Last week, a column was posted on this blog documenting the fact that the vast majority of Mainers who don’t hunt -approximately 87% -have been excluded from the steering committee of the Big Game Management Plan being created by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW), even though they also provide part of the Department’s revenue through federal taxes, special license plates, and the general fund.(http://loprieno.bangordailynews.com/2016/02/17/home/a-good-idea-gonewrong/)
If this scenario sounds familiar, that’s because it has a special resonance in New England. When citizens are required to contribute financially to support a government activity without having a direct say in how that activity is conducted, it’s called taxation without representation, and was one of the battle cries of the American Revolution, heard loudly and defiantly beginning in the late 17th century and continuing until a new nation was ultimately created.
MDIFW hopes to address these inequities not by reconstituting the committee to achieve a more balanced composition but by hiring what amounts to a public relations firm. This Virginia-based organization is called Responsive Management, and its very name hints at its apparent purpose – to make something sound better than it actually is. After all, who’s not in favor of responsive management? And doesn’t it sound more positive than “public relations “though it may well be the same thing without the baggage and unfortunate connotation?
Responsive Management’s executive director, Mark Duda, will, for the Department’s first time, conduct public surveys and meetings, some of which have already occurred as part of an ongoing process (note: a source indicated that Mr. Duda had already produced a 500 page survey report, but on line attempts to find and download it proved unsuccessful).
Who is Mark Duda? From 1997 to 2004, he wrote a regular column entitled “The Hunting Mind” for the North American Hunter magazine. Included in his range of subjects was a variety of human dimensions-related topics from the North American Hunting Club. A review of his client list includes a number of fish and game departments throughout the country as well as Safari Club International. Judging from the encomiums, they are all pleased with his work which appears to make hunting practices more acceptable to the public. Here, for example, is his attempt to alter the perception of trapping:
“The public is highly uninformed about trapping. In the absence of information on trapping, the public is free to project onto trapping whatever image first comes to mind. And for much of the public, the image of trapping burned into the American psyche is of a helpless animal doing anything it can to escape a “steel-toothed” trap, including chewing off its own leg.”
To persuade us that the above description of trapping is not accurate, Mr. Duda suggests that we acquire “ familiarity with trappers, knowledge of beneficial uses of animals harvested through trapping, and knowledge of methods used to make trapping more humane.” He concludes that “ the more information people possess about trapping issues, the more likely they are to approve of trapping.” It seems that Duda’s specialty is manipulating language to make cruelty seem relatively neutral and therefore inoffensive. It’s an old and effective linguistic technique that seeks to conceal and convince rather than reveal and inform. Personally speaking, I have always been dubious about any enterprise that has to resort to euphemisms to describe what it does, using words like “harvest” and “manage “instead of “kill.” It belies the fact that we’re not talking about fields of corn or blueberries here – we’re discussing sentient creatures who want to live as much as we do and who share many of the same emotions. Ironically, the reality that Mr.Duda glosses over is similar to what he regards as the public’s misconception – wild animals (and occasional pets) held fast against their will, afraid, possibly wounded, cold and hungry, waiting, sometimes more than several days, for help only to be executed when the trapper arrives. There’s no way to make a cruel practice like this acceptable to most people except by obscuring what actually happens.
That’s a vital consideration because the way a description is worded very often suggests the desired reaction just as the language used in a question can shape a particular response. One wonders how Mr. Duda will word his questions when he asks the public and what conclusions he will draw from their answers.
A corollary to what will be asked and how it will be phrased is who will be surveyed for information regarding the Big Game Management Plan? According to Judy Camuso of MDIFW, three groups have been chosen:
1/3 general population (non-hunters)
1/3 80% residents, 20% non-residents
1/3 land owners
This approach raises a number of questions. Why is the first group limited to 1/3 when MDIFW’s own figures show that non-hunters comprise nearly 9/10ths of the state’s population? The largest part of the second group (80% residents) appears to overlap at least some of the first group – and why are non-residents involved in a survey when they live in some other state, not to mention how they’ll be chosen – from those who hold current non-resident hunting licenses perhaps?
Finally, why does one group consist entirely of land owners and how much land do you have to own to be admitted to this group? Will their views be more important than those who don’t own land?
Other questions occur as well:
-What were the factors used in deciding the membership of each sample group — in other words, why are responses from these groups relevant to the survey’s inquiry?
-How were members of the sample group selected for response –i.e. unless a sample is tiny, a response can’t possibly be gotten from every member, so is the response group self-selected (e.g. a letter is sent to every member of the group to see who responds), or was there some selection process (perhaps every fifth person called from a list of sample members) or was the entire selection process random? If it is not random, how does one control for bias in selection?
-Who developed the questions to be asked? Are the questions leading or open-ended? Multiple choice, true/false, yes/no? Is an option provided for a response outside of these parameters?
-Who decides ( and on what basis ) how many responses constitute a valid percentage of the sample group? Suppose only 10% of a group responds, is that a valid percentage? If so, why?
Presumably, Mr. Duda is aware of all these issues and of the compelling need for transparency in the gathering and weighing of data that will affect the management of the state’s big game animals. Until these concerns are addressed, and become known to the general public, the results of the survey will be open to question.
There’s also something else to consider. Since Mr. Duda and his organization are being paid by MDIFW, is it possible that he will simply tell his employers what they want to hear? And, since the entire report when it’s complete has to be approved by MDIFW Commissioner Woodcock, is it possible that the Department will reject any conclusions and recommendations that it views as contrary to its own interests? We will have to wait and see.