AFWA finds ‘silver linings’ as agencies adapt to coronavirus

COVID-19 has affected everyone, and wildlifers are no exception. In this series, TWS is looking at challenges facing the profession due to the pandemic.

Association of Fish and Wildlife Agency presidents typically travel around the country to meet with state wildlife directors and attend conferences. But like many of us, AFWA President Kelly Hepler has been stuck at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He couldn’t meet one-on-one with state directors anymore. He couldn’t meet with AFWA staff. He couldn’t see employees at South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks where he serves as secretary, but “I still wanted to build the same communications,” he said.

So he began reaching out weekly to AFWA staff members to see how everyone was doing and to make sure that people were recreating safely, especially during a time when Black birders were bringing attention to incidents of racism.

Hepler also wanted to find out how everyone was dealing with and adapting to changes as a result of the current pandemic. He got together with elected AFWA officers and began meeting with them weekly to find out how their states were doing.

That’s when he and his colleagues came up with the idea to put together a list of bright spots and successful strategies for state wildlife agencies in the midst of all the negative impacts of the virus. Silver Linings: Lessons Learned During the COVID-19 Pandemic..

“To come out on the other side of this, at some point, we have to learn from this and better ourselves,” Hepler said. “That may mean how we deal with our staff, how we deal with the public and how we deal with ourselves.”

Hepler and his colleagues sent out a note to directors asking what lessons they have learned during the crisis. About 20 responded from across the country, with lessons ranging from technological advances to adaptive management to an increase in public recreation. And of course, a boom in the use of Zoom.

“Within the South Dakota agency, we actually enhanced our communication through COVID-19 and saw that reflected in all the directors,” Hepler said. “It was incumbent upon them to do that. We were also communicating with more staff that was all scattered out — geographic barriers went away.”

The agency conducted virtual town hall meetings. Staffers working at home got online training that they wouldn’t have before. AFWA members including state and Canadian directors took the opportunity to talk among themselves. “This ability to pull Canada into our discussion meetings was something we could have before, we just didn’t,” he said.

But the AFWA directors also saw silver linings for members of the public. Although states responded differently when it came to opening or closing parks amid the pandemic, it was clear that people were looking for ways to get outside to escape isolation.

That also provided a lesson in the importance of e-commerce, Hepler said, since people could no longer walk into a building and get a turkey hunting or fishing license or receive a park pass. “It created this urgency that we needed to respond to,” he said. “Customer service is something we think about every day.” His agency is working to create a “one-stop-shop” to make it easier for the public, and help the agency track purchasers to market to them in the future. “This will help us in retaining those users that flooded into public areas,” he said.

Hepler and his colleagues have disseminated the silver linings document to AFWA directors and Canadian directors. They have also shared it on their websites and with NGOs. State directors have already begun highlighting areas that stood out to them.

“We’re going to back and look at those things we’ve learned and see if there are other things we can do,” he said. “We’re going to have a plan for the future.”

State directors often have to respond to the “tyranny of urgency” of day-to-day pressing issues, Hepler said, but COVID-19 has given them a chance to step back and think about longer-term questions and solutions.

“At the end of the day, if you’re not growing, you’re dying,” Hepler said. “We need to grow with our agencies and learn from this, and I think we are doing that.”

Header Image: State wildlife agency directors are learning lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, including how to keep people returning to public lands for recreation. Credit: Bureau of Land Management