Thanks to Kentucky Wild program, everyone can help with wildlife preservation

When you buy a hunting or fishing license in Kentucky, the fee helps fund the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. Beyond that, the department traditionally has had no way of securing additional funding — not even tax dollars.

But the department’s mission carries far beyond catfish and deer — it also is in charge of non-game wildlife, many species of which are facing population challenges due to eroding habitats. Kentucky Wild, a new public partnership program rolled out in June, offers those animals hope for the future.

Best of all, it gives the Department of Fish and Wildlife not just a potential stream of funding for its conservation efforts, but a public face.

Wildlife Program Coordinator Laura Burford | Courtesy of the Department of Fish & Wildlife

“I don’t think there is any Kentuckian who is not a hunter or angler who sees us as anything but hunting and angling,” said Wildlife Program Coordinator Laura Burford.

That’s about to change. In the short time the Kentucky Wild program has been up and running, more than 360 people have signed on to support the department. One new partner learned of Kentucky Wild thanks to a booth at the Kentucky State Fair.

“I really like that the initiative is toward non-game animals in Kentucky,” said Ben Whitaker, a natural resources student, adding that because of his college major, “it was kind of a natural thing for me to fall into.”

The program works like this: There are six levels of individual membership opportunities and four different corporate membership packages. Individuals can join for a year for just $25, which gets them a sticker, a field notebook and other benefits, plus a subscription to a quarterly newsletter that will report on the department’s work and results of the program. Benefits increase with each level increase, from $75 up to $1,000.

The high-end level nets members a number of benefits, from a T-shirt to a tote bag to a set of four Kentucky Wild logo glasses, along with some exclusive member experiences. Members of all levels may be chosen for an opportunity to go out in the field with a Department of Fish and Wildlife expert, which could be anything from a field study to banding geese or tagging mussels.

Corporate memberships range from $1,500 to $24,000 and include various levels of branding and promotional opportunities.

Membership dollars will help fund the department’s execution of a conservation plan, which includes more than 300 Kentucky species. For example, an upcoming focus will be on a species of amphibian known as Eastern Hellbenders, which are Kentucky’s largest salamander.

The Eastern Hellbender is a species of salamander that will benefit from Kentucky Wild. | Courtesy of the Department of Fish & Wildlife

These animals, also sometimes known as “lasagna lizards” or “snot otters,” face eroding habitats. A study is planned that will help conservationists determine the population of these amphibians and help rebuild their habitats. They hide under big rocks in streams, referred to as “Hellbender huts.”

Other creatures in the conservation plan include everything from monarch butterflies to bats to songbirds to raptors to Green River mussels.

The brand was created in-house with the help of staff designer Leah Godlaski, and the distinctive, outdoorsy-meets-retro look is already paying dividends. The program passed a first-year goal of 100 members quickly, and it doesn’t appear to be slowing any, with members coming, interestingly, from 17 states so far. Some Kentucky Wild members are from as far away as Texas.

Tagging mussels as part of a Kentucky Wild-sponsored study. | Courtesy of the Department of Fish & Wildlife

The program has, in a way, been a work in progress for nearly a decade; ironically, funding wasn’t available to make Kentucky Wild happen sooner.

In addition, the program took inspiration and ideas from various other efforts around the country over the past few years, giving it time to evolve into the best the Fish and Wildlife department they thought it could be.

Director of Marketing Brian Blank said the idea was “percolating” for some time, and that part of the wait involved watching how other programs succeeded or failed.

“The pioneer is the one who takes all the arrows,” Blank said.

Burford points out that in America, wildlife is part of the public trust — it belongs to all Americans, not just wealthy land owners. She said over the years, many people would ask how they could help by donating money, and there was no system set up for that. It was buy a license or do nothing at all.

Now, Kentuckians can help directly in the state’s quest to make Kentucky habitable for all its wildlife.

“We have a great state wildlife plan that is largely unfunded,” she said. “We were leaving out a big part of the public — this is kind of the missing puzzle piece.”