More People Flocking To the Great Outdoors

By Scott Shalaway
WILDLIFE-RELATED recreation continues to grow in the U.S., but the dynamics of the activity is changing significantly.

According to the 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service every five years, the number of adults (age 16 and older) participating in some form of wildlife-related recreation jumped nearly 13 percent from 77 million in 1996 to 87 million in 2006.

But who is doing what? It’s changing, thanks to modern culture and society. In 1996, 51 percent of wildlife-related recreationists said they were hunters and anglers, and an overlapping 82 percent said they were wildlife watchers. In 2006, the proportion of hunters and anglers dropped to 39 percent, while watchers remained steady at 81 percent. Clearly the number of anglers and hunters is declining, while the number of watchers is stable. People enjoy and appreciate wildlife, but in today’s society more enjoy watching wildlife than consuming it.

At a glance, these trends might seem like bad news for the hunting and fishing business, but hunters and anglers have deep pockets. Despite being a declining minority, they spend 50 percent more ($61 billion) than watchers ($40 billion). But then guns, ammunition and fishing gear are more expensive than binoculars, field guides and hiking boots. And remember, it is license fees, leases on State Game Lands and federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing gear that pay for wildlife management in Pennsylvania. As long as sportspersons continue to foot the bill, wildlife agencies will survive.

But watchers have deep pockets, too. Whether in the backyard or on the road, watchers spend billions on optics, feeders, food, books and travel. Nationally, more than a thousand wild bird stores, nature centers, museum shops and many more garden centers cater to watchers. Watching wildlife is a big and growing business.

Though many small businesses prosper within the arena of wildlife watching, one man in Mexico, Missouri, has risen to the top of the industry through a combination of business savvy and hard work. Mel Toellner worked in sales and management for Purina for 23 years, but got hooked on birds as a young man at an Audubon camp in Wisconsin.

I first met Toellner at a trade show about 12 years ago, shortly after he had opened Songbird Station, an independent wild bird store in Columbia, MO. He followed a dream that allowed him to spend more time with his family. It didn’t take Toellner long to conclude that servicing retailers nationwide would be more profitable than operating a single retail store. So he expanded into the distribution business in 1995.

Today Gold Crest Distributing ( employs 40 people and serves more than 2,300 retailers across the U.S. and Canada. Sales this year will approach $17 million. He handles virtually every product a wild bird store might want to carry — feeders, food, optics, nest boxes, water features, books — more than 7,000 products in all.

“Because I have my own retail store,” Toellner said, “I have a feel for the products wild bird stores need, and my goal is to meet that need. And I treat my customers the way I want to be treated. For example, we strive to ship all orders the same day they are received, and we succeed 99 percent of the time. The rest go out the next day.”

With the success of the distribution business, Toellner’s entrepreneurial sense kicked in. He began to purchase the rights to selected products and manufacture them himself. Gold Crest now makes and markets about 200 products, everything from bottle brushes and seed scoops to the All-Weather Feeder I mentioned in a recent column. All are made within a 30-mile radius of Gold Crest headquarters, and many are assembled and packaged by workers at a nearby sheltered workshop.

Gold Crest is just one example of a business that thrives on the public’s enjoyment of wild birds and other wildlife. And I doubt Toellner will be surprised to learn that, according to the aforementioned 2006 National Survey, 95 percent of the 67.6 million adult American categorized as watchers do so at home in their own backyards. That’s an impressive customer base. —Pittsburgh Post Gazette