Wild Sheep, Elk, Moose, White-tailed Deer, American Alligator, and Wood Ducks.

The numbers don’t lie: according to Texas Parks and Wildlife, hunters contribute more to aid wildlife than any other user group in the United States. In less than 60 years, hunters have contributed over $5.5 billion for conservation and pay over $372 million each year toward conservation efforts. 

Conservation partner, Texas Bighorn Society (TBS) is dedicated to returning bighorn sheep to their native ranges across Texas, raising and releasing over 175 lambs to the mountains of West Texas in partnership with Texas Parks and Wildlife.. TBS hosts an annual Texas Grand Slam Hunt which provides hundreds of thousands of dollars for sheep management in Texas.

Along with the emotional connection with nature many hunters develop, there are health benefits to the physical act of hunting and from eating locally sourced meat from hunting, as well as eating locally-sourced and homegrown vegetables. For consumers, less processing means food is fresh and often more affordable, and local meat requires less packaging and generates less emissions from transportation.

“I love the fact that a lot of what my family consumes is about as local and organic as it can get, pure and healthy protein. When this is coupled with produce from the garden, it feels like providing in a way that is more connected, evoking more of a sense of gratitude and respect for what the land provides,” said Trail.

“Social media is disconnecting people from nature”

The relationship between our screens, social media, and nature may seem paradoxical. Research has shown that Americans in their early 20s spend an average of 28.5 hours a week on their phones. Causing many to wonder if the next generation will lose their connection to the planet as they spend more time in the digital world.

But another major influence for adventuring in nature has been social platforms like Instagram. A 2022 report examining 30 different industries for reach, engagement, and growth on social media, found that accounts featuring animals and wildlife had the highest engagement rates (percentage of people interacting with content). Accounts categorized under “outdoors and nature” had the second highest reach rate (percentage of users viewing content) only behind health and fitness.

How does social media connect people to nature?

With a quick peek on the “explore” feed, you’ll catch a glimpse of Instagram users and influencers sharing outdoor content from corners of the state and the world that were previously only known to few. We spoke to Adrian Medellin (@The_Houston_Naturalist), who is behind one of our favorite nature accounts to see what inspired him to share his adventures.

Adrian is a Certified Texas Master Naturalist, birder, and wildlife photographer. Rather than use binoculars to identify species, he began using his camera to capture wildlife. “Instead of a notebook, I would document it digitally on social media, so I have all my encounters in one place. Then I met a lot of like-minded nature people on social media and sometimes would meet up for nature photography walks to geek out about all types of wildlife,” Medellin said.

Travelers and nature stewards like Adrian are using their social platforms to inspire others to go outside and learn about the natural world around them. 

 “To me, birding and wildlife photography are opportunities to tell conservation stories. This lets me be creative and reach all types of audiences, especially through social media. My focus is primarily the greater Houston area because many people think that we can’t have much wildlife in the city but there is so much biodiversity there thriving. I am showing people that we have wildlife here, so it is still important to advocate for less habitat destruction and more green spaces to try and preserve it. Houston is a diverse city and it is important that all communities get involved in some way or another.

With algorithms in their favor, conservation organizations and nature stewards can leverage social media platforms with creative content to inspire others to learn about conservation, and go outside!

Conservation is for everyone

One of the biggest misconceptions in conservation is the idea that it is the responsibility of environmentalists or government agencies to take care of our planet– but we think conservation is for everyone. Our vision is for every business, every Texan to participate in conservation and for Texas to be a model of collaborative conservation around the world. We believe that by engaging diverse Texans to engage in dialogue and reducing misconceptions, we can inspire more people to connect with nature and find ways to participate in taking care of Texas.