Audubon vs Wildlife Photographer?

First, let me say I almost hesitate to write this, but I can't ignore what I have witnessed during the last two years. I have always been a conservationist and then a photographer.  I am a member of the National Audubon Society, but I am letting my membership lapse because of what I consider to be a ridiculous take on wildlife photographers getting too close to birds. I also know some great members of the Audubon and this is not directed toward them.  Audubon is a very large organization which represents a cross section of bird enthusiasts.  I think we can all agree that none of us want to harm birds or cause them unneeded stress.  I am also going to offer real solutions to the problem later in this article.  So if you can't handle reading something like this, skip down to the "So what is a rational solution" sub heading.
 I am seeing a disturbing trend by some to "villainize" wildlife photographers as people who will do anything for the shot.  I have even heard the term paparazzi thrown around (totally insulting by the way).  The very people who take the photographs Audubon and other organizations use on their websites are under fire. Some of these photographers helped save various bird species from extinction by their phenomenal photographs, and are often Audubon members themselves.   In this article I examine, in depth, the problem we face as wildlife photographers, and the hypocrisy of those on the other side.
I was listening to Artie Morris giving a presentation recently and he talked about how crazy the US government and political activist groups are getting when it comes to nesting and migratory birds.  He referenced an article written by the National Audubon Society in 2015 entitled "Too Close for Comfort."  Now Artie is a very outspoken photographer, but I think if you read between the lines, you will find that he is also an old, frustrated photographer.  Like all of us, he is tired of getting "the stink eye" every time we put the camera to our eye.
In this article, Rene Ebersole  makes the case that photographers are getting too close to birds.  This is complete and utter rubbish for the most part.  All scientists have to do is study the birds nesting in locations like Gatorland and the St. Augustine Alligator Farm to see that humans will little impact on nesting birds.  You see, at these locations, wild nesting birds flock by the hundreds to copulate and have their young and you know what?  Humans are walking within feet of them the whole time.  Guess what else?  They have large lenses only feet from the nests.  No negative impact is caused.
Before we continue, yes there are those who break the law and cause stress to birds. To be fare to Rene, the article does state, "In the desire to get the perfect shot, some photographers push the limits, jeopardizing the wildlife they adore."  Does that mean we rope off an area 300 feet away from the birds?  No, of course not.  First 300 feet is 100 yards.  That is the distance of a football field and way beyond what is needed!   You can't even observe birds well with a set of binoculars at that distance. 
Audubon themselves struggle with hypocrisy:  Rene says, "Nature publications, including Audubon, wrestle with how to tell whether a photograph was taken ethically. “When something’s too perfect, that’s when I have to question it,” Audubon creative director Kevin Fisher said, offering an owl-in-flight example from this year’s Audubon photo contest. “Something seemed off. But a lot of times we just don’t know. We have to trust our contributors. And we are going to make mistakes.”  In other words, we just don't ask any more questions because we need the killer images for our pubs.
Perhaps the greatest hypocrisy is our own federal government who make it widely known that photographers should come and photograph the birds and other wildlife.  Go to any NPS site and you will find a section encouraging photographers to come and photograph the birds.  Yet when the photographer arrives, the entire area is roped off.  Check out Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge as their own brochures contain images taken in what looks like to me areas that are no longer accessible to photographers.  So are they going to remove these images?  Of course not.  They make tons of money off people coming to visit the park.  They live and die by reporting the number of visitors to these park locations.  And yet after all this, they allow hunting on these preserves.  Are you kidding?  Photographers are killing birds, but hunters are not?  Note that I am not opposed to hunting, but does this add up?
The other interesting problem I see is giving a non-government group such as the Audubon the ability to police publicly owned land.  Folks, we own that land, not some private organization. Imagine if the NRA was given charge of our nation's armories.  Essentially, members of the Audubon end up being wildlife police.  Let the conservation officers handle that.  Note I am not talking about Audubon cleanup projects, banding projects and so forth.  I am talking about those who feel they must be the police.  You know the people I am talking about.  
My Conclusion and Final Take
First, I want the animals to be safe and protected, but I am not convinced that those who are in charge are doing this in a way that is fair to a free people.  Not only that, but the hypocrisy that I see is absolutely stunning. We want your photos, but we don't want you to get close to the wildlife.  This makes me laugh out loud to even think about this.  Even with my Sigma 150-600mm on a APS-C body, I am only able to achieve 960 mm of effective focal length.  This would give me a frame filling shot of a Great Egret at about 30 yards away.  Any frame filling image you see was taking at under 40 yards away. Period, end of story!
The problem folks, is that every situation is different.  I have seen people just walking down a boardwalk flush birds. They were calm and doing nothing wrong but walking.  I have also seen herons flush at 40 yards away and other herons walk right up to you to say hi.  Biologists and other Audubon members regularly flush birds when checking nests for "scientific" reasons.  As a member of Cornell's  Nest Watch, I check my nest boxes once a day to count the eggs and the chicks. During this time, the female will flush from the nest, but she comes right back and I have two bluebird broods a year to prove it.
So what is a rational solution to the problem. 
  • Special Permits -  We used to create special permits to go into protected areas, but now we have taken to putting up fences at 300 yards away.  
  • Lotteries - I am not a huge fan of this option because of the wait list, but it can be effective during certain times of the year (like breeding season). Essentially when your name comes up, you can pick a date, get your permit and photograph.  We do this with hunting and some bird preserves.  This would keep large groups of people from showing up. 
  • Wildlife Drives -  Another approach that works equally well are wildlife drives such as Blackpoint in Florida and Cades Cove in Tennessee.  Using these  drives (loops) photographers can remain on the road and the birds are never pressured.
  • NPS Certified Guides - After going through a training session, guides will know the laws and will be held to a higher account.  If they break the laws, stiffer penalties are applied.  Only a certain amount of guides are allowed per year by lottery.  Note, I am only talking about high traffic areas here and not the entire nation.
  • Photographer Friendly Areas -  Fish and game organizations are making headway in this area. For example, there is a blind located in Pungo Unit at Pocosin Refuge in North Carolina.  I find, in general, that often they are located in unfavorable areas, and there are simply not enough of them.  These could easily be constructed and paid for by special permits to the area.
Note that I never said in this article that all photographers are innocent.  Just like fishermen who fish at a lake with a no fishing sign posted, we will have photographers who are trying to get away with breaking the law.  There are hunters who poach, but there are thousands who are law abiding hunters. I don't like to hunt and kill things, but it is their right, under the law to do so with a permit.  It's up to conservation officers and other law enforcement officials to enforce and police the areas.
I do think that what we are doing to each other is a crying shame and is not an effective approach.  Giving non-government organizations the power to be watch dogs is really unsettling and only feeds individual egos.  Giving photographers the right to trample down nesting birds isn't right either.  We have to get to a place where this will work for both parties.  Simply erecting fences and thumbing your nose is not a fair and equitable approach.  Punishing the majority for what a minority is doing is wrong, but yet we continue.
My advice to photographers is to write congress and join as many wildlife photography organizations as you can to help combat the problem. I am not going to tell you to not join the Audubon, but I do think you should let them know your thoughts in a calm and rational way.  I think working together we can find a solution that is fair without calling in our lawyers and acting like children.


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