The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

August 24, 2012

Wildlife watchers are good news for the Mountain State

POINT BLANK: By John Blankenship
Register-Herald Columnist

— When the midday temperatures soar in summer, many animals will bed down in dense cover. Locate such cover near a water source and you’ll likely find a well-traveled path in between. Be nearby in the last hour of daylight, and you’ll have a good chance of spotting deer and a myriad of other creatures.

Often, locating wildlife is as simple as noticing an animal that is right in front of you — whether it’s a praying mantis, a crab spider, a fence lizard or a black bear. But to become a successful wildlife watcher, you must become less noticeable yourself by using camouflage and, in some cases, scent control. In other words, good wildlife watchers are made, not born.

And when the woods come alive in September and early October, it’s time to grab the binoculars and hit the trails. The rewards are limitless.

Nearly 65 million people age 16 and older — 31 percent of the U.S. population — spent at least one afternoon last year watching wildlife.

Following a survey of more than 34,000 anglers, hunters and wildlife watchers, it was determined that wildlife watching creates more than 1 million jobs and contributes $24 billion in employment income. As a result, wildlife watching has flown out of the backyard bird feeder and soared into Wall Street. What is more, if wildlife watching were a Fortune 500 company, it would rank among the top 25 in the nation.

According to a report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Americans spent an estimated $30 billion to observe, feed and photograph wildlife in the United States in last year. The total industry output for wildlife watching and environmental study is a whopping $85 billion.

For many local communities, however, the economic potential of their wildlife-watching opportunities still may be unrealized.

According to one national study, wildlife watching generates $325 million in state income tax and nearly $4 billion in federal income tax.

In addition, spending by wildlife watchers has increased by 21 percent during the past two decades.

Three kinds of expenditures, meanwhile, are detailed in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report: expenditures for equipment and related items, such as binoculars, cameras, wild bird food, membership in wildlife organizations, and camping equipment, while motor homes accounts for nearly 60 percent of total spending.

Wildlife watchers are identified in the report as people whose principal motivation for spending or traveling is viewing wild creatures of all kinds.  

And many area wildlife enthusiasts contribute to the local economy by purchasing a variety of bird feed items and non-game accessories such as binoculars, books, magazines, camping and transportation items-all related to wildlife watching activities.

Watching wildlife can be done at a backyard bird feeder, from a car or even while hiking along the banks of a lake or stream.

In fact, people in West Virginia are spreading the word about the wildlife treasure that abounds in the state. More than 210,000 West Virginia residents take trips for the specific purpose of observing animals in their natural habitat.

At the same time, each year a quarter of a million tourists come to the state for wildlife viewing and photography, according to the DNR. These excursions provide business for gasoline retailers, convenience stores, restaurants, motels, outfitters, novelty shops and other retailers throughout the state.

In addition, watchable wildlife activities in the state contribute an estimated 2,400 full and part-time jobs in retail sales as well as related industries.

As for creatures being enjoyed-birds seem to be the most popular, followed by mammals and more distantly by insects, amphibians, reptiles and fish.

And not surprisingly, in a state steeped in forestry tradition, woodlands are the number one destination for watchable wildlife enthusiasts. However, experiencing wildlife around meadows and shrub lands appears to be popular as well.

Even novice wildlife enthusiasts, both residents and tourists, can enjoy the resources.

The state’s geographic position offers an amazing variety of mountains, valleys, rolling hills, wetlands, pinelands, lakeshores, estuaries, and river systems-offering the best of many ecological worlds.

As a result, mountaineers are finding it easier to locate and enjoy the incredible diversity of wildlife and natural resources of the state.

And that’s good news for everyone.

— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald.